Plant of the Month: December 2018

Not a traditionally Chrismassy plant, but something I came across @CUBotanicGarden the other morning, flowering its socks off against the glasshouse range, Correa backhouseana (or backhousiana according to some sources) is interesting not merely in botanical but also in history-of-science terms.

Correa backhouseana in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

The Correa family is native to Australia, and was given its genus name by Henry Charles Andrews (fl. 1794–1830), a remarkably talented botanical engraver whose origins and training are obscure.

Andrews was most famous for his Coloured Engravings of Heaths (four volumes, 1794–1830).

He was married to Anne, the daughter of the nurseryman John Kennedy of Hammersmith, who, it is speculated, may have helped him with the descriptions of the plants he illustrated. Andrews, unusually, himself engraved and coloured some of his works, and seems to have sought for accuracy over ornament.

José Francisco Correia da Serra, by Domenico Pellegrino (1759–1840).

Andrews gave the name to honour José Correia da Serra (1750–1823), a Portuguese polymath and political liberal who spent part of his life in exile in France, England and the United States. In London he was befriended by Sir Joseph Banks, who saw to it that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. (It seems likely that the Banks/Linnaeus/Solander/Dryander connection enabled his later election as a foreign member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.)

Botanically, the Correas are in the Rutaceae family and the subfamily Rutoideae: the only other tribe in this subfamily that I had ever heard of is the Eriostemon, also from Australia – but my ignorance is legendary. The first plant to reach Europe appears to have been brought back by Banks himself, from the Botany Bay area, and is now classed as Correa alba var. alba: unlike most Correa species, where the flowers are tubular (hence the common name ‘Australian fuchsia’, in this case the tube is split into four, giving the flower a star-like appearance).

The star-shaped flower of Correa alba var. alba.

Correa backhouseana comes from southern Australia (the website of the San Francisco Botanic Garden states that it is endemic to Tasmania), and can grow to 12 feet in height and width (though this is not likely in the British climate, where 5–6 feet is the norm). It was named by the great William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865), director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in the Journal of Botany for 1834, in honour of its discoverer.

Hooker’s description, from the first volume of the Journal of Botany.

James Backhouse (1794–1869) was a member of a dynasty, generations of which were (not unlike the House of Veitch) naturalists and/or horticulturalists; also like the Veitches, though not to the same degree as the Murrays, the same first names kept being used for sons and grandsons. The James we are concerned with is conventionally known as James [iii] Backhouse.

A photograph of James Backhouse (1794–1869).

In one respect, however, the Backhouses were very different from the Veitches: they were bankers, and the horticulture was an interest, not a means of livelihood. The Quaker James [i] Backhouse (1721–98) with his two sons, Jonathan and James [ii], founded the Backhouse Bank in Darlington in 1774 (it later merged with Gurney’s of Norwich and became Barclay’s Bank), and it was Jonathan (1747–1826) who began the large-scale planting of trees on his estate in Weardale. His descendants, as well as continuing the tree-planting, developed an interest in the breeding of Narcissi, which continued well into the twentieth century.

Narcissus Mrs R.O. Backhouse, named after Sarah Elizabeth, the wife of its breeder, Robert Ormston Backhouse (1854–1940), which, as the first ‘pink’ narcissus, created a sensation in 1921.

James [iii], the third and youngest son of James [ii], developed his botanical knowledge by exploring the flora of Teesdale in the company of a lead-miner, John Binks (1766–1817), to whom Richard Spruce, thirty years later, ascribed the discovery of many of the rare plants in this now famous ancient landscape: ‘it is little more than thirty years since “old Binks, the miner”, discovered Gentiana verna … he and his friend the late Mr Oliver of Middleton shortly afterwards added the no less rare Saxifraga Hirculus; and within the space of a few years they had become acquainted with nearly every flowering-plant and fern known to grow in Teesdale at the present day’. (William Oliver (1760–1816) was an Edinburgh-trained surgeon from a medical dynasty who had a keen interest in botany.)

Gentiana verna, the spring gentian.

In 1815, James [iii] and his brother Thomas bought the Telford nursery in York, and in 1822 he married. But he seems to have felt the call to missionary work, and the exercise of philanthropy in his own city was not enough. In September 1831 James and a friend, George Washington Walker (whose biography he later wrote), set out for Australia, where they stayed for six years, as missionaries and helpers of the poor (including convicts and Aborigines, which was most unusual for the time) while James also collected plants and seeds which he sent back both to the nursery and to Hooker, at that time professor of botany in Glasgow.

George Washington Walker, draper and philanthropist.

On the journey back to Britain, they visited Mauritius and South Africa, from where Walker in 1840 in fact returned to Tasmania, to marry and pursue both his business as a linen draper and dozens of philanthropic projects: it is thought that he died of exhaustion through these activities. Backhouse returned to York in February 1841, publishing an account of his time in Australia in 1843, and of his visit to Mauritius and South Africa in 1844.

During James’s time abroad, his brother managed the nursery, and later his oldest son, James [iv] (1825–1900) joined the business, as well as botanising with his father in upper Teesdale and in other alpine areas of Europe. James [iv] was also interested in archaeology, and with his own son James [v] (1861–1945) excavated the Teesdale cave named after them.

Backhousia citriodora, endemic to central and south-eastern Queensland.

James [iii] is commemorated not only by C. backhouseana but also by the genus Backhousia (a Hooker naming in 1845) in the Myrtaceae family, which contains 13 species. These however appear to flourish in the rainforest areas of Australia, and so are unlikely to take to the British climate, whereas the correas will survive outdoors down to -5 degrees C in a sheltered spot and will flower from October to April. I want one, I’ve found a (fairly) local supplier, and Christmas is coming – the only minor detail is (as always) where would I put it?


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3 Responses to Plant of the Month: December 2018

  1. Peter Reynolds says:

    Professor, not sure if you know that Janet Rawlins, of Bainbridge, Yorks, has published ‘An 1844 Pennine Way from Tees to Ribble Five botanists walk from Crook to Settle’ (Bains Fall Publishing 2016), a facsimile of a manuscript account of a 2 week botanical excursion in Teesdale by Silvanus Thompson, a teacher at the Quaker Bootham School in York. The other 4 members were George Stacey Gibson, of Saffron Walden, John Tathum, of Settle, James Backhouse III and James Backhouse IV (all Quakers). The precocious James IV (then 19 years old) also published an account of the same journey in The Phytologist, 1844. Janet Rawlins tells us that the 2 James stayed so frequently at the High Force Inn that a room there was known as ‘Mr Backhouse’s room’. This ‘little band of botanists’ (Smith and Sowerby, ‘English Botany’) made the first record of Minuartia (Spergula as they knew it) stricta, the Teesdale sandwort, on Widdybank Fell, confirmed by Hooker, a discovery James Jnr wished to credit to himself, but conceded it to Gibson.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Peter, thanks for this fascinating information! I’m guessing that the Schoolteacher Silvanus Thompson must be the father of the physicist Silvanus P. Thompson? Best wishes, Caroline


  3. Peter Reynolds says:

    That’s correct. According to Janet Rawlins, John Tatham was apprenticed to Silvanus Thompson’s father Thomas, a pharmaceutical chemist in Liverpool. Silvanus Thompson married John Tatham’s daughter Bridget in 1848. Their son Silvanus Phillips Thompson, was born in 1851. Interestingly the then proprietor of The Phytologist, Edward Newman, was also a Quaker. There is an excellent account (2017) of ‘John Tatham of Settle, Quaker and Botanist’ by John Beckett on

    Liked by 1 person

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