About Me

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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'.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

On This Day, 1 November; Francesco Borone's deathday

On this day in 1794, in Athens, a very talented young field botanist met a tragic death; furthermore it was a death that has become enveloped in mythology and mystery. His name was Francesco Borone, and he was the protegé of the great English patron of botany, Sir James Smith. Four years later Smith fulfilled a promise he made on hearing of Borone's death, and named a genus of very beautiful Australian shrubs for him; the flowering of Boronia is one of the highlights of spring in many parts of southern Australia.
Boronia floribunda, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
The waxy four-petalled flowers are unusual and readily identified.

Originally employed by Smith as a domestic servant, Borone soon showed his interest and intelligence and became a valued botanical field assistant. With Smith's recommendation, he accompanied the eminent Swedish botanist Adam Azelius to Sierra Leone then, fatefully, went with the great John Sibthorp to Greece to collect for the monumental Flora Graecae. Recovering from a bout of fever (which may have been something he picked up in west Africa) he appears to have sleep-walked out of a narrow hotel bedroom window high above the street. It sounds an odd tale, but we have Sibthorp's direct account in a letter written the same day to Smith. Unless Sibthorp and at least two assistants and companions of Borone were in some strange conspiracy - and there is no reason to suppose such a thing - the bizarre accident seems to have been just that. (Sibthorp also speculated that it was possible that Borone had mistaken the window; he was used to stepping out of the one across the room to walk on the hotel terrace.)
Boronia algida, at high altitude in Tinderry National Park, New South Wales.
Boronia is in the family Rutaceae, like citrus fruit. And like oranges and lemons the leaves
of many Boronia species have pungent oils with scents that different people find pleasant or repugnant.

People seem unable to resist rewriting history however, and there has been a fairly impressive smoke screen puffed across the years to confuse things. For instance in 1895 botanist Joseph Maiden, in his significant book Flowering Plants and Ferns of New South Wales, wrote that Borone found a plant "in a situation difficult of access, and in spite of the doctor's warnings, Borone endeavoured to secure the prize for him, but alas! overbalanced himself and was killed". This sounds suspiciously like a Victorian piece of bowdlerisation; presumably Maiden didn't believe Sibthorp's account of how Borone came to exit the window!

Boronia coerulescens, Wanilla Conservation Park, South Australia.

Even worse was Myrtle Rose White's account in her 1932 memoir No Roads Go By. "Yellow-cupped, heavenly-scented berona. ... it is said that is named in honour of a young Italian, Francis Borone, who, when studying flowers in Western Australia, attempted to gather a fine specimen of the shrub and, losing his balance, fell over a precipice to his death." It would be interesting to know who said this, because it is a fabulously bewildering farrago of nonsense. Borone never came to Australia, and never saw a boronia (nor did the name exist in his life). The Western Australian species she describes (B. megastigma) was not the one on which the genus was based (which was a pink-flowering New South Wales species sent to Smith); in fact it wasn't named until 1873...

Fantasy can be fun, but why bother when the real story is so good anyway?

Ciao Francesco; I'm sorry you didn't get to see your flowers.


Anonymous said...

Nice color choice on the blog. It is really easy on my eyes and I have bad eyes too so that's a really big compliment lol

Anonymous said...

These genus is one that will not grow for me! I have purchased quite a few plants, they flower spectacularly, then move on to my "bushland in the sky".
Pity. I think they are delightful!

Ian Fraser said...

Ah yes, Boronias are infamous for it! I gave up trying to grow them years ago; many seem to like sandy soils, and Canberra is built on clay. Just another good reason to go to the bush.