Plant of the Month: July 2021

It’s ages (November 2020, to be precise) since I did one of these, and I’m not sure whether to blame lockdown apathy or too much to do in the garden, but I got my mojo back (never quite sure what that means …) a bit when I came across this spectacular bed of that well-known spelling-trap, Eschscholzia californica, on my way round to collect the dry cleaning.

Eschscholzia californica, in unpromising soil (see below) in Cambridge

My old adage that everything is connected to everything else was confirmed in spades when I looked it up. The plant was given its name by the German poet, Adelbert von Chamisso (1781–1838), most famous for his 1814 story of Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow to the Devil.  Chamisso was born as Louis Charles Adélaïde de Chamissot, in the Champagne region of France, but in 1790 his aristocratic family fled the French Revolution, and wandered through the Low Countries and Germany before settling in Berlin, where, at the age of fifteen, Adelbert entered the Prussian court as a page to the hugely popular queen, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Two years later however, he joined the Prussian army, and remained in Berlin even after the rest of his family had returned to France.

Adelbert von Chamisso as a young Romantic, by an unknown artist

For the next few years, he studied natural science and co-founded a literary journal, but in 1805 political realities intervened, and with his regiment he was posted to the defence of the heavily fortified town of Hamelin (‘near famous Hannover city’), which in 1806 ignominiously surrendered to Buonaparte without a fight, in the aftermath of the battle of Jena. He returned briefly to France, only to discover that both his parents were dead, and so went back to Berlin, where he survived on very little for three years.

The young Mme de Staël, née Necker, 1807, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. She was hostess of possibly the most brilliant salon in Europe (though her mother’s was quite something under the Ancien Régime)

In 1810, he was offered a position as professor in the school at Pontivy in Brittany (then, and on one occasion subsequently, named Napoléonville), but appears to have got diverted en route to this new job by Madame de Staël, whose circle he joined at Coppet in Switzerland, remaining there for two years while continuing to study. In 1814, back in Berlin, he published Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte and became famous. (The story, written partly to amuse the children of a friend, was widely translated; the prolific writer, traveller and spiritualist William Howitt published an English version in 1842.)

But how, you may well ask, does a (relatively) minor Prussian author wind up giving names to plants in California? The answer lies in the studies Chamisso was undertaking in between his army duties and later at Coppet – he was becoming a well-regarded botanist, and in 1815 (peace having broken out), he was invited to go, as a scientist, on an expedition.

This was A Voyage of Discovery, into the South Sea and Beering’s Straits, for the Purpose of Exploring a North-East Passage: Undertaken in the Years 1815–1818, at the Expense of His Highness the Chancellor of the Empire, Count Romanzoff [these days transliterated as Rumiantsev], in the Ship Rurick, as the title of the account published (in Russian and German) in 1821 by the Rurik’s captain, Otto von Kotzebue has it. (The work was translated into English by H.E. Lloyd in the same year and was one of the books in Darwin’s library aboard the Beagle.)

Otto von Kotzebue, by an unknown painter

Kotzebue (1787–1846), son of the diplomat August von Kotzbue, was a Baltic German, born in Tallinn, who had attended the naval academy at St Petersburg, and had taken part in the first Russian circumnavigation of the world, led by another Baltic German, Adam Johann von Krusenstern (who, probably not by chance, was his uncle). As well as Chamisso as botanist, the crew (of only twenty-seven men) also included Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (1793–1831 – and yes, another Baltic German, born in Tartu: the ‘t’ is nowadays dropped from the botanical name) as surgeon and naturalist, and an artist, Louis Choris (1795–1828), born in the Ukraine, though his parents were of German descent.

Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, from the frontispiece of his
Zoologischer Atlas, 1829
Louis Choris, lithograph by Joseph Langlumé after a self-portrait by the artist
The Rurik, as envisioned on a recent St Helena stamp. There are several other depictions in stamps from other places at which the ship called, but I haven’t been able to find a contemporary image.

As well as Kotzebue’s account, and those of others involved in the expedition, hundreds of letters from the participants to other have survived, and the voyage is summarised in this article (institutional access) by Alexandra Bekasova. For example, in late 1817, Sir John Barrow wrote to Krusenstern to ask if he had any knowledge of Kotzebue’s whereabouts, as the British Admiralty was about to send an expedition to the north-west, and hoped that any possible encounter would be one of mutual assistance. The courteous and factual correspondence between the two continued for about fifteen years, and Barrow gave a short account of the voyage in his 1818 Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions. The expedition finished prematurely because of Kotzebue’s ill health, and the Rurik returned to St Petersburg in 1818.

Adelbert von Chamisso during the voyage, as depicted by the artist Louis Choris

There was, as so often on these occasions (see Captain Cook et al.), a row about priority in publishing: Chamisso, Eschscholtz and Choris wanted to get their natural history and mineralogy out into the world, while Kotzebue’s original account was deemed inadequate by Krusenstern and Rumiantsev, and the rewritten version was not published until 1821–3. Chamisso felt that he had come badly out of Kotzebue’s account, to which he had contributed ‘Notices respecting the botany of certain countries visited by the Russian voyage of discovery under the command of Captain Kotzebue’ and Eschscholtz had written on zoology and ‘diseases of the crew’.

Over twenty years later, in 1834–5, he published a book of his own about the voyage. In A Voyage Around the World with the Romanzov [sic] Exploring Expedition in the years 1815-1818 in the Brig Rurik, Captain Otto von Kotzebue (which is partly based on his journal of the voyage, and his section of the third Kotzebue volume, but also uses hindsight), he reveals Kotzebue’s reservations about his scientific shipmates, giving them minimal living and working space, and objecting to collecting because of the space taken up by the specimens. Fossil ivory was burnt as fuel, and botanical specimens mounted on paper had to be guarded in case they met the same fate. (One reason for Kotzebue’s unfriendliness might have been that although Chamisso could speak French, German, Danish, and Latin and Greek, and was a keen linguist, he made no effort to acquire any Russian during the voyage.)

This portrait of Chamisso adorns the frontispiece of his collected works, Adelbert von Chamisso’s Werke, published in German in 1864

He also gives lively accounts of the people he encountered, and of his study of various Pacific languages (his last published work was a tract on the Hawai’ian language). The most important botanical works emerging from the voyage were the publication, mostly in the journal Linnaea, and sometimes in co-operation with fellow botanist Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal (1794–1866), of 1,434 botanical names, many of them of Mexican trees and plants, from Abies religiosa to Zygophyllum portulacoides, and including Eschscholzia californica (1820), of which he says: Habitat in arenis sterilibus siccis ad portum Sancti Francisci Californiae, Nunc, semine adlato, in hortis nostris, favente coelo, hospitabitur (‘It grows in dry, unproductive meadows around the port of San Francisco in California, but can be raised in our gardens from imported seed, if the weather is good’). Chamisso also collaborated with von Schlechtendal and others in the publication of Mexican specimens collected by Christian Julius Wilhelm Schiede, (1798–1836) in De plantis Mexicanis a G. Schiede / collectis nuntium adfert D.F.L. de Schlechtendal (1830–44). (Schiede and Ferdinand Deppe (1794–1861) had emigrated to Mexico in 1828, with a view to collecting and selling specimens to museums in Europe, but the venture proved unprofitable, and Schiede subsequently died in Mexico, though Deppe returned to Germany.)

Lupinus chamissonis, the dune or Chamisso bush lupin, named by Eschscholtz

Eschscholtz returned the eponymic compliment with Lupinus chamissonis (1826), and there have subsequently been Arnica chamissonis and Campanula chamissonis, the former named by Christian Friedrich Lessing (1809–1862), brother of the painter and great-nephew of the poet.

Arnica chamissonis

The Chamissoa genus was named in his honour by another German botanist, Carl Sigismund Kunth (1788–1850), who has no fewer than 7,063 names to his credit, from Abatia verbascifolia to Zoysia rigida, and including Chamissoa altissima and Chamissoa macrocarpa. A protégé of Alexander von Humboldt, who enabled him to attend the University of Berlin, and later took him to Paris as his assistant, Kunth published the botanical specimens of Humboldt and Bonpland as Nova genera et species plantarum quas in peregrinatione ad plagam aequinoctialem orbis novi collegerunt Bonpland et Humboldt (1815–25), and on his return to Berlin was made Professor of Botany and Vice-President of the Botanical Garden. Between 1829 and 1832, he travelled over South and Central America and the West Indies, but appears to have only one plant, Doodia kunthiana, named after him, and that by the French botanist Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupré, in 1829.

Chamissoa altissima, from the Nova genera

The temptation to find out what was named after Gaudichaud-Beaupré is almost irresistible, but I will stop at this point, with the final remark that the genus Doodia was named by Robert Brown after Samuel Doody (1656–1706), who was an early curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and is therefore more likely than not to have been acquainted with the duchess of Beaufort. At least one Venn diagram is clearly needed …


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4 Responses to Plant of the Month: July 2021

  1. Lisa Bee says:

    Ooh – glad you’re back. For a transplanted Californian (with German antecedents and time spent France) who always thrills to the sight of a California poppy in the UK and loves the mad interconnectedness of things, this rang a lot of bells.


  2. Mojo redux. Reggie


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