Wednesday, 27 June 2018

A unique survivor? La Pérouse's Banksia

In 2012 modern science attempted to bring back to life a unique survivor from the La Pérouse expedition, when the Conservatoire botanique national  - a specialist botanical conservation facility located in Brest - sought to germinate six seeds salvaged from the wreck of the Boussole.  

The seeds in question - from the Banksia tree, discovered on Cook's first voyage and named for Joseph Banks - were collected by La Pérouse's naturalists in Botany Bay in 1788. In December 2010, they finally completed the journey  home to France, 222 years after they set sail.  

The seeds serve as a reminder of the prominence given in the expedition to botanical research, collection, and propagation. André Thouin, the chief gardener of the jardin du Roi, prepared minute instructions for the voyage, and received regular letters from the gardener on the expedition Nicolas Collignon, from  the botanist Joseph de La Martinière  and from the illustrator Guillaume Prevost.  The goals were commercial as well as scientific.  La Pérouse was required to monitor the success of the plants and animals which Cook had transplanted on his voyages, and to look out  for new species of potential value: 

The navigators cannot be too making copious and diversified collection of the seeds of exotic plants and trees,...which, naturalising themselves in our soil, may hereafter adorn our plantations, or augment the number of our artificial meadows by their productions.

Containers for the transport of plants -
Watercolours accompanying the Bibl. Mazarine copy of the Instructions to La Pérouse 

Sadly the experiment with the Banksia seeds was a failure. After two hundred years at the bottom of the ocean, the seeds  "did not contain any presence of life to permit their regeneration".

What was the point, one might ask?

 There is no scientific interest at all in the Banksia specimen itself.  Banksia is a common and highly invasive species throughout Australasia, South Africa and Hawai'i , indeed the iconic plant of the Australian bush.  Moreover, Banksia trees can live as long as 100 years, so La Pérouse's seeds are hardly likely to exhibit significant genetic variation from modern plants.

The project dossier points to the advancement of "scientific protocols" but admits that the objective was mainly symbolic, to "offer to the people of Brest a Banksia collected by La Pérouse." Adriana  Cracuin underlines the importance of the expedition in French national consciousness and comments that the attempt to germinate the seeds, like the interment of the Vanikoro skeleton, offered a sort of closure:  "This experiment was designed effectively to locate (botanical) survivors of France’s most famous shipwreck, allowing the expedition to complete its circumnavigation." (Cracuin, 2016 p.52)


CBN Brest, Dossier de Presse, 04/07/2012:  200 ans après le naufrage de La Boussole le Banksia de La Pérousenous livre ses secrets...

"Banksia ericifolia collected by Lamartinière or Collignon"  Article by Henri Colombié, translated from the "Journal de bord" of the Association Lapérouse Albi France, No 53, Autumn 2012,
La Perouse Museum & Headland website,

Andriana Cracuin "The seeds of disaster: relics of La Perouse" in The Material cultures of Enlightenment arts and sciences (2016), p.47-50

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