Discover some of the most beautiful blooms and who they were named after.
Two unsung heroes of botany, Doctor Commerson (17271773) and Father Plumier (1646-1704) uncovered many of the plant types that we commonly see in our gardens today.
During his voyages, Commerson discovered the flamboyant bougainvillea vine and gathered no fewer than 3,000 species new to European sciences.
Before him, Franciscan monk Charles Plumier, a skilled draughtsman, dedicated his life to exploring the world and documenting 4,300 plants. His finds include the begonia, the fuchsia and the magnolia. Their adventures provide a fascinating glimpse into the early days of botany. Nothing beats the view of Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’ welcoming you with open arms. Perched at the top of Mount Corcovado, where marmoset monkeys forage, the 30-metre-tall statue created in 1931 by French sculptor Paul Landowski embraces a jaw-dropping panorama of Guanabara Bay.
Just over 250 years ago, Doctor Philibert Commerson, who had arrived in Brazil to join the first French circumnavigation of the globe, was just as enthused about the city: “This country is the loveliest in the world; in the very middle of winter bananas, pineapples continually succeed one another… In spite of a formal prohibition to go outside the town I ventured out 20 times in a canoe… and visited the different shores and islands of the bay.”
Commerson (or Commerçon), who had been appointed by Louis XV as naturalist on the voyage, collected specimens of the local flora while waiting for Louis-antoine de Bougainville, commander of the expedition. The latter was still busy handing over the Frenchheld Îles Malouines – now the Falkland Islands – to the Spanish in Montevideo, which was the main port for the colony.
While in Rio, Commerson, always accompanied by his faithful aide Jean Baret, came across a dazzling, magentacoloured climbing shrub, which he named Bougainvillea spectabilis after his leader. He observed that the flowers were almost encaged by conspicuous papery bracts, in effect modified leaves. The true flowers, tiny, tubular and white, had nothing to do with the overall colourful appearance of the vine.
The bougainvillea was introduced into Europe in the early 19th century and soon Kew Gardens in London provided specimens to Australia and other faraway countries. Commerson would be truly amazed by its success across the globe: the bracts can now be seen in purple, red, pink, orange, yellow or white, totalling 18 species.
Bougainville finally reached Rio and gave the go-ahead for his frigate La Boudeuse and the storeship L’étoile to resume their expedition. The circumnavigation aimed to restore some prestige to the French nation following the Seven Years’ War, when France conceded much of its colonial territory in the New World to the British.
As it turned out, Commerson’s adventures were to prove as colourful as his bougainvillea discovery.
As they sailed through the Strait of Magellan near the tip of South America, the doctor saw something that caused him much excitement. Leaping in front of his eyes was a school of unusual porpoise-like dolphins patterned black and white. Today, Commerson’s dolphin is a threatened species, with numbers down to an estimated 3,400.
Both ships arrived at what we now know as Tahiti at the beginning of 1768. It was the Garden of Eden: the people did not lack for anything and were so friendly and smiling. Bougainville enthusiastically drew up an act of possession for France, unaware that Samuel Wallis had already claimed it for the British crown. In the meantime, Commerson and his assistant were having a field day collecting a rich harvest of plants that would combat scurvy.
Alas for the botanist, the Tahitians were so observant that they unmasked the identity of his valet ‘by smell’. Surrounding Baret, they shouted “female, female”! ‘Jean’ was actually Jeanne, Commerson’s lady friend, and before that his housekeeper and son’s governess
after his wife’s death. Jeanne had enlisted in the guise of a man, as French law prohibited women on expeditions and had unwittingly become – in Bougainville’s words – ‘the only one of her sex’ to attempt the perilous journey round the world.
A compromise was reached; Philibert and Jeanne were to continue the voyage until the vessels reached l’isle de France (Mauritius) and then disembark.
They reported to the administrator Pierre Poivre, a keen horticulturist who distinguished himself by creating the Pamplemousses botanical garden near the capital, Port-louis. He lodged them in his quarters, treated Commerson as a long-lost friend, encouraged him to study the island’s flora, and suggested that he explore the nearby l’île Bourbon (La Réunion) and its volcano, Le Piton de la Fournaise.
There, Commerson coined the term ‘hortensia’, best known through the species Hydrangea macrophylla with its two types: the ‘mop-headed’ hortensia has a round form chiefly composed of sterile florets, while the ‘lace-cap’ shows a flattened head with a mixture of fertile and sterile florets. Although no one can be certain about the origin of its designation, some believe that the plant was attributed to the Prince of Nassau-siegen’s family. Others prefer the link with Nicole-reine Lepaute (also known as Hortense), an astronomer of repute.
Another port of call for Commerson was the island of Madagascar, where the unusual array of plants, trees, birds and lemurs proved an enthralling new experience for the visionary scientist. “It would merit not a casual observer but entire academies… Madagascar, I may announce to naturalists, is their promised land! Nature seems to have retreated as into a private sanctuary, to work on different models from any she has used elsewhere.”
