The King's botanist but no cart and horse*

Allan Cunningham was the first in the lineage that leads to me as the 12th ‘Government Botanist’. In fact Allan Cunningham was the ‘King’s Botanist’ in 1816, and later the ‘Colonial Botanist’ for a very short period while Superintendent of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens in 1837.

Cunningham is one of the most important early collectors of Australian plants, working for Sir Joseph Banks back in London. In 1817 he began the first of four sea voyages with Phillip Parker King to survey the whole of the Australian coastline. He also collected in inland New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland.

He collected some of the oldest trees we have growing in the Royal Botanic Gardens, and he was probably at Parramatta** when a seedling of our famous Red Cedar (Toona ciliata) was dug up.

The King’s Botanist, Alan Cunningham, met the Colonial Botanist and Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, Charles Fraser, near Parramatta in 1822.

According to Ed Wilson, retired Education Officer and keen historian, Cunningham was envious of the Colonial Botanist, employed by Governor Macquarie, who had a cart and two horses while he couldn’t get a single horse from the Governor.

Cunningham was head of the gardens for less than a year, resigning when as the newspaper put it, he ‘would no longer consent to remain a mere cultivator of cabbages and turnips’. Apparently he was required to devote more time to the Governor’s kitchen garden and to maintaining ‘pleasure grounds’ for the people of Sydney than to his favoured botanical research.

He died in 1839 (aged 47) and was buried in the Devonshire Street Cemetery, where Central Station now stands. His remains were moved in 1901 to the memorial obelisk in the pond by the Gardens Restaurant and his tombstone is mounted on the wall of the National Herbarium of New South Wales just outside Reception.

The plants in the garden beds surrounding the obelisk pond are examples of those collected by Cunningham from the Illawarra between 1818 and 1822. The restoration of the obelisk and the pond, the replanting was possible thanks to a generous donation by Geoffrey and Rachel O’Conor, long-term supporters of this botanic garden.

*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (under 'Weekends' or search 'gardening'), and is the gist of my 702AM radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday morning, between 9-10 am.

Image: Cunningham's remains are inside this obelix in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, since restored, along with the surrounding garden

**18 November 2014: DNA sequencing has revealed that the specimens were collected from the Dorrigo Region in northern NSW, not Parramatta! (See Summer 2014-2015 issue of The Gardens, the magazine of the Foundation & Friends of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, p. 8).