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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, 29 June 2017

On This Day, 29 June; Rembert Dodoens and Dodonaeas

Rembert Dodoens is probably not a name that features regularly in your life, and fair enough too, but he made a contribution to the Australian botanical landscape in particular (plus quite a few others in a more minor way), albeit with no intention of doing so. Indeed, having been born on this day, 29 June in 1517, he could have had no concept of 'Australia'. 
Rembert Dodoens, courtesy University of Mannheim; date and artist apparently unknown.
He began life in Mechelen, Flanders (now Belgium) and was clearly a bright lad; I doubted it when I first read that he began his university studies at Leuven (Louvain) at the age of 13, but several separate sources seem to agree on this. He graduated at age 18, when most modern students are just embarking on their studies, in medicine, geography and cosmography (the last being the science of mapping the universe, but please don't ask me to explain more precisely). He became the great herbalist of his time, which also meant a doctor. He spent 13 years as the court physician to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, and ended his life as Professor of Medicine at Leiden. 

He authored several books, but by far his most famous and influential was his Cruydeboeck (ie 'herb book') which offered one of the earliest attempts at a classification, albeit only 'use-based'. Its value at the time however was that it summarised all known medicinal uses, contemporary and historical. It was translated into French as Histoire des Plantes, and into English as A new herbal, or historie of plants. Later Dodoens translated it into Latin, which led to it being regarded as a basic herbal text for the next 200 years. Other than the Bible, it was the most translated work of its time. 
Dodonaea boroniifolia, Tallong, New South Wales.
The papery three-winged fruits are characteristic and diagnostic of the genus.
It was in acknowledgment of that that Linnaeus named the genus Dodonaea for him in 1738. (As a curious taxonomic aside, the official credit for the genus name goes to Philip Miller in his Gardeners Dictionary Abridged Edition 4, 1754, who cites the earlier Linnaeus publication of the name. The  correct name for any species of plant is the first one published since 1753 – ie since the publication of Linnaeus' great Species Plantarum, in which he listed every plant name published in his two-name system that he knew of. The implication is that he left Dodonaea out of his opus - or perhaps he had only published the genus, and not a two-name species, so his name was unavailable to Species Plantarum? If you know the answer to this conundrum I'd be grateful.) It's not clear where Miller got his material, but it seems that D. viscosa was already being grown in England by then, which would explain why he published it in a gardening dictionary.

Dodonaea is the largest genus in the world-wide family Sapindaceae, which also includes maples, rambutans, tamarinds and lychees. The seventy or so species are all found in Australia, but one, D. viscosa, a highly variable species, has spread throughout much of the world - not by human intercession as has been widely believed and reported, but in the last couple of million years. Presumably the small wind-distributed seeds made this possible but it does seem remarkable. 

D. viscosa, Inca Track, southern Peruvian Andes;
Europe is the only unfrozen continent where this remarkable species does not grown naturally.

D. viscosa fruit, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.

D. viscosa immature fruit, Black Mountain NR, Canberra.
In Australia many other genera in the family are trees, both in rainforests and arid lands. 

Here members of the genus Dodonaea (which is widespread, common and familiar) are known as hopbushes, as the bitter fruits were used in place of hops in beer-brewing. (I'm pretty sure that this is true, though some sources suggest the name only reflects an apparent similarity to hop fruit.) I have read that they were also used in baking in place of yeast, but I can't imagine how that might have worked or what effect it might have had on the flavour of the bread!

The flowers are wind-pollinated, and have no petals or nectar. 
D. viscosa flowers, Gawler Ranges NP, South Australia.
I'm sorry that Rembert Dodeons didn't ever see or even hear of the plant named for him. I hope he'd have appreciated them; after all, even if he was only interested in their utility, he would surely, as an inhabitant of what was to become Belgium, valued their contribution to beer in the Antipodes!

Here are a couple more, to end with. I hope you've enjoyed meeting them and the man who unwittingly gave them their name. If so, you might like to raise a glass to him to acknowledge his birthday.
D. lobulata, Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia.

D. stenozyga, Yalata, south-western South Australia.

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3 comments:

Susan said...

Absolutely fascinating! Lots of rabbit holes to go down in pursuit of further info. I wonder if he ever came to France?

Flabmeister said...

You question the impact of Dodonea on the taste of bread. How would it go on the taste of the beer? It would seem to be a very efficient form of zymurgy if Dodonea can take the place of both hops and yeast!

Ian Fraser said...

Thank you both for your interest.
I have no evidence that he went to France, but the bios available to me are pretty sketchy, mostly listing employment. They were all in Germanic countries, suggesting that language might have been the determinant (though having said that, he probably would have communicated in Latin re science if necessary).
I gather (no first hand experience!) that the bitter flavour is hop-like; I frankly can't believe the yeast suggestion, without a lot more evidence than an assertion.