About Me

My photo
Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

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.