IT was 250 years ago today that a Scottish gardener stepped off a ship at Cape Town, South Africa and began to write his name into the history of botany as one of the greatest plant hunters who ever lived.

Francis Masson is one of those many unsung heroes in Scottish history whose lifetime of immense achievement is all but forgotten in his native land. Born in Aberdeen in 1741, we know very little about Masson’s early life, but he became an apprentice gardener in his teens and with the northeast a centre of gardening expertise, he joined the gardeners’ exodus south – Robert Burns’s father William Burnes was one such gardener.

Masson was just 19 when he gained the post of under-gardener at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, recently founded by Princess Augusta, the mother of King George III. Masson developed his skills under its director Sir Joseph Banks, and in 1772, he was sent by Banks to join Captain James Cook on board HMS Resolution. He was the first official plant hunter sent out from Kew, and on October 30, 1772, Masson left the ship at Cape Town and headed inland, accompanied by the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg.

Masson’s first impressions of the continent were mixed, to say the least: “The country is encompassed on all sides with very high mountains, almost perpendicular, consisting of bare rocks, without the least appearance of vegetation; and upon the whole, has a most melancholy effect on the mind.”

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He and his companion made their way into the veldt and the Blue Mountains, and on the way, Thunberg survived a fall into a deep hippopotamus pit. The conditions were mostly dreadful. Masson wrote that they “climbed many dreadful precipices until we arrived at the dark and gloomy woods with trees 80 to 100 feet high interspersed with climbing shrubs of various kinds. Trees were often growing out of perpendicular rock and among these, the water sometimes fell in cascades over rock 200 feet perpendicular with an awful noise … I endured the day with much fatigue and the sequestered and unfrequented woods, with a mixture of horror and admiration.”

For all its privations, the three journeys into the interior that he made over nearly three years proved immensely successful for Masson. He identified or collected more than 1400 species which were unknown outside Africa. Incredibly, he managed to get more than 400 species of living plants back to Kew, including irises, gladioli, and the stunning Bird of Paradise flower, which he named Strelitzia reginae in honour of George III’s queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. It remains a popular greenhouse plant even now.

By the conclusion of his stay in what is now the Western Cape province, Masson had been convinced by the evidence of his own eyes of the magnificence of the flora, writing: “The whole country affords a fine field for botany, being enamelled with the greatest number of flowers I ever saw, of exquisite fragrance and beauty.”

Returning home in 1775, Masson wrote up his account of his journeys, which was published the following year in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society as “An Account of Three Journeys from the Cape Town into the Southern Parts of Africa; undertaken for the Discovery of New Plants, towards the Improvements of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew”.

The account proved a sensation, and his collection of plants and flowers even more so. Masson single-handedly began the craze for Cape flowers which swept the country in the latter quarter of the 18th century – no respectable home was without at least one Cape flower.

His fellow botanist, Sir James Edward Smith, wrote admiringly: “Now every garret and cottage window is filled with numerous species of the beautiful tribe, and every greenhouse glows with the innumerable bulbous plants and splendid heaths of the Cape. For all these, we are principally indebted to Mr Masson, besides a multitude of rarities.”

Banks was astonished at the huge boost to Kew’s reputation which Masson had earned, and he wasted no time in sending Masson on another plant-hunting expedition to the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and across the Atlantic to the Antilles archipelago and other islands in the Caribbean.

He managed to get some new species home to Kew, but this trip ended in disaster. At Grenada in July 1779, he was captured by French forces, having fought in the trenches against them. The delay in getting released saw his plant collection deteriorate, only for it to be destroyed by a hurricane at St Lucia.

Masson returned to Kew but soon tired of the gardening life and begged director Banks to be allowed to go plant hunting again. War with France made travel difficult, but he did manage to reach Portugal and North Africa and find new species there.

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In 1785, he was able to return to his beloved southern Africa, but times had changed. The Dutch authorities, now in charge of the province, were afraid that the Scot might be a spy and limited his access to the interior. Masson was nevertheless able to find more new species and send back hundreds of seeds to Kew which, largely through his efforts, had become recognised as one of the great botanical gardens of Europe. He seems to have spent some of his 10 years there developing his own personal garden, which was said to be the finest on the continent.

He came back to Kew in 1795 and was given a year off by the king, but Masson was soon planning an expedition to North America. In 1797, he set sail only to be captured by a French privateer. He was expecting to be killed, but instead was sent to Baltimore aboard a German ship.

Ever resourceful, Masson was able to get his expedition going again, and though his primary aim of finding new species was largely a failure, he did collect plants and seeds for seven years. He was in Canada doing this work when he took ill and died in Montreal on December 23, 1805.

The genus Massonia is named after him, but his real legacy can be found in plant pots to this day.