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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

On This Day 13 July: Allan Cunningham's Birthday

Allan Cunningham was one of the great botanist-explorers of Australia, but his interests were strictly in that order. He travelled in order to find new plants, and new places were good places to look for hitherto undescribed plants. However he was a very competent bushman, was keenly aware of the colony's need for viable routes between already settled areas, or from settlements to new grazing land, and was thorough in describing what he'd found.

He was born in southern England in 1791 to a Scottish father. (I keep coming upon Scots in my readings about Australian explorers and biologists, but maybe it's just that my own heritage makes me more aware of them!) He worked for a while in a law office in London, but that didn't suit him and he got work instead as a clerk in the Kew Gardens herbarium. Here he met such botanical luminaries as the great Robert Brown (another Scot! but it's OK, I'll stop that now), who in turn put him in touch with Sir Joseph Banks himself. Banks recommended that the gardens employ Cunningham as a collector - he was quite right, but I have no idea how! Banks by now was 70 years old and had already decided he no longer needed a full-time collector, but he was happy for Kew to supervise Cunningham and pay him.
Swamp Daisy Actinodium cunninghamii, Stirling Ranges National Park, south west Western Australia.
Despite the common name it is in the family Myrtaceae, with eucalypts and bottlebrushes!
It was named by the German botanist Johannes Schauer, a specialist in Western Australian myrtaceous plants,
in 1836, towards the end of Cunningham's life.
He sailed for Brazil in 1814, aged 23 - it was to be another 17 years before he saw England again. It must have been an extraordinary experience for a young man who, as far as I can tell, had never before left Britain. After two years he was ordered to sail for New South Wales, another sudden and dramatic contrast for him; he arrived in the summer of 1816, just before Christmas.

Soon afterwards he accompanied the notoriously grumpy Government Surveyor-general John Oxley to the western plains of New South Wales. Oxley was frustrated with the relative lack of success in finding new grazing lands, but Cunningham was delighted with his 450 or so plant specimens. He walked home across the Blue Mountains from Bathurst so his horse could carry the plants. 
River Oaks Casuarina cunninghamiana, Deua National Park, New South Wales.
This casuarina is only found within metres of water courses, and is the dominant tree of river corridors
in near-coastal southern New South Wales; inland it is replaced by River Red Gums.
It was named in honour of Cunningham, ten years after his death, by Dutch botanist Friedrich Miquel.
He then spent five years on a series of exploratory voyages with Philip Parker King, sailing in the little Mermaid, and later the Bathurst, right around Australia more than once. His health was suffering, but he never flagged. 
Rattlepod Pea Crotolaria cunninghamii, south-west Queensland.
This most striking big pea grows on bare desert dunes.
It too was named for Cunningham after his death, by his old patron,the great Robert Brown.
Back on land he undertook a series of inland expeditions, especially to northern New South Wales and southern Queensland (which at that stage was still part of New South Wales). He discovered the Pandora Pass, leading from the coast through the rugged Liverpool Range to the rich Liverpool Plains, formerly described by Oxley. From there he proceeded to the equally rich Queensland Darling Downs, and on a subsequent trip pioneered the route from there over the ranges via Cunningham Gap to Moreton Bay (now Brisbane). In between he made numerous shorter exploratory trips and spent some months collecting in New Zealand. He was the first botanist to visit the Limestone Plains where Canberra now stands.
Bangalow Palm Archontophoenix cunninghamiana.
Named long after Cunningham's death by the German botanist Heinrich Wendland.
(Apologies for the muddy old slide - I must get up there again some time!)
On Norfolk Island in 1830 suspected escaped convicts stole all his equipment, but the government declined to offer him compensation. Perhaps the government reasoned that once they'd escaped, the convicts were not longer their responsibility!
Hoop Pine Araucaria cunninghamii, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
A rainforest conifer of the east coast tropics and subtropics, and north into New Guinea.
Named by William Aiton, first director of Kew Gardens, who employed Cunningham as clerk, then collector;
however Aiton somehow mucked up the publication and it was left to Robert Mudie, much-published naturalist
and author of The British Naturalist, to sort it out in 1829.
In 1828 he requested permission to return to Britain - they were tough employers, those botanic gardens! - which was granted, after two years consideration. He lived near to Kew, spending most of five years sorting his specimens for the herbarium and writing papers on his experiences. Australia hadn't finished with him yet though. After only a year he was asked to become New South Wales Colonial Botanist, but he managed to pass the job to his younger brother Richard; like Allan he also worked at Kew as a clerk, but in his case it had been for 17 years, much of his work involving Allan's flow of specimens.
Maytenus cunninghamii Celastraceae, Tregole National Park, southern Queensland.
Named by Sir William Hooker, who succeeded Banks as director of Kew Gardens in 1841,
naming the small tree again well after Cunningham's death.
It is widespread across northern Australia in dry forests and vine thickets.
Richard followed in his brother's footsteps across the plains beyond the Blue Mountains, but was killed by Aboriginal people with whom he had been camping, apparently due to cultural misunderstandings - it seems that he might have been delirious with a fever at the time. This time Allan couldn't refuse the invitation to replace him and took up the position in 1837. What he hadn't realised was that the job included responsibility for the governor's vegetable garden; he baulked at having to supply the governor and his colleagues with carrots and cabbages, and resigned to resume what he termed the "more legitimate occupation" of plant collecting.
Ancient Myrtle Beech Nothofagus cunninghamii; a magnificent old temperate rainforest
tree in Weldborough Forest, Tasmania.
Another one named by William Hooker to honour Cunningham.
In another visit to New Zealand he apparently contracted pulmonary tuberculosis - he certainly returned from there with it - and died in Sydney in 1838, having had to give up a place on the Beagle surveying north-western Australia.

I've always admired Cunningham for his quiet passion for understanding the natural world, and his self-effacing stoicism and commitment. (And of course for his Scottish ancestry.) Wherever I go it seems there are plants, and even lizards, which help me to remember him.
Cunningham's Skink Egernia cunninghamii, a common colonial-dwelling big skink which inhabits
mostly rock outcrops in our part of the world.
Named in 1832 by (I am almost certain) zoologist John Edward Gray, later of the British Museum.
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1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

As he was the first botanist to visit the Limestone Plains, isn't it about time there was a 'burb named after him? And when it is so created, make sure there is enough space for some botany amidst the McMansions!

Martin of Inverell