Tuesday, 7 January 2014

63,000 pressings + 7,000 km = 1 genus for Mr Burchell



Wild Pomegranite in its native South Africa, Buffalo Horn in the Government House border of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, Burchellia bubalina reminded me at first of what I called recently Mr Grey's Grey Plant (Greyia radlkoferi).

But while that plant was in the rather obscure plant family Greyiaceae, this one in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, with maybe 500 other genera and many thousands of species.


In near coastal ares of South Africa and in Swaziland, the Wild Pomegranite grows as a shrub or small tree in forests and grasslands. After these from-a-distance, pomegranite-like flowers, woody fruits develop with if-you-use-your-imagination, rhino-horned fruits (this picture is by Tony Rebelo via iSpot).

Wild Pomegranate fruit 1

In Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne the flowers don't seem to get fertilised so in mid-December you find these even less rhino-looking 'fruits' - just the stiffened remains (calyx) of the flower.


The genus name (Burchellia) honours William John Burchell, an Englishman who sailed to Cape Town in 1810, collecting plants on a four year exploration of South Africa in which he travelled, it's said, 7,000 kilometres by ox-wagon. By the time he returned to Cape Town he had pressed 63,000 plants.

Robert Brown, who spent a similar number of years in Australia a little earlier (1801-1805) coined the name Burchellia (calling the species Burchellia capensis, for obvious reasons). It turns out the one species in this genus had been described earlier, in a different genus, by famous progeny Carl Linnaeus the Younger, and the name bubalina is the one we must use.

But that's OK because 'bubalina' probably means ox-like or bovine. Nothing to do with William's wagons but possibly the horny extensions on the fruit.

I gather Burchell promoted the idea of a botanic garden in Cape Town, separately raving about Kirstenbosch (where the garden was established more than a century later) as a particularly attractive location. A pretty genus named after him and a botanic gardens groupie. Reminds me of someone, although I didn't have to travel as far or collect as many plants for my honorific!

No comments: