Charles J.F. Bunbury, naturalist and son of General Sir Henry Bunbury, was sickly as a child but developed an early interest in botany. During 1829-1830 he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, but owing to illness left without graduating. In 1833-1834 he was secretary to his uncle, the British minister at Rio de Janeiro, and collected plants in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. In 1835 he was elected to the House of Commons for Bury St Edmunds, but was defeated in the general election of 1837. He had an extraordinary memory and a lifelong interest in botany, zoology and geology.
In 1837 his cousin and friend, Sir George Napier, was appointed Governor of the Cape Colony and Bunbury accompanied him to study the natural history, particularly the flora, of the colony. They arrived on 20 January 1838 and Bunbury stayed for just over a year. In Cape Town he met Sir John Herschel*, Baron C.F.H. von Ludwig*, and W.H. Harvey*, botanising around Cape Town with the latter for two months. In March that same year he set out with Governor Napier and surveyor-general Charles C. Michell* on a three-month tour of the eastern frontier. They proceeded via Swellendam, Attakwas Kloof (between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn) and the Lang Kloof to Port Elizabeth (7 April), on to Grahamstown (14 April) and into Kaffraria, reaching as far east as the Keismamma River and returning to Cape Town via Cradock's Kloof (later Montagu Pass) and George at the end of June. Bunbury kept a journal and made extensive notes on the botany and geology of the region. His botanical observations were publishd in three articles, titled "Botanical excursions in South Africa", in W. Hooker's London Journal of Botany (1842-1844), and contained lists of the plants he collected. After a delay of several years he published his Journal of a residence at the Cape of Good Hope, with excursions into the interior, and notes on the natural history and the native tribes (London, 1848). Many Years later his Botanical fragments (London, 1883) also contained notes on the vegetation of the Cape (pp. 189-304).
Bunbury returned to England in March 1839 and became a close friend of the geologist Charles Lyell. During the rest of his life he collected plants, plant fossils and minerals in Britain and continental Europe. Some of his papers dealt with plants from Brazil (1849), the flora of the region around Buenos Aires, Argentina (1855), and the flora of the islands Madeira and Tenneriffe (1857). He was a pioneer student of palaeobotany and during 1846-1861 published nine papers on fossil plants from Maryland and Virginia (United States), Nova Scotia (Canada), the French Alps, Sachsen (Germany), the Yorkshire coast (England), and Nagpur in central India. After his death his collections of fossils and plants were presented to the University of Cambridge by his widow. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnaen Society (1833), of the Royal Society of London (1851), and of the Geological Society of London, serving as foreign secretary of the latter from 1846 to 1853. This society's palaeontological collection was for many years the only one of its kind in England and Bunbury rendered an important service to British palaeontology by classifying and naming its Carboniferous fossils. He was a gentle, courteous and unassuming scholar. In 1859 Charles Darwin* stated in a letter that Bunbury's "knowledge is so great and accurate that every one must value his opinions highly", and sought his views on The origin of species. Bunbury married Frances Joanna Horner in 1844. He succeeded to his father's baronetcy in 1860, at which time he settled at Barton Hall in Bury St Edmunds. The plant genus Bunburya, later included in Tricalysia was named in his honour.