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The source of all Eucalyptus


Brad Potts (right), Siobhan Gaskell (centre; Director of the State Library of Tasmania) and Gintaras Kantvilas (left; Head of the Tasmanian Herbarium) view the Sertum Anglicum.  Brad and Gintaras had provided advice on the botanical significance of the book that has been of great importance to Tasmanian and Australian natural history.  They were delighted to finally see a copy of the rare book in Tasmania.


The cover page of the rare book that contains the first description a eucalypt species. 

Tasmania now has its very own copy of the original publication of the type description of the genus Eucalyptus which dates back to 1788 (photo 1). The first formal description of a eucalypt was by the French botanist Charles-Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle and was published in his book Sertum Anglicum, seu plantae rariores quas in hortis juxta Londinum.  A rare copy of the original book, with its magnificent engraved plates by James Sowerby and Pierre-Joseph Redoute, has been purchased by The Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts which is housed in the State Library of Tasmania in Hobart.  

Although published in Paris, the Sertum Anglicum has a special place in Tasmanian history because the eucalypt specimen described was collected from Adventure Bay on Bruny Island (Potts and Reid 1997). This specimen of Eucalyptus obliqua (below, left) was the first eucalypt to be formally described, making it the "type specimen" of the genus. Eucalyptus obliqua is commonly known as stringy bark (Tasmania) or messmate (mainland) and is the dominant species of Tasmania’s production forests.  


The first eucalypt specimen to be described was Eucalyptus obliqua L'Hérit. from Adventure Bay on Bruny Island,  Tasmania. The specimen, lodged at Kew Herbarium, London, is the "type specimen" for the genus Eucalyptus.

­The E. obliqua specimen described in the book was collected by William Anderson and his assistant David Nelson when Captain James Cooks' two ships (Resolution and Discovery) anchored at Adventure Bay from 26th to 30th January 1777 (Cook's ill-fated third voyage).  Anderson, a surgeon, was the botanist and naturalist on the Resolution and had accompanied Cook on his previous voyage to the Pacific.  He was interested in fragrant plants and was probably the first person to make detailed observations on the eucalypts, recording the possible presence of two species at Adventure Bay.  He died in the Behring Strait in 1778 and it was Nelson, the gardener and collector on the Discovery, who then became responsible for the plants and the return of the collections to England.  Nelson was based at Kew Gardens in London and was sponsored by Sir Joseph Banks, who was by then director of Kew Gardens, the world's key botanical centre at the time.  The eucalypt specimens from this voyage were lodged at Kew Gardens but, along with specimens of previous voyages, remained undescribed for nearly a decade.  It was the French botanist Charles-Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle who finally described one of the specimens in 1788.  L'Héritier was a self-taught botanist with a particular interest in trees.  He was a magistrate by profession and an aristocratic supporter of the concept of the French Revolution.  It was during his visit to London in 1786-87 that he worked on the large herbarium collection held by Banks and recognized the new genus.  L'Héritier was mysteriously murdered one night in the streets of Paris in 1800.

Biobuzz issue fifteen, December 2011