Looking into the cabinets of the RBGE herbarium never fails to turn up a surprise. Today I was looking for specimens that might have come from the almost entirely destroyed collection of John Hope, our great Enlightenment Regius Keeper. I went to see if there were any specimens of wild rice (Zizania palustris), a North American species in which he took an interest. There was none that could have belonged to Hope himself, but of equal interest was a small sheet from the collection of Archibald Menzies (whose career, which included introducing the monkey-puzzle tree, was launched by Hope). On his death in 1842 Menzies left his grasses, sedges and non-flowering plants to RBGE. These are mounted on curiously small (145 x 229 mm) sheets, which, confusingly, are labelled on the back. When I turned this sheet over, I was amazed to read the collecting locality as ‘In the pond at Spring Grove’. This instantly rang a bell as the Isleworth country house of Sir Joseph Banks.
From the published summary of Banks’s correspondence the story can be pieced together, as in it are several references to Zizania. Banks first obtained seed of the ‘Folles Avoine’ from an un-named source in Montreal in 1787, which could have been either Thomas Davies or Mervyn Nooth. Nooth was a pupil of Hope, who had several spells in North America, initially in a military capacity and later as Superintendent of the Quebec Hospital. He is better known for inventing a device for carbonating soda water (more accurately improving Joseph Priestley’s one). In an 1800 letter to James Edward Smith (another Hope pupil), Banks told Smith that Zizania was growing well by his pond, and that he had just obtained seed of another aquatic, Eriocaulon (first discovered in Skye by another Hope pupil, James Robertson) and hoped that it would grow as well as the grass, which it should be noted the French called ‘mad oats’ rather than ‘wild rice’.