Banksias first became known in Europe in late April 1770 when Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander landed from the Endeavour on the east coast of Australia, then known as New Holland.  Earlier visitors to the west coast, such as the Dutchman Wilhelm Vlaming at the Swan River in 1697, would have seen Banksias during brief explorations inland.

Although the species is named after Joseph Banks, he published none of the botanical results of the Endeavour voyage of 1768-1771. A planned work was never quite finished. Some of the plants were named by other botanists, among them 4 species of  Banksias. These were first published in Germany in October 1782 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus the younger, son of the founder of modern botanical nomenclature. Linneaus apparently did not see the specimens of the other species  found by Banks, which was named B. robur in 1800 by the Spanish Botanist Cavanilles.

It was the visit of Robert Brown in December 1801-January 1802, however, that gave the first real insight into the floral riches of south-west New Holland.  Brown, voyaging with Matthew Flinders in the Investigator, discovered 8 new Banksias at King George Sound (W.A.) and three at Lucky Bay. In all he found about 500 different species of plants at these two landfalls. Later he found two more new
Banksias at Port Jackson (Sydney). As it turned out, early exploration accounted for most of the Banksias that grow in eastern Australia. Only five more species have been discovered there since 1805. In the south-west, however, discoveries continued and there are now known to be 58 species in this region.

Fossils identified as Banksias or closely related plants have been found in several localities. They occur as pollen grains, leaf and fruit impressions and mummified leaves and fruit. Perhaps the most remarkable fossils are the fruit  found in the Kennedy Range (W.A.). Described as a new species (Banksia archaeocarpa), they are like some present day species. The fossil forms indicate that Banksias have been around in something like their modern form for 40-50 million years. During this time Australia has drifted north from a position near Antarctica and undergone major climatic changes. (See Gondwana Timeline).

Banksias are all woody evergreen plants, and range from prostrate shrubs to trees up to 25m tall. Tree forms usually have a single trunk which is often of irregular shape; shrub forms may have one or many stems at ground level. 36 species have a fire-tolerant trunk or a woody stock (lignotuber) from which they sprout after a bush fire. Heavy pruning induces the same response. Trees with this capability have a bark at least 1cm thick. Other species have fire-sensitive stems with thin bark: they are killed by fire and regenerate from seed. They usually will not take heavy pruning.

There are about 73 species - one for almost every situation, their wide range of rich colours making them attractive for gardens. They are also used for Arts & Crafts, the seed heads in particular. "Big Bad Banksia-men" feature in the famous children's stories of author May Gibb.

BANKSIA SPECIOSA                    Proteaceae
Showy Banksia

Specific name from the Latin speciosa (showy) in reference to the prominent flowers. Type collected from Lucky Bay, east of Esperance, Western Australia, collected in January 1801 by Robert Brown. First collected at Esperance Bay by Jean Labillardiere in 1792.

Banksia speciosa  
Shrub to 8 m tall without lignotuber, much-branched. Bark smooth, grey. Branchlets velvety. Leaves broadly linear, truncate, 20-45 cm long, 2-4 cm wide, divided into many triangular lobes, tomentose (dense covering of matt hairs) above, becoming glabrous (without hairs), white-tomentose below. Inflorescences terminal, conspicuous, ovoid, 4-12 cm long,  9-10 cm wide at flowering;  bracts at base velvety, falling early. Flowers pale-green to yellow. Follicles up to 20,  prominent, elliptic, 35-50 mm long, 20-30 mm high, 20-30 mm wide, the ridge thickened, densely velvety - usually opening with fire, split from stylar point. Seed obovate, 37-45 mm long. seed body obovate-cuneate, 10-14 mm wide, smooth outside, muricate inside; wing curved 12-20 wide, notched.

Flowering - throughout the year, with a peak in summer and autumn.
Habitat: In deep white sand on consolidated dunes, in tall shrublands; often dominant.
Annual rainfall 400-500 mm.

BANKSIA MARGINATA                Proteaceae
Silver Banksia or Honeysuckle

Specific name from the Latin marginatus (bordered), referring to the lower surface of the leaf which often appears so from having the margins recurved. Type collection gathered by Luis Nee in March-April 1793, between Port Jackson and Parramatta, New South Wales.
Named by Antonio Cavanilles in Spain, 1800.

Banksia marginata
Banksia marginata bud
    Flower bud
A dense bushy shrub or small tree, often flowering when under 1 metre but sometimes reaching 9 metres. Bark brownish-grey, smooth; leaves 3-10 cm long, narrow, oblong, silvery beneath, margins entire or toothed. Individual flowers small, soft lemon-yellow, crowded into dense spikes up to 10 cm long, 4 cm wide. Cones becoming buff to grey with age, fertile carpels making hard brown bulges on sides of cones. Fruit opening by a slit, seeds winged.
Flowering period - mainly February to July and is a significant producer of nectar for birds and insects.
Habitat:  Very common in a wide range of wet or dry habitats,  especially heaths and light forests.

Distribution:: South-eastern Australia from Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, through Victoria and eastern NSW north to Baradine and Guyra: throughout Tasmania; also on Kangaroo Island and the islands of Bass Strait. Often common locally.

BANKSIA SERRATA                 Proteaceae
Sawleaf Banksia

Specific name from the Latin serratus (saw-edged), in refernce to the leaf margins. Type collected from Botany Bay, NSW, gathered in April-May 1770 by Joseph Banks. Named by Carl Linneaus the younger, in Germany 1782.

Banksia serrata
A small tree with stout grey trunk and branches; leaves large 8-15 cm long, leathery with serrate margins; spatulate or oblanceolate, veins conspicuous.  Flower spikes large up to 20 cm long, 10 cm wide; pale yellow to golden.  Ripe capsules hard and woody, appearing as furry bulges on the sides of old cones. Seeds large, winged. 
Flowering spring-summer.
A common, near coastal species, extending from Cooloola, Queensland, south to Wilsons Promontory in Victoria and an outlying  population at Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

Habitat: On consolidated coastal dunes and in sand over sandstone on the coastal plain and in the Blue Mountains; usually in woodland and in tall shrubland.
Annual rainfall 800-1200 mm.

Photo: Christine Howells
Further Reading:  The Banksia Book by Alex S. George published by Kangaroo Press in association with The Society for Growing Australian Plants - NSW Ltd.

Banksias of Tasmania