As became clear in the last series of posts (1,2,3,4) on my herbarium “home” at the University of South Carolina, every plant collection is replete with stories. Discovering them is an exhilarating experience that may play out over a period of time as the story’s elements are pieced together. The digitization of collections is one way many stories are now being unearthed as was the case described in a blog post from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The herbarium staff held an informal “botany blitz” for two weeks during which they devoted themselves to tackling some of the unsorted material that’s a staple of most collections. Among the finds was a folder labeled Veronica hartiana, but digging failed to come up with any information on this species, so it must never have been published.
The New Zealand species of Veronica used to belong to a separate genus called Hebe, but these plants were found to be monophyletic with Veronica; hebe is still the common name and also the name of over 800 cultivars. The six specimens in the folder in question were collected by Henry Darton in 1922-1923 and annotated by Donald Petrie. Darton taught at the local high school in Lawrence, on New Zealand’s South Island. He and his friend Henry Hart were plant collectors and breeders who had a nursery where they grew many native species. Donald Petrie was a Scottish botanist who spent nearly 50 years in New Zealand, working a school inspector for the state of Otago that includes Lawrence. He named a species of Veronica for Darton, and from the evidence in the folder planned to name one for Hart as well.
Heidi Meudt, who wrote the blog post, is a curator at the herbarium and went on to investigate this story further. Scientists and historians have much in common. Both groups want to answer questions, and in a case like this both science and history are involved. Petrie noted on the specimen that it had a prostrate growth habit and designated it Veronica hartiana sp. Nov. He added that “It certainly came from the Chatham Islands and was first grown by a solicitor in Timaru to whom it was sent by Mr. Cox.” Meudt found that Felix Cox, a sheep farmer, lived in the Chatham Islands, over 600 miles east of New Zealand, and sent many specimens to botanists. Timaru is on the South Island, a few hours north of Lawrence, so it is likely that the solicitor, who probably was a horticultural enthusiast, had contact with Darton.
Checking further, Meudt discovered a 1941 letter from Erica Baillie, secretary of the New Zealand Alpine Rock Garden Society. It accompanied a hebe specimen identified as Veronica chathamica that was “absolutely prostrate.” She asked that it be identified, noting that someone named Baker said that Captain Hooper of the Amokura brought it back from one of the outlying Chatham Islands. Meudt points out that two decades after Petrie’s notes, the plant was being cultivated by Baillie, who lived in Wellington on the North Island, so it had gotten around. The fact that it was prostrate suggests what was identified as Veronica chathamica might be the same or similar to what Petrie proposed as Veronica hartiana.
More digging revealed that from 1907 to 1921, George Hooper was captain of the Amokura, a training vessel for young men who wanted to become sailors. He was interested in natural history and there are several of his plant specimens in the herbarium. At the end of her post, Meudt summarizes: “We still don’t know for sure if Veronica ‘Hartii’ is the same as V. chathamica, but these specimens seem to fit well within the variation seen in the specimens in the V. chathamica box at Te Papa, and they match most of the characters in other botanist’s descriptions of V. chathamica.” She thinks that perhaps more information about the plant will come out of the Darton Hart Project aimed at recreating some of the gardens at Lawrence.
This is definitely a New Zealand story from start to finish and suggests how herbarium specimens can provide windows into the way plants move around and become part of human culture, of horticulture. It also reveals how people in diverse walks of life: a sheep farmer, a ship’s captain, a lawyer, and a school teacher all contributed to the movement and cultivation of this species. And Meudt was able to document this with specimens. It would be difficult to ferret out all the stories lurking in herbarium cabinets, but it’s nice to see ones like this come to light. Meudt not only took the time to investigate but then cared enough to document her work in this fascinating post. What I didn’t mention is that she also gives a good description of what cultivars are and how they are named.
I have to admit that I also learned a lot from digging into this story. My knowledge of New Zealand geography was almost nil. Yes, I knew there was a North and a South Island but I didn’t know that the Chatham Islands are a NZ Territory. I had heard of Otago, but didn’t know it was region of New Zealand or that the country is divided into regions, not states. As always, specimens have ended up making me a slightly more educated person, not only in terms of botany, but in this case, history, geography, and horticulture.