Today we celebrate a botanist and orchidologist who saved Kew,
We'll also learn about an orchid hunter who collected plants on behalf of the London Horticultural Society.
We hear some words about the challenging experience of a botanist in 1874.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about one of America’s earliest botanists and the father of America’s first female botanist.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a story of a plant that Joseph Dalton Hooker described as "The ugliest yet [most] botanically magnificent plant in the world."
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February 5, 1799
Today is the birthday of the British botanist, pomologist, pioneer orchidologist, and flower show organizer, John Lindley.
John's dad was a nurseryman, and he ran a commercial nursery in England. Despite his array of botanical talents and knowledge, the family was always under financial duress.
Growing up in his father's nursery helped John acquire the knowledge to land his first job as a seed merchant. This position led to a chain of events that would shape John's life. First, he met the botanist William Jackson Hooker. And, second, Hooker introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks. As a result of these connections, John ended up working as an assistant in Bank’s herbarium.
In 1838 after Banks died, when the fate of Kew Gardens hung in the balance, John recommended that the gardens belonged to the people and that they should become the botanical headquarters for England.
The government rejected John's proposal and decided to close the garden. But, on February 11, 1840, John ingeniously demanded that the issue be put before the Parliament. His advocacy brought the matter to the people; the garden-loving public was not about to lose the Royal Botanic. And, so, John saved Kew Gardens, and William Hooker was chosen as the new director.
From his humble beginnings to his incredible standing in English Botanical History, John is remembered fondly for so many accomplishments. For 43 years, John served as secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society, which is why the RHS Library is called the Lindley Library.
And, there are over 200 plant species named for John Lindley. There is "lindleyi," "lindleyana," "lindleya," "lindleyoides," etc., and they all pay homage to John. John once told his friend, the botanist Ludwig Reichenbach, "I am a dandy in my herbarium." John did love his plants.
But, without question, John's favorite plants were orchids. Before John, not much was known about orchids. Thanks to John, the genus Orchidaceae was shortened to orchid – which is much more friendly to pronounce. And, when he died, John's massive orchid collection was moved to a new home at Kew.
John's friend, the botanist Ludwig Reichenbach, wrote a touching tribute after John died. He wrote,
"We cannot tell how long Botany, how long science, will be pursued; but we may affirm that so long as a knowledge of plants is considered necessary, so long will Lindley's name be remembered with gratitude."
And here's a little-remembered factoid about John - he was blind in one eye.
February 5, 1848
It was on this day, the botanist Karl Theodor Hartweg boarded a Hawaiian ship on his way back to England.
The London Horticultural Society had hired Karl to collect plants in California. Yet when he reached London, the Hort Society was a little frustrated with Karl because he hadn’t secured something they really wanted: Bristlecone Fir seeds.
A short while later, Karl severed ties with London, and he ended up south of Frankfurt tending gardens for the Duke of Baden for thirty years until he died in 1871.
Karl’s journey as a plant collector began in the botanical garden in Paris. After working for the Chiswick garden in London, Karl began to turn his attention to plant exploration. Eager to travel and explore, Karl left for America in 1836.
Although Karl was only supposed to stay for a three-year project, he actually ended up staying for over seven years.
During the early to mid-1800s, native plants from Mexico, like dahlias and cacti, were all the rage. As for Karl, he became a noted orchid hunter.
According to Merle Reinkka, the author of A History of the Orchid, Karl’s work was significant, and he contributed,
"The most variable and comprehensive collection of New World Orchids made by a single individual in the first half of the [19th] century."
A man of the world, Karl himself once dryly remarked,
“All the way from London just to look after weeds.”
In 1874, the English botanist WEP Giles (William Ernest Powell) explored the vast deserts of central Australia. Setting out with his hunting partner from a base camp at Fort McKellar, he discovered a leak in one of his large water bags. The two men decided to continue, even though the temperature had already climbed to 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Camping that night, they hung their remaining bags of water in a tree to protect them. But one of their horses attacked a bag with her teeth— spraying the water all over the ground. Now neither the men nor the animals had enough water.
— Anita Silvey, American children’s author, The Plant Hunters, Bringing Themselves Home Alive
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2013, and the subtitle is A Biography.
In this book, Seymour gives us the first complete biography of the American botanist Cadwallader Colden. Cadwallader was the longest-serving Lieutenant Governor of New York. He was incredibly intelligent and multi-talented - a true Renaissance man of America's colonial times.
A trained physician, Cadwallader improved public health, and he wrote the first scientific paper published in the colonies, as well as the first map of New York.
Cadwallader was also the father of America’s first female botanist: Jane Colden.
This book is 230 pages of the life of a multifaceted colonial Renaissance man: Cadwallader Colden.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
February 5, 1806
Today is the birthday of the Austrian botanist and explorer Friedrich Welwitsch.
Friedrich found a second home in the country of Portugal, where he served as the director of the Botanic Gardens in Lisbon.
Friedrich had some fantastic experiences during his lifetime, but the pinnacle was clearly the day he discovered the Welwitschia mirabilis. The mirabilis refers to its unusual form.
Portugal had to send him to Africa to collect plants - which he did for seven years. In 1860, Friedrich discovered a strange-looking plant that is actually a tree - a conifer and a gymnosperm - in terms of botanical classification. The Africans called it "Mr. Big."
Now the Welwitschia is endemic to Namibian deserts, and it's also present on the country's coat of arms.
When Friedrich discovered this unique plant, which can live for more than 1500 years and bears only two leaves in its entire lifecycle, he was so astonished that he,
"could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination."
Imagine a two-tentacled octopus with very long arms and a red floral bouquet for a head, and you have the Welwitschia mirabilis.
Welwitschia's two leaves grow continuously throughout the life of a plant. The pair of leaves are broad, leathery, and belt-shaped. Incredibly, some specimens, tested with carbon 14, are over 2000 years old.
Today, if you search online, there is a spectacular photo of Friedrich seated behind a large welwitschia mirabilis. He's wearing a pith helmet, and the plant's leaves are clearly many times longer than Friedrich's arms and legs, which are mostly obscured by the plant.
In 1862, Joseph Dalton Hooker described the plant in The Gardener's Chronicle as,
"The ugliest yet [most] botanically magnificent plant in the world."
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