Plant of the Month: July 2022

Three or four years ago, I bought a Phygelius capensis (Cape fuchsia or Cape figwort) at Cambridge market. It performed extremely well, and when I revolutionised the garden layout in January 2021, it was one of the plants which (to the eternal resentment of my spine) I carefully dug up and kept. When I replanted it, I divided it into three, planting one into each of the three central beds in the ‘new garden’, and eighteen months later all of them are taking off like rockets and I suspect I will need to divide them again in the autumn. (Anyone who lives near and wants one, give me a shout!) It actively seems, like Verbena bonariensis, to appreciate the incredibly dry soil we have suffered in East Anglia for the last two years, though I also hope it likes the thick mulch I give it every autumn.

P. capensis in the garden …
… and an individual stem.

While sitting in my ‘look-out-at-the-garden-and-observe-the-birds’ chair the other day, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about the plant, except, obviously, that it came from South Africa – and as so often, a bit of looking things up revealed all sorts of connections that I had never suspected. The taxonomy is: Angiosperms/Eudicots/Asterids/Lamiales/Scrophulariaceae (these are the figworts), and there are two species, both from South Africa, P. capensis and P. aequalis. The name was confirmed by George Bentham (1800–84) from an initial description of the plant by Ernst Heinrich Friedrich Meyer (1791–1858), hence the tag ‘E.Mey. ex Benth.’, though I have never understood why the author of the earlier name precedes the later, valid one: it is Bentham’s definition ‘ex’/from Meyer’s description, after all. Or does ‘ex’ mean ‘extended/expanded by’?

P. aequalis in the wild in South Africa …
… and the hybrid ‘Yellow Trumpets’.

The word ‘phygelius’ is from two Greek words: the verb φυγεῖν, ‘to flee’, and ἥλιος, the sun, while ‘capensis’ is ‘from the Cape of Good Hope’, and ‘aequalis’, I assume from the fact that the flowers grow from one side of the stem only, as opposed to all around it like P. capensis. P. aequalis grows at a higher altitude, and has shorter flowers, than its more common relative, appears to be a paler red, and has a yellow cultivar called ‘Yellow Trumpets’. It was named Harv. ex Hiern in 1904, so described by the Irish botanist William Henry Harvey (1811–66), more famous for his interest in mosses and algae, and later the curator of the Trinity College Dublin Herbarium, and confirmed by William Philip Hiern (1839–1925).

Hiern was clearly a man of private means: having obtained a first in mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, he married and moved to Surrey, where he became interested in botany. He later lived in the manor house in Barnstaple, where he seems to have enjoyed acting as the lord of the manor, while publishing around fifty botanical works including catalogue of the collection of the Austrian Friedrich Welwitsch (1806–72) after whom the extraordinary Welwitschia mirabilis is named.

This female from Welwitschia Plains, Namibia, is about a man’s height, and approximately 1,500 years old. (Credit: Thomas Schoch)

Hiern himself had a figwort genus, Hiernia, named after him (the only species is Hiernia angolensis), but he himself named Diospyros crassiflora, the African (or West African, or Gabon or Benin) ebony, the darkest wood known to exist and used since antiquity for everything from walking sticks to chess pieces to piano keys.

Hiernia angolensis
Our very own pieces of ebony.

Going back a bit, to George Bentham: I had in a previous existence (re)published his 1826 Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du Bas Languedoc: Avec des notes et observations sur les espèces nouvelles ou peu connues without pausing to find out why an Englishman was writing in French on the botany of south-western France. (I almost certainly wrote the blurb but at the time was doing so many that nothing adhered to the brain.) I now discover that quite apart from his being Jeremy Bentham’s nephew, he was, as both his autobiography of his early years and the ODNB reveal, an interesting and distinguished man.

Available here!
The young George Bentham. (Credit: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

He was brought up in Plymouth by his father Samuel (1757–1831) and his mother Maria Sophia Fordyce (1765–1858), who was his botanical inspiration and first teacher. Samuel was the youngest of seven children, but only he and Jeremy, the eldest, survived infancy. His own talents were decidedly practical: after Westminster School, he was apprenticed to a master shipwright, and rose in 1796 (after spending 1779–91 in Russia where he became survey-general of ship-building and a friend of Count Potyomkin, Catherine the Great’s favourite, and joined the Russian army) to the post of inspector-general of naval works, a role created for him by the Admiralty.

In the same year, he married Maria, with whom he had five children, of whom George was the middle one. Maria was, according to the ODNB, Samuel’s tireless assistant, accompanying him on all his official inspections of dockyards, helping him to write reports, and broad-mindedly arranging (when money was available) for payments to be made to his three illegitimate daughters. George was named after his grandfather George Fordyce, a Scots physician and the brother of the James Fordyce whose sermons famously failed to appeal to Miss Lydia Bennet.

