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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Of Broken Hearts and Purple Flowers

The contribution of broken hearts to the advancement of Australian botany has, I think, been underestimated. On the other hand very few plants bear women's names; this is a story that combines the threads, though not perhaps as you might suppose.

Carl Alexander Anselm, the Baron von Huegel, was the son of the flourishingly named Concommissarius of the Reichstag, who had to flee with his family to Austria at the turn of the 19thcentury, when young Carl was only five. Carl later fought in the Austrian cavalry against Napoleon, returning to civilian life and his passion for natural history in 1824, expressed in his magnificent Vienna garden which featured many of the then fashionable plants of New Holland. Things were about to turn sour for him however, though European appreciation and understanding of Australian plants would benefit. His beloved fiancĂ©e Melanie, apparently under extreme pressure, broke off her engagement to Carl in favour of his patron, the chancellor Prince Metternich, to whom he nonetheless managed to remain loyal. 

Hardenbergia violacea

He couldn't bear to stay in the same city however, and in his words became “a man who sought healing and oblivion in every land on earth”. Plants he collected throughout the new worlds poured back into Europe; these included the treasures gathered in 1834, which he spent in Australia. (I would recommend his diaries of this time, translated by Dymphna Clarke as New Holland Journal.) Later in his stay he was highly critical of what he saw as the crudity and crass commercialism of Australian society; he was also dismayed by the brutal convict system and the treatment of Aboriginals. Later still in his life he relented and wrote with nostalgia of his time here.

Finally back home a hero, having sent 32,000 natural history specimens ahead of him, he became a diplomat and was recognised by international scientific organisations. Before his return to Europe though, many of his specimens were received and preserved by his sister, Franziska von Hardenberg. She had married into one of Germany’s leading families, so presumably had the time and resources to devote to caring for his collections. Among the specimens was a beautiful and profuse sprawling pea shrub with rich purple flowers, on which the Dutch botanist George Schneevoogt bestowed Franziska’s married name – Hardenbergia. In south-eastern Australia, Hardenbergia violacea, known as Happy Wanderer or False Sarsparilla, adorns roadsides or colonises quarries due to the wonderful pea trick of harnessing bacterial colonies in its roots to fix atmospheric nitrogen. It also climbs through shrubbery and from late winter glows purple in the local forests (and on our back fence).
Hardenbergia violacea

Another species, H. perbrevidens, has only recently been described from the Blackdown Tableland in Queensland, while a third, H. comptoniana, brightens up the bush in south-western Australia. This one is remarkable, and perhaps unique, in commemorating the names of two women, the other being Mary Compton, Marchioness of Northampton, who apparently first grew the plant in England.
Hardenbergia comptoniana, Mount Barker, Western Australia
Hardenbergias always give me great joy, but I also reflect on the sad count; I hope he got some comfort from them.


Flabmeister said...

Do you think that in these more enlightened times, if the taxonomists wished to name the plant after a female they might use her given name rather than her husband's (or father's) names? Thus, the sandgroping species of Happy Wanderer might be Franziskana marya!

Just asking!


Ian Fraser said...

Actually I think today's enlightened taxonomist might go further than that. She might well use indigenous names where known for instance, so that the sandgroping HW might have names based on say Ngunnawal and Nyoongar words respectively (and I'm not in a position to speculate what they might be). Hence when the central Australian species of Ghost Gum was split from Eucalyptus papuana a few years ago, they called it apperinja, that being the Pitjantjatjara word for it.