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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.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

On This Day, 1 August: Switzerland's National Day

Today, 1 August, marks the anniversary - according to tradition - of the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291 AD. It's a very long time since I paid a brief visit to that spectacular little country, so instead I'll pay tribute to some Swiss people (well, all men actually, as tends to the way with these things) whose names are commemorated in Australian plant names. (There may be some in Australian animal names too, but if so I can't find them.)
Thomasia macrocalyx Family Sterculiaceae; Stirling Ranges National Park, Western Australia.
This genus of some 35 species is almost entirely limited to the south-west; just one species is found in the east.
When Swiss botanist Jacques Etienne Gay named the genus in 1821 he made it clear that he was naming it in honour of no less than five people - surely something of a record! These were twin brothers Abraham and Pierre Thomas, and Abraham's sons Phillippe, Ludwig (or Ludovice) and Emanuel. All collected plants and acted as guides for other collectors in the mountains of south-western Switzerland, around their home village of Les Plans-sur-Bex. Their big break came when eminent polymath Albrecht von Haller engaged Abraham, and they became highly sought-after by other visiting botanists. (Gay worked much of his life in France, and with a bit of detective work, and applying some very rusty Latin, I can report that I believe he based his name on a specimen of Thomasia foliosa, collected in Western Australia in 1801 by Jean Baptiste Leschenault de la Tour, botanist to the mighty Baudin expedition, at Geographe Bay on the south-west peninsula where Busselton now stands.)
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Our second Swiss-named Australian plant is also a genus, but in this case it isn't limited to Australia. There are some 60 Australian species of Calandrinia - broadly called Parakeelya here - with another 80-odd found through North and South America. 
Parakeelya, Calandrinia polymorpha, Family Portulacaceae, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.
Parakeelyas are found across inland Australia, giving spectacular displays in good seasons.
Jean-Louis Calandrini, for whom German botanist Carl Kunth named the genus in 1823, was much better known as an eminent physicist and mathematician, based in Geneva to where his parents fled from religious persecution in Italy (one source describes Calandrini as a "staunch Calvinist"). Most sources talk solely of his work on auroras, comets, lightning and trigonometry, and his significant commentary on Isaac Newton's Principia, but I've also read that he wrote on "spontaneous movement of leaves" (?!) and fertilisation of wheat. Clearly a most impressive man, he later gave up his professorships to become Treasurer of the Swiss Republic. What he'd have made of the desert homes of 'his' Australian plants must remain an interesting conjecture.
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The third Swiss name today is applied to a species only, but a pretty familiar one to anyone who spends time on the coast pretty well anywhere in southern Australia. The saltbushes - family Chenopodiaceae - are arid-adapted species found throughout the world, including at least 300 in Australia.Though most are found inland, a few are coastal, and this may indeed have been where they originated.
Sea Berry Saltbush Rhagodia candolleana, Guerilla Bay, New South Wales.
The species was named by French botanist Alfred Moquin-Tandon to honour another Swiss scientist who, unlike Calandrini, was foremost a botanist. Augustin Pyramus de Candolle worked through the first half of the nineteenth century, beginning his career in Paris, continuing it in Montpelier, and spending the last 25 years back in Geneva, where he held the first chair of natural history. He described numerous plant species, but more significantly worked on a major reclassification of plants, trying to produce a 'natural system'. In the process he came to discuss the concept of competition between plant species; Charles Darwin invited him to dinner in London to discuss this idea further, while he was developing his theories of natural selection in 1838. De Candolle also pioneered work on chronobiology, the influence of daily cycles on plant activities; it was a century before our understanding of circadian rhythms reached a point where his work was properly recognised. (Much of this work was done on the 'Sensitive Plant', Mimosa pudica, whose leaves close at night and open in the day; I wonder in passing if the source I alluded to earlier which mentioned Calandrini's work on "spontaneous movement of leaves" was confusing the two men. On the other hand they could well have been collaborating.)
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Our last 'Swiss Australian' has always been something of a mystery to me, but in researching for this posting I found a little more than I had previously managed, in particular the link to the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown who named the genus Burchardia, a small group of five Australian lilies, now generally placed in the family Colchicaceae. 
Milkmaids, Burchardia umbellata, Bigga, New South Wales.
This lovely species is widespread in eastern and south-eastern Australia,
but has declined with the loss on native grasslands.
Brown sailed with Matthew Flinders on the important Investigator expedition to Australia from 1801 to 1805, sponsored by Sir Joseph Banks. However Banks also sponsored exploring expeditions to other parts of the world, among them Africa. One whose approach he accepted was that of a young Swiss called Johann Burckhardt, who in 1809 offered to search for the source of the River Niger. He believed that he would be more successful if he could pass himself as a Muslim, a pretty radical idea in early 19th century Europe! Accordingly he studied Arabic at Cambridge, then went to Syria to perfect it, and become an advanced scholar of the Koran, accepted as such by local scholars. (Whether he actually converted remains contentious.) While living there he rediscovered fabulous Petra, Burgon's "rose-red city half as old as time". His ventures into the north African deserts in search of the Niger devastated him, and he died of dysentery in Cairo in 1817, aged just 33. I surmise that Brown met him in London when both were visiting Banks; he named the genus in 1810, just after Burckhardt was there. According to my source - the usually impeccable James Baines' Australian Plant Genera - it was in fact a double-honorific, in that Brown was also acknowledging a much earlier German botanist named Heinrich Burckhardt. Now that I've just looked up Brown's Latin description in his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae however (isn't the internet wonderful?), I find no mention of Johann... For now I'll assume that Baines knew something I don't; I hope so! It's too good a story to ignore.

 Meantime, thanks Switzerland, a have a happy celebration!

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3 comments:

Susan said...

Lovely photo of the milkmaids!

EmP said...

I've just discovered your blog and am finding it very interesting reading! I love finding out the story behind a name - gives these plants a whole new dimension. Thanks for enlightening and entertaining me. Emily

Ian Fraser said...

Hi Emily, welcome and thank you! I hope you can find more things to interest you as time goes by. Ian.