Historian Jo Woolf, writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, tells the story of Archibald Menzies - a Scottish explorer who set out on numerous global voyages to bring back new plant species.

At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.

On 21st August 1786, an eager young naval surgeon wrote to the botanist Sir Joseph Banks: “I am informed that there is a Ship, a private adventurer now fitting out at Deptford to go round the world. Should I be so happy as to be appointed surgeon of her, it will at least gratify one of my greatest earthly ambitions, and afford one of the best opportunities of collecting Seeds and other objects of Natural History for you and the rest of my friends.”

Archibald Menzies black and white portrait

Archibald Menzies (portrait by Eden Upton Eddis)

The naval surgeon was Archibald Menzies, and his ambition was fulfilled. Just a month later, he was heading south on a merchant trading vessel, bound for the north-west coast of America and onwards to Hawaii and south-east Asia. From Alaska’s forbidding, mist-shrouded inlets to the sun-kissed rainforests of Pacific islands, a whole new world of exotic plant species lay ahead of him, awaiting his discovery.

Archibald Menzies (whose surname is traditionally pronounced Ming-iss) was born in 1754 near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. His family home is thought to have been a dwelling called Stix or Styx, a few miles to the west of the clan seat of Castle Menzies, where his father, James, was the head gardener. Archibald and his four brothers all followed their father into horticulture: Archibald worked first at Castle Menzies and then obtained a post at the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, where his older brother, Robert, was principal gardener.

Castle Menzies

Castle Menzies

At that time, the Botanic Garden was situated at the top of Leith Walk, and its Superintendent was John Hope, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University. Hope recognised Archibald’s potential and recruited him to make a collection of Highland plants on behalf of the botanists Dr John Fothergill and Dr William Pitcairn, who were renowned for their private plant collections in the south of England.

It was Hope who encouraged Menzies to study medicine at Edinburgh University. In the 18th century, medicine was closely allied with botany, because so many remedies came from plants. Surgeons who braved the oceans in the British navy often took the opportunity to collect plant specimens at their ports of call. For Menzies, it was a perfect combination: he emerged with enough knowledge to enlist as an assistant surgeon in 1782, on board HMS Nonsuch. He saw action in the Battle of the Saintes, when British and French ships clashed over the possession of territories in the Caribbean and was then posted to Halifax in Nova Scotia in the wake of the American War of Independence.

By this time, Menzies was already plant-collecting. He dispatched seeds from Barbados and Dominica to John Hope in Edinburgh, assuring him that Nova Scotia’s forests also held great potential for botanising: “I already had two excursions into the woods and I cannot describe the pleasure I felt when surrounded with Kalmia angustifolia… Gaultheria procumbens, Arbutus uva-ursi, Pinus strobus, P. canadense and several other beautiful evergreens…”

kalmia angustifolia

Kalmia angustifolia or sheep laurel

When he arrived back in Britain in 1786, Menzies knew beyond doubt that he had found his calling. Impatient to be off again, he wrote a hopeful letter to the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks, asking if he could use his influence to obtain him another position as surgeon on the high seas. Well-travelled and formidably well-connected, Banks was King George III’s advisor on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and, most importantly for Menzies, he was keen to send young, enthusiastic plant collectors to all corners of the earth, because their discoveries enhanced the worldwide reputation of Britain’s botanic gardens.

Menzies’ stratagem worked. Just a month later he was back at sea, bound for Tierra del Fuego and the north-west coast of America, returning via China. His captain was James Colnett, whose two merchant vessels, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal, were on a mission to expand and reinforce Britain’s trading connections. Menzies, however, divided his time between his duties as surgeon and the collecting of plant seeds and specimens.

Menzies learned by experience that, although it was comparatively easy to collect plants, getting them home alive and well was another matter entirely. In Tierra del Fuego he planted 20 specimens of Wintera aromatica in a tub and sent them to Britain via another vessel that was on its way home. In a later letter to Joseph Banks he wrote: “This beautiful tree is at present in flower, and everywhere it grows loads the circumambient air with a most pleasing aromatic odour.”  Unfortunately, the ship carrying the plants sank on its homeward voyage.

wintera aromatica

Wintera aromatica (now Drimys winteri)

Returning to Britain in July 1789, Menzies settled down to catalogue his finds. He still had a yearning to travel and, less than two years later, he embarked on the most significant expedition of his long and productive life: a four-year voyage as a naturalist on board HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver. This time he was sailing east around the Cape of Good Hope, calling in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii before venturing up America’s west coast as far as Alaska.

Menzies was in raptures about the flora of South Africa. He wrote to Banks: “…whether I traversed the sandy scorching plains or clambered up the craggy ridges of mountains every situation afforded to my mind something new or rare, for even many genera with which I was acquainted but by name here presented themselves to my view in full perfection.” Arriving in Australia (near the present-day city of Albany), Vancouver named King George’s Sound after the British monarch and Menzies went ashore to find a profusion of flowering plants, many of which were new to science. He also observed whales, seals, reptiles, and many birds including pelicans, penguins, and black swans.

new zealand kowhai tree flowers

Flowers of Sophora tetraptera, the Kowhai tree, which Menzies found in New Zealand

In New Zealand, Menzies was enchanted by the rich variety of ferns and mosses. He also found New Zealand spruce trees, whose tall trunks provided ideal timber for ships’ repairs. In general, the coastlines that they were exploring were largely uninhabited, but this situation changed completely when they moved on to Tahiti and Hawaii. Just 13 years previously, in 1779, a misunderstanding between the British explorer Captain James Cook and some Hawaiian islanders had provoked them so seriously that they stabbed him to death, along with four of his officers. Vancouver had accompanied Cook on this expedition, and he was understandably wary of the risks.

On this visit, however, the encounters were largely peaceful, thanks to Vancouver’s efforts to befriend the Hawaiian chief, Kamehameha. Menzies described Kamahameha as being about 40 years of age, “stout and well made. He walks erect, firm and graceful, with a dignity of deportment well becoming his quality and high station.” While enjoying the hospitality of the islanders, Menzies encountered a botanical paradise. He discovered two indigenous trees, including the Acacia koa (Acacia koa var. hawaiiensis). He also recorded the Hawaiian tree fern (Cibotium menziesii), which is one of the 19 Hawaiian plant species that are named after him.

hawaiian rainforest waterfalls and plants

Hawaiian rainforest

Hawaii’s volcanoes encompass a vast range of vegetation zones, and Menzies was determined to climb Mauna Loa (13,679 feet). He set off with three of the ships’ officers, none of whom had any idea what an arduous trek lay before them. They battled extreme cold, suffered altitude sickness, and struggled across razor-sharp lava beds which tore their shoes into shreds. They had consumed almost all their food and water before they reached the summit. Menzies, along with Joseph Baker and George McKenzie, were the first Europeans to make the ascent of this spectacular volcano.

The Discovery spent three winters in Hawaii, using it as a comfortable and well-provisioned base from which to investigate the western seaboard of North America. As they cruised from California right up to Washington State and Cook Inlet in Alaska, exploring parties set off in small boats to navigate remote inlets and fjords. Menzies gazed up at forests of breathtakingly tall conifers, collecting specimens of California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii). He also recorded the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), although it was David Douglas, a fellow Scot, who brought the first seeds of this magnificent tree back to Britain.

rhododendron macrophyllum

Rhododendron macrophyllum, which Menzies recorded in Washington State

The Discovery had her own ship’s surgeon, but while they were in North America, he had to be sent home for health reasons and Menzies was asked to assume his post. From then onwards Menzies fulfilled the dual roles of naturalist and surgeon, and it was to his credit that none of the crew died of scurvy under his care. When they anchored close to conifer forests he made quantities of spruce beer, which was known to alleviate scurvy, and when they ran out of fresh vegetables, he encouraged them to gather wild celery.

Early in 1795 Menzies finally headed home on board the Discovery. He had good reason to feel satisfied with his work. He had struggled through inhospitable environments and risked his life in order to bring new plants to British gardens. But the species for which he is best remembered found its way to him with hardly any effort at all. In March 1795 the Discovery called at Santiago, where the officers were invited to dinner by the Governor of Chile. A bowl of nuts was placed on the table during dessert, and some of them caught Menzies’ eye so he quietly slipped a handful into his pocket. These turned out to be the seeds of a species new to science - the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) - and they germinated successfully. One specimen, planted in Kew Gardens, survived for nearly a hundred years.

monkey puzzle trees growing in chile

Araucaria araucana(monkey puzzle trees) growing in Chile

monkey puzzle tree seeds

Seeds of a monkey puzzle tree

In later life, Archibald Menzies married a Scotswoman, Janet Brown, and settled down in London with a medical practice. His passion for botany persisted throughout his long life. Today, quite fittingly, his home county of Perthshire is known as ‘Big Tree Country’ and boasts many majestic conifers. Through the International Conifer Conservation Programme, established in 1991, the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh is playing a key role in an international effort to preserve the natural Araucaria forests of southern Chile. Meanwhile, in gardens throughout Britain, monkey puzzle trees and hundreds of other beautiful plants flourish as a living tribute to the dedication of Archibald Menzies.

rosa nutkana flowers

Rosa nutkana, the Nootka rose, recorded in Vancouver.


Quotes from letters & reference:  James McCarthy, Monkey Puzzle Man - Archibald Menzies, Plant Hunter (2008)


monkey puzzle tree branch

Monkey puzzle branch

(1)   The name ‘monkey puzzle’ is thought to have arisen because monkeys were once trained to gather fruits from tropical trees, such as the coconut. Visiting botanists used to hire them from local people in order to gather leaves, nuts and seeds, but it would have been almost impossible for a monkey to navigate the sharply spined branches of Araucaria in order to reach the cones at the tip.

(2)  The island and the city of Vancouver take their name from the captain of HMS Discovery. Menzies Bay in British Columbia is named after Archibald Menzies.

(3)   The first European woman to ascend Mauna Loa was Isabella Bird, in 1873.