One of the most enjoyable things about writing the garden blog is that I keep discovering wonderful stories about not only a plant but the plant hunter or person for whom it is named. Take Sparrmannica africana, the large green soft leaved plant that is flowering at the moment in the Italian Garden. Otherwise known as African Hemp, it is evergreen with white flowers. My reading led to the discovery of a new word (pay attention Quizzers), haptonasty, that means rapid movements made by the stamens when they are touched, thus helping more effective pollination. Sometimes kept as a house plant, beware as Sparrmannia can grow 20 metres high with a spread of 15 metres, so you would need a big pot.
After identification for me by Dr Francesca Di Palo, I started to research the plant’s history and came across an unsung hero of the 18th century, Dr Anders Sparrman, a Swede who accompanied Captain Cook (wearing shiny shoes even in a storm) in HMS Resolution on several voyages.
The youngest son of a rector, Anders from an early age had been encouraged to respect nature and take an interest in farming on which the family depended to supplement his father’s meagre stipend. Starting medical studies at the age of 14, and becoming a pupil of Carl Linnaeus, he went on to become the first zoologist to study the African rhino. Sailing as a ship’s doctor to China he returned with botanical specimens and then accompanied Captain Cook to the Antarctic Circle and South Africa, along the way noting the insects that invaded the ship’s biscuits and dining on dog and chicken stew, penguins, and fried elephant trunks, yum. Sparrmann’s journal quoted in author Dr Per Wastberg’s biography is a fascinating account of the travels of a natural scientist who advocated the end of slavery and practised as a medical doctor to the poor, but remained relatively obscure. He already has an asteroid, 16646 Sparrman, bearing his name, but I think he deserved a plant as well, don’t you agree?
And isn’t our garden the most fascinating source of interesting facts?