Saturday, 25 July 2015

On This Day, 21 July: Belgian National Day

1830 was a restive time in western Europe, with one branch of the French monarchy overthrowing another, and southern parts of the United Netherlands deciding they no longer wished to be quite so united. The ruling Dutch were expelled from these lands, and a constitution was drafted to found the country that we know as Belgium. It might seem a little strange now that the German aristocrat Leopold Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha was invited to become their king - a position he assumed on 21 July - but we in Australia aren't really in a position to say much on such a concept...

To mark the day, I'd like to introduce you, if any introduction is needed, to three 'Belgians' whose names live in the Australian bush as plants; I tried to find animals but to no avail, and I'd love it if you could help me. I use the cautionary inverted commas advisedly, as all three were born before Belgium was, and one died long before it was thought of. 

That man was Rembert Dodoens, a Flemish botanist-doctor of the 16th century, though most of his adult life was spent abroad (or more accurately, outside of the borders of what was to become Belgium). He served as personal physician to the Austrian emperor, and ended his days at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He was immensely influential for decades after his death, with his mighty herbal Cruydeboeck (1554), which was also a plant classification, being translated into French and then English, as A New Herbal, or Historie of Plants. No book of its time other than the bible was translated into so many languages and editions; it is said that it retained its influence for over 200 years. English-Scottish botanist Philip Miller honoured him, well after his death, with a genus of plants. (Linnaeus had apparently already proposed the name but not properly published it, as far as I can gather.)

Dodonaea is in the family Sapindaceae, a genus of around 70 species scattered across the warmer regions of the world, but 60 of them are Australian, where they are found pretty much throughout the country. 
Dodonaea boroniifolia, Tallong, New South Wales.
The papery winged fruits were reminiscent of those of hops, and early European settlers in Australia used
them in brewing. The results were not so impressive as to justify their continued use.
Some of the capsules, including this D. lobulata, Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia,
are quite striking.

The flowers on the other hand tend to be small and inconspicuous, wind-pollinated
and with separate male and female plants.
D. viscosa, Gawler Ranges NP, South America.
Joseph Decaisne was born much later than Dodoens, in 1807, and spoke French rather than Flemish. He did have in common though that he pursued his career away from his birthplace, in his case in Paris. It was not a straight-forward career; he studied painting, attended medical school and became an apprentice gardener! This led him, by paths too convoluted to follow here, to the Chair of Statistical Agriculture and Professor of Culture at the Paris Museum of Natural History, President of the French Academy of Sciences and Director of the Jardin des Plantes. He was regarded as France’s leading botanist of the time; he never visited Australia, but worked on Australian material provided by French expeditions. The great German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller named an inland tree for him, one of my very favourites - see here for more about the tree.
Desert Oaks Allocasuarina decaisneana, central Australia.
Chambers Pillar, above:
Uluru at sunset, below.

The third Belgian botanist featured today differs from the others in a very significant way, and a most unusual one for the time - her name was Marie-Anne Libert. Female scientists were very uncommon indeed in the early nineteenth century, and Marie-Anne, born in 1782, was fortunate that her abilities and interests were encouraged by her father. As a young girl she was an avid field naturalist, and taught herself Latin to be able to read more on the topics that most interested her. She became an internationally respected botanist, with an especial interest in liverworts and pathenogenic fungi; she was the first to identify the fungus which causes Potato Blight.

During her life the German botanist Kurt Sprengel named a lovely genus of irises for her. (She also got a genus of fungi, Libertiella, which she might have appreciated even more.) Libertia is found in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and South America.
Libertia chilensis (above and below), Laguna Verde near Lago Llanquihue, southern Chile.
(For reasons that evade me I can't find any pics I've taken of the local species, an
omission I must rectify this spring.)

I am of course also very grateful to Belgium for producing what are very arguably the best chocolates and beers in the world, but this is not the place to rhapsodise in that direction....

I can't say "Happy National Day, Belgium" in Flemish, and it would be very churlish to say it only in French, but have a good one, and thanks for sharing Rembert, Joseph and Marie-Anne with us.



David McDonald said...

Thanks Ian, fascinating and informative, as always.

And not long ago I polished off a little bottle of Karmeliet Tripel, one of the best Belgium beers, a cool 8.4% alcohol!

Perhaps because of that I am bold enough to suggest that inverted commas and apostrophes are not the same thing! Being a writer, you would well know that they might look the same, but have rather different functions.


Ian Fraser said...

Absolutely correct David, thanks for pulling me up on it; egregious error now corrected. And what an excellent drop you chose, whether or not it was the prompt for your comment.