In 1805 the growing family went to St Petersburg, where the infant George apparently showed his potential by learning to speak Russian and French, along with some Latin and German, while he picked up some Swedish as they passed through the country. Back in England, they lived near Hampstead but also had a ‘summer place’ near Portsmouth. When his father was pensioned off in 1814, the family bought some caravans (enough to carry a library and a piano, naturally) and journeyed through France – apparently they were sometimes mistaken for a travelling circus. This peripatetic life must have been great fun, but it seems to have left George with a sort of ‘imposter syndrome’, blaming his own self-doubt in his career as a botanist on his having had no formal education, just a succession of tutors, though he did spend a few months at the university of Montaubon, where he was taught philosophy by the Swiss Protestant Isaac-Bénédict Prévost (1755–1819), a botanist who pioneered the treatment of fungal diseases in plants.

Prévost, with wheat, by by Prosper Bernard Debia (1791–1876)

In 1820, Samuel bought an estate of 2,000 acres near Montpellier, which George managed, and to which Jeremy sent friends (including John Stuart Mill) to learn French. It was at this period that his enthusiasm for botany took off: he was interested especially in classification, studying Lamarck’s and de Candolle’s systems and comparing them with his uncle’s broader theories. During a trip to England in 1823 he met both J.E. Smith and W.J. Hooker, and two years later he undertook the botanising tour with George Walker Arnott which led to the publication of the Catalogue des plantes indigènes.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (1782–1875)

In 1816, George’s elder brother, Samuel, had died after an accident. This left George as the oldest son, and it was decided that he should join his uncle in London and train for the Bar. The family moved back to England in 1826, and George not only worked as Jeremy’s amanuensis but also lived in his house, which sounds rather less jolly than his own Bohemian home. While studying, and writing pamphlets on law and logic (some of which opposed his uncle’s views), he made time for botany, and his rise in this field is marked by a fellowship of the Linnaean Society in 1828 and his becoming honorary secretary of the (later Royal) Horticultural Society in 1830.

Although his written legal analyses were regarded as exemplary, his only outing as a junior counsel, in 1831, was apparently a disaster because of his extreme nervousness. His father died in the same year, and his uncle in 1832, after which he had the means to give up law and turn his attention almost wholly to botany. He married Sarah Laura Brydges in April 1833, and they seem to have lived modestly in the family home in Queen Square Place, Bloomsbury, and later near her family home in Herefordshire, though they returned to London in 1854.

The plaque on Bentham’s final home, in Wilton Crescent, London.

Although in some senses an ‘amateur’ botanist, he produced a huge body of detailed and well respected work, from the classification of the Labiatae (suggested to him by John Lindley, and published between 1832 and 1836) to his Handbook of British Flora (1858),  Flora Hongkongensis (1861) and Flora Australiensis (1863–78), and the Genera plantarum, co-authored with Joseph Dalton Hooker, published (in Latin) in three volumes between 1862 and 1883, which dealt with 7,569 genera, including more than 97,200 species, of which Bentham was responsible for about three-quarters.

Joseph Dalton Hooker, by Charles Henry Jeens (1827–79)

He was also instrumental in recovering the dire financial affairs of the Horticultural Society, and worked on their collections, publishing Plantae Hartwegianae between 1839 and 1857. He also arranged the herbarium of 30,000 plants collected by Charles Morgan Lemann (1806–52) which is now in the Herbarium at Cambridge University, and worked on the collections made by employees of the East India Company, as well as that of Richard Spruce. He also served as President of the Linnaean Society from 1862 to 1874 (the longest serving President after Sir J.E. Smith). Oh, and he and his wife travelled in Britain or Europe for two months every year, on one occasion getting as far as Odessa, taking botany books and notebooks, and arranging to meet local botanists everywhere he went.

George Bentham in old age. (Credit: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

His wife died in 1881, after a period of semi-invalidism, and he himself became ill – quite possibly from exhaustion? – shortly after the final volume of Genera plantarum was published, dying on 10 September 1884, and being buried next to his wife in Brompton Cemetery. According to IPNI, he was responsible for 15,636 plant names, starting with Abelmoschus alborubens. I am not sure with what the list ends, as I cannot make it go beyond 500 pages, in the midst of the Mimosas … Inevitably, not all the names have stood the test of time/DNA – but what an incredible body of work!

Abelmoschus alborubens, now Abelmoschus ficulneus.
Mimosa trijuga, now Mimosa somnians.

And PS, I’ve just discovered that he is alleged to haunt a room in the Kew Herbarium


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