S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Plant, Mr Robert William (botany, shell collection)

Born: Date not known, England.
Died: March 1858, St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Robert William Plant, nurseryman and naturalist, made a name for himself as a nurseryman at Cheadle, England, and as the compiler of a New gardeners' dictionary (c. 1849). Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens, described him in 1852 as "a zealous naturalist and able collector". Plant, with his wife Isabella and their young son Robert, emigrated to Natal as one of the Byrne settlers in 1850 or early in 1851, aiming to make a living as a commercial collector of natural history specimens. Though his main interest was in botany, he found that collecting insects was easier and more profitable.

Soon after his arrival, about June 1851, he set out on a collecting trip to Zululand, becoming the first naturalist to visit this region. An ox wagon was sent north in advance, with Plant following on a riding ox. However, he did not find his wagon at the arranged meeting place (apparently near present Empangeni) and therefore had to complete the journey without it. An account of his expedition, "Notice of an excursion in the Zulu country", was published in W.J. Hooker's London Journal of Botany (Vol. 4, pp. 257-265) in 1852 and was the first botanical paper written by a Natal resident. In this paper Plant mentioned the magnificent Mpande palms and orchids of Zululand. Though he claimed to have reached Lake St Lucia his description suggests that he had reached Richard's Bay. Returning by an inland route he had to avoid some marauding Zulu impis and was forced more than once to abandon part of his collections for lack of packing space. He claimed to have come near to the source of the Tugela River, but in this he was probably again mistaken. Reaching Durban in February 1852 he sent a consignment of bulbs, seeds and plants to his agent in London. The ferns he collected were listed by T. Moore in 1853. However, from a collecting point of view the trip was not a great success.

In the Directory of Durban... for 1853 "William Plant" is listed as "Collector of curiosities in natural history, government reserve". In that year he visited Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and East Africa, but decided that Natal offered better prospects. Soon after his return to Durban, in August 1854, he took up an appointment as curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens, established by the Natal Agricultural and Horticultural Society in 1849. In 1855 he compiled the first catalogue of the gardens, listing 249 species. Like his predecessor M.J. McKen* he was accused of neglecting the garden in favour of his private collecting activities and resigned his post in July 1856. He then acquired a farm near Tongaat and became the pioneer of tea growing in the Colony, though he also planted coffee and arrowroot, and cultivated indigenous ferns.

In January 1857 Hooker wrote to Plant to enquire whether he would be prepared to assist with the compilation of a Flora Natalensis. Plant responded with enthusiasm and started collecting and drying as many specimens as he could find. Late in 1857 he set out on an extensive collecting trip through Zululand to the vicinity of Delagoa Bay (now Baia De Maputo) in Mozambique. However, he contracted malaria and on his return died near Lake St Lucia on 13 or 15 March 1858. Loyal servants took his possessions and collections to his farm. Among the many new species of plants that he had collected during his trip was the largest of the Stapelia, named Stapelia gigantea by N.E. Brown* in 1877. The genus Plantia (Family Iridaceae) was named in his honour (but since incorporated in Hexaglottis), as were the species Stapelia plantii, Gloriosa plantii and the fern Lastrea plantii.

Plant also collected beetles, butterflies and shells. One of his customers in Europe was the most famous of 19th century shell collectors, Hugh Cuming (1791-1865). Through him Plant introduced several new species of land snails, such as Archachatina semigranosa and Archachatina vestita. Unfortunately all his species were labelled as coming from "Port Natal", which is misleading. The species Gulella planti (Plant's hunter snail) was named after him in 1856.

His wife, left unprovided for with five children at the time of his death, continued to develop their farm. In 1862 tea produced on her estate was exhibited at the Colonial Exhibition in London. Their son Robert (1845-1921) became an educationist and authority on the Zulus.

List of sources:
Bayer, A.W. Aspects of Natal's botanical history. South African Journal of Science, 1971, Vol. 67, pp. 401-411.

Bayer, A.W. Discovering the Natal flora. Natalia, December 1974, No. 4, pp. 42-48.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 4, 1981 (Robert Plant jnr).

Directory of Durban and Pietermaritzburg... for 1853. Pietermaritzburg: Samuel Lumb, [1852].

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Herbert, D. & Kilburn, D. Field guide to the land snails and slugs of eastern South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Natal Museum, 2004.

Hutchinson, J. A botanist in southern Africa (p. 643). London: Gawthorn, 1946.

McCracken, D.P. A new history of the Durban Botanic Gardens. Durban: Parks Department, 1996.

McCracken, D.P. & McCracken, P.A. Natal, the garden colony. Sandton: Fransden, 1990.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of Scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Schrire, B.D. Centenary of the Natal Herbarium, Durban, 1882-1982. Bothalia, 1983, Vol. 14(2), pp. 223-236.

White, A. & Sloane, B.L. The Stapeliae (2nd ed.; Vol. 1, p. 102). Pasadena, 1937.

Compiled by: C. Plug