Joseph Burke worked as a garderner for the thirteenth Earl of Derby, who was a keen naturalist and had his own menagerie at Prescot, Lancashire. In 1839 Lord Derby commissioned Karl L.P. Zeyher* to collect plants and animals for him in southern Africa, and sent Burke to organize the expedition. Burke arrived at the Cape in March 1840, spent some time making preparations for travelling, and set out by ox-waggon for Uitenhage where he arrived in July. The journey proved difficult, for smallpox had broken out in Cape Town and farmers along the way refused assistance to travellers for fear of contracting the disease. At Uitenhage he met Zeyher and spent several months preparing for their journey into the interior. They set out in November 1840, travelling via Grahamstown and Cradock and reaching Thaba Nchu in February 1841 after a difficult crossing of the swollen Caledon River. Continuing northwards they crossed the Vaal River and met the Voortrekker leader Commandant A.H. Potgieter at present Potchefstroom in May 1841. Moving on to the foot of the Magaliesberg west of where Pretoria was later established, they spent the next six months collecting in the area. During this time they obtained the skins of many large mammals and visited the salt pan in Tswaing crater, north of the Magalliesberg. The most northerly point reached by them was near the junction of the Crocodile and Pienaars Rivers, in September. On 17 November they were visited by the Swedish naturalist and traveller J.A. Wahlberg*. The next month they started their return journey. Travelling via Potchefstroom and Thaba Nchu they crossed the Caledon and Orange Rivers, turned westwards to Colesberg and on to Beaufort West and through the Hex River Pass, arriving in Cape Town in June 1842. The next month Burke left for England with a vast collection of birds and other animals (including live ones), plants, bulbs and seeds.
Burke kept a journal describing his travels, extracts from which were published by Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens, in the London Journal of Botany in 1846. Most of the expedition's plants were collected by Zeyher, as Burke was primarily interested in antelopes. According to P. MacOwan*, Burke had little to do with plants and even in the matter of antelopes "was largely indebted to the life-long experience of his modest companion, who had to be botanist and hunter too". However, Burke did make a separately numbered collection of plants and brought back many new species. Hooker named the monotypic African genus Burkea (Family Leguminosae) after him, while he was also commemorated in the species names Acacia burkei, Elephantorrhiza burkei, Hoodia burkei, and Drosera burkeana. His plant specimens are in the herbarium of Kew Gardens.
In 1843 the Earl of Derby sent Burke to Hudson Bay and California on a joint expedition with collectors from Kew Gardens. He returned to England after three years with many plants and seeds. He emigrated to America in 1848 and, after prospecting for gold in California, settled as a farmer near Harrisonville, Missouri.