[Taxacom] A Christmas Carol with a botanical twist

Jim L. Reveal jlr326 at cornell.edu
Wed Dec 24 10:09:46 CST 2014

A book known to most of you entitled "A Christmas Carol" features a character named Scrooge that is haunted on Christmas Eve by three spirits: Spirit of the Pass, Spirit of the Present, and Spirit of the Future. “Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change...” And indeed, on this Christmas Eve in 2014 a change did occur and a long and forgot comment by Charles Dickens is noticed. 

While reviewing a nursery catalogue the name Clianthus magnificus was mentioned. As the name was not in IPNI, the origin of the was sought and what was found as its first use as a binomial was in a publication by Charles Dickens. Yes, that Charles Dickens! The full citation is below:

Clianthus magnificus (Van Houtte) C. Dickens, Household Words 13: 582. 5 Jul 1856, based on C. puniceus Lindl. var. magnificus Van Houtte, Fl. Serres 9: 57, t. 859. Feb-May 1854.

The Dickins article, detailing a visit he made to the garden of  Louis van Houtte, provides a contemporary view of both the man and his garden, causing Dickins to refer directly to many of the plant “V. H.” – the abbreviation typical of Dickens’ style – the famed gardener introduced into cultivation.

For the Dickens article, entitled “Belgian flower-growing”, go to https://books.google.com/books?id=Q-Y2AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA577&lpg. Apologies to those of you unable to received online google books in your country for the article is filled with delight that some who labor in the garden might appreciate.

“In private gardens, people plant a plant as they marry a wife, - love and to cherish it. There is an understood union between the man and the vegetable for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as they both shall live; unless some intolerable fanlt or defect leads to divorce in the shape of a stubbing-up and a contemptuous tossing over the hedge. The nurseryman plants a plant to divide, to subdivide, to propagate, and what we should call to spoil it, in all sorts of ways: to bnd, to graft, to layer, to inarch, to take cuttings from the top, and offsets from the root, to pull it to atoms (if the atoms will but live and grow as sometimes happens); in short to sell. Consequently, the nurseryman's attachments are fleeting, - almost cynical. He makes acquaintance ,rather than forms a friendship, with his subjects. “How do yon do !” is followed by “Good-bye!” with the greatest expedition consistent with vegetable physiology.”

And so it was, on page 582, there is this line: “V. H. has introduced the Clianthus magnificus, still more brilliant in flower, and less straggling in growth than the puniceus, or glory pea.” A binomial based on van Houtte trinomial and thus, into the legions of people who have named plants come an addition: 

Charles John Huffam Dickens (1807-1870)

Welcome to your midst.

Jim Reveal

James L. Reveal, Professor
L.H. Bailey Hortorium, 412 Mann Building
Integrative School of Plant Science
Section of Plant Biology
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853-4301

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