John Buchanan F.L.S. (1819-1898)

John Buchanan is remembered as a New Zealand botanist, especially for his work on New Zealand grasses, some of which were named in his honour.

John was born on 13 October 1819 at Levenside, near Dunbarton, Scotland. He was the first child of Nancy (nee Somerville) and William (born 1798) Buchanan who were married in 1817. Nancy and William had three younger children, James (born about 1821), Peter (born in 1823) and Agnes (probably born about 1825). It seems that his father was a tenant on the Levenside estate of the Campbells of Stonefield. This rural background no doubt prepared him for a life of exploration in the southern mountains of New Zealand.

As a young man he found employment in Glasgow's expanding calico industry. He became a pattern designer and was employed in the drawing shop of Henry Monteith and Co., well known for the production of floral patterned textiles. It was this work that would have led him on to become a botanical artist and illustrator. Eventually, this industry was overtaken by the machines of mass-production and many artisans had to look elsewhere for employment.

John Buchanan emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in the new town of Dunedin in February 1852. In this new land he began by taking up a 10 acre property in North East Valley, its bush-clad slopes offering new scope for his botanical interests. From 1856 he served on the Reconnaissance Surveys of inland Otago, mainly in search of productive grasslands. Then, after a brief period of gold-hunting on the Tuapeka gold field, he joined the Geological Survey of Otago in 1862, as plant collector, under Dr James Hector. The survey included two major expeditions to western Otago where Buchanan collected specimens of plants new to science. Many of these were shipped to Kew, London, where Joseph Hooker published them as new species in his 'Handbook of the New Zealand Flora'. The wealth of botanical knowledge that Buchanan gained on these expeditions was published in 1869 in his classic essay 'Sketch of the Botany of Otago'.

On the completion of the Provincial Survey, Dr James Hector moved to Wellington where he founded the Colonial Geological Survey and Museum. His staff were transferred from Dunedin to Wellington and John Buchanan became draughtsman and botanist in the new Colonial Museum, later to become the Dominion Museum and then the National Museum of New Zealand. He was to serve with the Museum's herbarium for the next twenty years. During this time he added to the diversity of the Herbarium's holdings by conducting field work in many parts of New Zealand, including the subantarctic islands. In his later years at the Herbarium, he worked on an illustrated account of the grasses of New Zealand and his folio edition of 'Indigenous Grasses of New Zealand' was published in 1877-80.

John Buchanan retired in June 1885 and returned to Dunedin where he continued his interest in botany until his death in 1898. His name lives on in the plants that were named after him and through those that he described himself.

Although Buchanan never married, his family lineage continues in the descendants of his brother, Peter, who became Assistant Government Printer in Sydney, Australia.

Sources: The botanical collections of John Buchanan F.L.S. by Nancy M. Adams (History of systematic botany in Australasia 231-4 (1990)) John Buchanan F.L.S. botanist and artist (1819-1898) by Nancy M. Adams (Tuhinga 13: 71-115 (2002)).