BOTANY

Dis­cover some of the most beau­ti­ful blooms and who they were named af­ter.

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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.

The legacy

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;

Philib­ert Com­mer­son

CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Fuch­sias were one of Charles Plu­mier’s dis­cov­er­ies; Hy­drangeas in south­ern Brit­tany; A mag­no­lia flower; The plume­ria, also known as frangi­pani

Charles Plu­mier

ABOVE: Bougainvil­lea in French An­tilles

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