FRANIC MASSON AND PETER CARL THUNBERG Plant collectors at the Cape Dr Dawn Gould

It is that time of the year when news is filtering through of the magnificence of the wild flowers.  Also of flower displays held in various halls. There are pictures in magazines showing locals and visitors with cameras at the ready. Suggesting that we here in the Western Cape have been fortunate to have had a fair winter fall of rain.

One sometimes takes plants we see for granted and gives little thought as to how they became   known and, in a sense, part of our lives. As one drives along the roads watching out for places to park to snap away at the flowering beauty, one may think of the long ago plant collectors who brought to the world’s attention some of the huge number of the different indigenous plants at the Cape.  Consider the methods needed to keep food fresh and edible for themselves and the helpers, making sure they had sufficient place for the plants which had to be carefully cared for, further time and care was needed for writing up the detailed notes where specimens were found which was all placed on the useful but slow moving ox wagons.  An eye also had to be kept  on wild animals.

There were other collectors arriving during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but two that come immediately to mind are FRANCIS MASSON AND CARL PETER THUNBERG.

 Francis Masson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1741.  In the 1760’s he went to work at Kew Gardens as an under gardener.  The knowledge and experience he had gained must have impressed Kew because in 1772 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope to collect plants, bulbs and seeds.  Not long thereafter he began his first journey in the Cape interior. He would make three journeys between 1772 to 1774 ranging from Swellendam to Saldanha Bay through the Bokkeveld to Algoa to the Sunday’s River via Piketberg to Calvinia.  Later he was commissioned at the Cape from 1786 to 1795 and was instructed to limit his journeys to the coastal area of Cape Town but he continued to gather elsewhere as well.

In the meanwhile Carl Peter Thunberg had been born in 1743 in Sweden.  He would become a pupil of the famous Linnaeus senior when he began to study botany. Linnaeus was the  “founder of modern systemic botany”. Thunberg also studied medicine and as a surgeon became employed by the Dutch East India Company at the Cape.  He arrived there 6 April 1772.  Sometime later he would, for a short while, join Masson in collecting plants. Thunberg was interested too in the Khoi and Xhosa people. In their languages, habits and usage of plants for medicinal purposes. In the future Thunbergia,  a genus of flowering plants, would be named in his honour by the younger Linnaeus.  In time he would become known as “The father of botany in South Africa.”

Both men were authors. In 1796 Francis Masson published a book on South Africans succulents Stapelia novae.   Carl Peter Thunberg published a book entitled The Flora Capensis, 1807-1820.  These two men returned to their own countries and from there, in later years, would travel  to many other parts of the world.