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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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Ferdinand von Mueller; botanical giant

It's now 120 years since Ferdinand von Mueller, the colossus of 19th century Australian botany, died. And it's high time I paid him some tribute here!

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Mueller, in his role as President of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Photo courtesy of Encyclopaedia of Australian Science.
He was born in 1825 in north-western Germany and, though trained as a pharmacist, carried out botanical research at the age of 15, and took his PhD in botany at Kiel aged just 21. (It was normal to combine botany with studies involving medicine, because of the herbal aspects.) He came to Australia for his health – or perhaps that of his sister, who travelled out with him. The Australian climate was probably recommended to him by Johann Preiss, a German naturalist who arrived in Perth in 1838, became a British subject in 1841, and the following year returned to Germany to live... Later, von Mueller was to recognise Preiss's contribution to his life by naming several species for him (but beware, so did many other botanists, especially Germans).

Mueller (as he was then) gained work for a pharmacist in Adelaide, but well before that he began collecting plants, just a few hours after landing.  He explored botanically the Mt Lofty and Flinders Ranges, to which he walked, a distance of nearly 300km.  He became a citizen soon after arriving. He published his findings initially in German scientific journals, then in 1852 in the prestigious journal of the Linnean Society of London; this came to the attention of Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens.

Coast Mistletoe Muellerina celastroides, Myora, south coast New South Wales.
There is no genus Muellera, because the name was pre-empted by a pea genus named for Danish botanist Otto Mueller.
However there is this genus, named just before von Mueller's death by French botanist Philippe Tieghem.
Restless, despite having obtained eight hectares of land and building a cottage outside of Adelaide, he moved to Victoria to open a pharmacy on the goldfields, but before he could open its doors, was appointed by Governor Latrobe as government botanist on the recommendation of Hooker. This was the first time a colony had made a botanical appointment separate from a botanic gardens, and he held it from 1853 to 1896 when he died. His botanical explorations of his new domain began immediately, and never really stopped. Within nine days of his appointment, he set out in February (often the hottest month of the year) on a 2,400km, four month, tour of the colony, heading north through the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges to Mt Buffalo and Mt Buller in the alps, thence east to Gippsland and home via Wilsons Promontory. 

In November he set out again, and spent five and a half months months travelling to the Grampians in western Victoria, then followed the Murray downstream from the Darling to Albury, continuing into eastern Victoria again. More trips followed, to the alps and Gippsland again; he crossed into New South Wales, arriving at Mt Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak, on the first day of 1855. Altogether he covered 9,000km of trackless country, mostly alone, collecting thousands of specimens, including 500 species new to the colony. In subsequent decades he made another 15 expeditions to further his already prodigious knowledge of Victoria's flora.
Alpine Gentian Chionogentias (or Gentianella) muelleri, Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales,
above and below. More widely the group is regarded as part of the widespread Gentianella,
but in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory Chionogentias is recognised.
This beautiful alpine species was named only in 1995 by renowned Australian botanist Lawrie Adams
(famous for splitting Eucalyptus, a task unfinished at the time of his death) to honour von Mueller's alpine work.
In the same paper he introduced the genus Chionogentias to separate Australian gentians from ones
elsewhere in the world. Lawrie's work was pioneering and often attracted controversy!

He also explored the Tasmanian highlands, and for two years from 1855, when economic depression caused the retrenchment of many Victorian public servants, he took leave of absence and joined Augustus Gregory's highly significant North Australian Exploring Expedition, which covered much of the tropical north. In the process he collected 800 new plant species. On his return in 1857, he also became Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. Under him the National Herbarium in Melbourne, which he had built, became the centre of Australian botanical studies; in 11 years it increased from 45,000 specimens (mostly his own, which he contributed) to 350,000. His duties also, strangely, included responsibility for the Zoological Society's animals. In 1873 he had to give up the Gardens because influential citizens wanted a 'pretty' gardens, not one arranged scientifically according to plant families, and the government, extraordinarily, dismissed him. This remained a distress to him for the rest of his life, though he retained the position of government botanist.
Yellow Kunzea Kunzea muelleri (above and massed below), Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
Another alpine species commemorating von Mueller, though this one was named long ago,
by George Bentham, his collaborator on the mighty Flora Australiensis (see below).

He was made first president of Victoria's Royal Society, and was very involved in the Acclimatisation Society, now regarded as a pernicious introducer of exotic species. He first introduced Monterey Pine Pinus radiata (now by far the chief softwood plantation species in Australia) and, reputedly at least, spread blackberry on his travels, partly as a source of nutrition for gold miners! With the chemist Joseph Bosisto he experimented on the distillation of essential oils. He also propounded the conservation of forests, though primarily for timber extraction. He helped to organise the Victorian Exploring Expedition (the notoriously doomed Burke and Wills Expedition, though most of its misfortune was of its own making, not that of its organisers), the search for the missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the foundation of the Royal Geographic Society of Australasia, and the scientific exploration of both Antarctica and New Guinea. He was a truly remarkable and dynamic man.
Poison Morning Glory Ipomoea muelleri Family Convulvulaceae, Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Found across much of northern and inland Australia, this scrambler was also named by Bentham
to  honour his collaborator.
He was chief collaborator with English botanist George Bentham for 18 years on the 7-volume Flora Australiensis. This was a gracious act on his part, as it was a project he had much wanted to do himself, and he was of course the most eminently qualified person to do it. However he was a mere colonial, and the power of Kew was too great. He was the sole author of 1000 books and papers (including school textbooks), and 2000 new species, 1000 of which he had discovered himself, including most of the Australian alpine plants we now know. He was also reputed to write up to 3000 letters per year!  Unsurprisingly, he never found time to get married, though he was twice engaged.

The King of Wurtemberg made him a Baron (whence he was entitled to be 'von Mueller'); he became Sir Ferdinand in 1879 and has it been suggested that he is probably the most decorated Australian citizen ever. He died, in harness at age 71, in 1896.
Yellow Stringybark Eucalyptus muelleriana, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales.
Named by English-born Alfred Howitt in 1891; Howitt was a very impressive self-taught bushman
and explorer, naturalist and anthropologist.
Simple arithmetic on the figures above reveals that von Mueller named 1,000 plant species that other people supplied to him. Next time I want to introduce some of those collectors - some were professionals, others collected as they did their day jobs - who von Mueller thanked by naming plants for them.

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