John Banister (naturalist)

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John Baptist Banister (1654 – May 1692) was an English clergyman and one of the first university-trained naturalists in North America. His primary focus was botany but he also studied insects and molluscs. He was sent out as a missionary chaplain by the garden-loving Bishop Henry Compton,[1] with whom he soon established a correspondence. Banister was first in Barbados in the West Indies and then by April 1679[2] in Virginia, where, while serving a rector of the parish of Charles City he became one of Bishop Compton's most energetic plant collectors, "the first Virginia botanist of any note".[3]

Banister matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he could see and study the American plants grown from seed in the Oxford Physic Garden under the care of Dr. Robert Morison.[4] From Virginia, his first letter to Dr Morison at the Oxford Physic Garden was dated 1679: in it he listed the bounty of American oaks that would supplement Britain's impoverished flora:[5] dwarf, black, white, red, Spanish, chestnut, live or willow, shrubby.[6] The historian of American gardens Ann Leighton surmises that Banister's list of Virginian timber trees provided some of the material for John Evelyn's list of desirable plants of Virginia and New England, intended to be given to a captain sailing for New England.[7] Once settled in Virginia, where he purchased a tract of 1,735 acres (7.02 km2) on the Appomattox River in 1689/90, he established a close friendship with William Byrd of Westover, an influential Virginia planter with botanical connections in London.[8] By 1692 Banister had become a substantial figure in Virginia, one of the founders of William and Mary College in Williamsburg that yea; Bishop Compton was on the college's board of overseers.

Banister contemplated writing a natural history of Virginia; perhaps it was as a preliminary gesture he sent some fine botanical drawings and herbarium specimens to the botanist James Petiver, a London apothecary and Fellow of the Royal Society. According to Jon Kukla Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia (London, 1705) reproduced extensive passages on natural history and the Indians from manuscripts of Banister.[9] sent numerous occasional papers to the Royal Society that were published in its Philosophical Transactions, providing "the first scientific account for Virginia in the field of descriptive botany, entomology, and malacology.[10] His letter describing Mutinus elegans, a stinkhorn, is thought to be the first report of a fungus from North America.[11] Among them were "Observations on the natural productions of Jamaica"; "The Insects of Virginia" (with James Petiver,1700);[12] "Curiosities in Virginia"; "Observations on the Musca lupus"; "On Several Sorts of Snails" ; and "A Description of the Snakeroot, Pistolochia or Serpentaria Virginiania."[13] He compiled a catalogue of American plants, the first flora of North America; it was published in the second volume of John Ray's Historia Plantarum (London, 1680), an incunabulum of taxonomy. He was accidentally shot dead by Jacob Colson while exploring the lower Roanoke River in company with some men of Byrd's entourage.[14] John Lawson in his New Voyage to Carolina saluted Banister's memory in 1709, as "the greatest Virtuoso we ever had on this Continent".[15]

Notable plants he collected and sent to his bishop, Henry Compton, in England included balsam fir (Abies balsamea), box elder (Acer negundo), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), and Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).[16]

Banister's library in Virginia was dispersed after his death[17] and his lists and papers found their way to publication through other botanists, beginning with James Petiver, whose Museum Petiveranum gives 65 common names for Banister's plants sent to Bishop Compton, where Banister's Virginian trees were flourishing in the gardens of Fulham Palace.

Banister was commemorated by Linnaeus who gave the name Banisteria to a tropical genus of Malpighiaceae. Banisteriopsis also references Banister's name; the two genera are very close relatives and are sometimes merged under the older name Banisteria.

His grandson, Col. John Banister, was one of the prominent Virginians of the American Revolution.


  1. Banister's letter to Dr Robert Morison, 6 April 1679, dated from The Falls, a palisadoed place of William Byrd's on the James River, gratefully mentions Bishop Compton as having recommended Banister to "Lord Culpeper", Governor of Virginia. (Leighton 1976:84).
  2. His letter to Morison, 6 April 1679.
  3. C.R. Williams, "Dr. John Dunn as a Virginia Botanist", William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, 15.2 (April 1935); biographical accounts of Banister are in Ann Leighton, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: 'For Use or for Delight' (1986:79ff) and Ronald H. Petersen New World Botany: Columbus to Darwin (2001:208ff).
  4. Petersen 2001:208)
  5. The only oaks native to Britain are the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur, and the sessile oak, Q. petraea
  6. List in Ann Leighton, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: 'For Use or for Delight' (1986:81).
  7. Ann Leighton 1976:79 gives Evelyn's list; she notes (p.80) that Evelyn employs Banister's spelling of both "Piekhickeries" and "Maple tree bearing keys of crimson color".
  8. Byrd had sent seeds and plants to a certain Mr Methwold in London, according to Ronald Petersen 2001:209.
  9. Kukla, "Robert Beverley Assailed: Appellate Jurisdiction and the Problem of Bicameralism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia", The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1980.
  10. Joseph Ewan, "First Fern Records from Virginia: John Banister's Account of 1679", American Fern Journal (1963).
  11. Petersen 2001:208.
  12. "Some Observations concerning Insects Made by Mr John Banister in Virginia, A. D. 1680. with Remarks on Them by Mr James Petiver, Apothecary and Fellow of the Royal Society", Philosophical Transactions 22 (1700:807-814).
  13. Lyon G. Tyler, "Virginia's Contribution to Science", William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 24 (April 1916).
  14. Leighton 1976:85; Petersen 2001:209.
  15. Quoted in Leighton 1976:84.
  16. Aitken, Richard (2008). Botanical Riches: Stories of Botanical Exploration. Melbourne, Victoria: Miegunyah Press: State Library of Victoria. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-522-85505-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; S. Morris, "Legacy of a Bishop: The Trees and Shrubs of Fulham Palace Gardens Introduced 1675-1713", Garden History, 1991.
  17. Leighton 1976:84 notes that Banister's copy of John Parkinson's Theatrum Botanicum had recently surfaced.
  18. Author Query for 'Banister'. International Plant Names Index.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Coats, Alice M. (1964, 1992) Garden Shrubs and Their Histories. Simon & Schuster.
  • Ewan, Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1992). "John Banister, Virginia's First Naturalist", Banisteria, Number 1.
  • Ewan, Joseph and Nesta Ewan (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692 University of Illinois Press.
  • Kastner, Joseph (1977). A Species of Eternity. Knopf.
  • Lewis, Ivey F. (1958). "Seventeenth Century Science in Old Virginia". Virginia Journal of Science, V8(1).
  • Petersen, Ronald H. (2001). New World Botany: Columbus to Darwin.

External links