But all the hard work and travelling had taken its toll; Commerson’s health deteriorated rapidly and he died on Mauritius in 1773, aged 45. Unaware of his death, the Académie des Sciences in Paris elected him a fellow eight days later. Recognition had been a long time coming. Dutiful as always, Jeanne Baret saw to it that 32 crates filled with his numerous manuscripts and collections of dried plants were dispatched to Le Jardin du Roi in Paris, now Le Jardin des Plantes. In the 18th century, all scientists spoke of Plumier with admiration, and yet 300 years on, very few people have heard about him. Born in Marseille in 1646, Plumier became a Franciscan monk at a young age and studied under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, an authority on botanical matters. In 1690, Michel Bégon, Intendant of the Galleys in Marseille and then the French Navy administrator in the port of Rochefort, recommended
Father Plumier to Louis XIV for a first voyage to the French Antilles. He was to work hand in hand with physician and chemist Doctor Joseph-donat Surian. Any discovery would be a bonus, but hopes were high of finding cinchona bark, which contained quinine, a vital component in fighting malaria.
The precious tree remained elusive, but the 18-month exploration went well, and their herbaria were overflowing with masses of new plants. It was time to return to France.
However, the winds picked up as soon as they left the idyllic beaches behind, and they were shipwrecked. Everything was engulfed by the sea, but all their efforts had not been in vain. With admirable foresight, Father Plumier had already sent his superb drawings and the botanical harvest on another ship bound for home.
Sadly, after returning from their adventures, the two men fell out. Father Plumier decided to go solo and publish his Description of American Plants. The book went down so well that he was appointed Botanist of the King and funds were supplied for another two voyages.
These explorations took him to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-domingue and Brazil, where he stumbled upon new genera including vanilla and quinoa. The French colony of Saint-domingue (present-day Haiti) was situated in the western part of Hispaniola, with the rest of the island being owned by Spain. It was there that he identified a pretty flower which he named ‘fuchsia’ in honour of the 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs.
His innovation was to name his discoveries after people he admired: Begonia for Michel Bégon; magnolia for Pierre Magnol, in charge of Montpellier Botanical Gardens; and lobelia for physician Matthias de l’obel.
He also proved that the cochineal seeds used to obtain the scarlet dye for the textile trade came from an insect, so did not belong to the plant kingdom, as previously thought.
Back in France again, Father Plumier produced a second book, entitled Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera. He had hoped to take a break and rest for a while, but Guy Crescent-fagon, head of Le Jardin du Roi, entrusted him with another mission: prospecting for the cinchona tree in Peru.
This fourth voyage never took place, Plumier succumbed to pleurisy and died in the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1704, aged 58.
An asteroid, 13 ships in the French Navy and nine geographical locations bear the name ‘Bougainville’. When asked what trace he would leave in history, LouisAntoine de Bougainville replied: “My hope for fame lies with a flower.”
The legacy left by Doctor Commerson and Father Plumier is overwhelming. With little regard for their health, they painstakingly gathered plants throughout their lives, establishing herbaria and describing insects, fish and animals from distant lands.
It was not so much seeking out the exotic in unchartered territories that spurred them on, but rather a passionate love of nature.
Despite being a leading scientist in the Age of Enlightenment, Commerson did not receive the recognition he deserved; unlike Plumier, he never found the time to publish his findings. Some naturalists plundered his extensive collections unscrupulously, but others did him justice. The Linnean Society of London possesses 1,500 of Commerson’s specimens, and the other 3,000 are divided between the National History Museum in Paris and the Geneva herbarium.
Thankfully, Johann Reinhold Forster, who made a similar voyage with Captain James Cook in the 1770s, recognised his genius. He dedicated the tree and shrub genus Commersonia to him; the fibrous bark was used by aborigines to make nets for catching kangaroos and fish.
Likewise, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and the father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus honoured Father Plumier by dedicating the plant genus Plumeria to him. It was a spectacular choice; also called frangipani, the plant has nectarless flowers, which are most fragrant at night in order to lure sphinx moths for their pollination.
Jeanne Baret was not forgotten, either. Commerson named a plant after her and left her much in his will, and the French authorities granted her a substantial pension for services rendered to science.
“Happy the one who like Ulysses has made a great voyage,” wrote the poet Joachim du Bellay.
The selfless devotion of both men has been rewarded tenfold; worldwide today their discoveries fill gardens with the joy of flower power.
Magenta bougainvillea, like the variety that Philibert Commerson discovered in Brazil
BELOW: A magnolia in full bloom
ABOVE: Bougainvillea in Bormes-les-mimosas on the Côte d’azur;
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Fuchsias were one of Charles Plumier’s discoveries; Hydrangeas in southern Brittany; A magnolia flower; The plumeria, also known as frangipani
ABOVE: Bougainvillea in French Antilles