Botany: A Blooming History
And now we return to part one of this series
1. A Confusion of Names
We now meet Thomas Fairchild (1667? – 1729). Wikipedia is rather terse about him:
He corresponded with Linnæus, and he helped by experiments to establish the existence of sex in plants; and he was also the first person who succeeded in scientifically producing an artificial hybrid. This was Dianthus caryophyllus barbatus, a cross between a sweet william and a carnation pink.
In 1722 he published a small book, The City Gardener, devoted to a description of the trees, plants, shrubs, and flowers which would thrive best in London. Pear trees still bore excellent fruit about Barbican, Aldersgate, and Bishopsgate, that in 'Leicester Fields' there was a vine producing good grapes every year, and that figs and mulberries throve very well in the city.
Note that word ‘still’: pollution was on the rise.
But he was far from being simply a prestigious nurseryman and gardener. In 1724 he
added to his reputation by a paper read before the Royal Society and afterwards printed in Philosophical Transactions (xxxiii. 127) on 'Some new Experiments relating to the different and sometimes contrary Motion of the Sap in Plants and Trees.'
His biggest claim to fame is his hybridization of Dianthus (caryophyllus, above left, barbatus, above right.) The programme shows him furtively creeping into his greenhouse (the narrator says it’s from fear of the religious authorities, but I would imagine not to alert commercial rivals).
He succeeds, but the progeny are sterile. The result is presented to the Royal Society, whose fellows are much impressed, and give the plant the name “Fairchild’s Mule”. (The preserved plant is shown on the book cover to right.) He also gives an endowment to a nearby church, and the programme suggests that this is in fear of what the clergy might say about him tampering with God’s creation. However, according to an online review from the Natural History Museum, of The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild: The Forgotten Father of the Flower Garden by Michael Leapman,
although deeply religious and believers in God's design, Fairchild and his contemporaries were in no way sentimental about nature and her products. Thomas Fairchild would not have stopped to wonder whether or not we needed a blue rose, he probably would have set out to try to make one.
Fairchild also features strongly in The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf, reviewed here. We Brits are a nation of gardeners, rather than shopkeepers. (The latter role seems to have been taken over by the Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.)
Although for a long while forgotten by history, Fairchild’s reputation is rising. Near where he worked, there is a primary school named after him, and a residential development called Fairmule House.
Still, the puzzle remained, why were there sterile hybrids? Although, with the theory of evolution, one could envisage species being more or less distantly related, there was no handle on the actual mechanism. But we are skipping over that, and landing in 1945.
After the war, improved understanding of plant relationships came about with chemotaxonomy, studying the chemicals plants produce, especially the proteins. Now DNA sequence determination has raised this to a whole new level, and programme 1 leaves us with its use in determining the family tree of Plectranthus barbatus, widely grown in Africa, India, and China.
In Kenya it is known as “Kikuyu toilet paper”, from one of its uses in rural areas, but it has attracted attention from its use in Ghana to treat malaria. Having a close family tree of this plant, it might be possible to discover even more potent anti-malarials. In the YouTube below, we see Professor Monique Simmons, head of Kew’s Innovation Unit, showing the most modern techniques and Kew’s herbarium full of ancient specimens being applied together in the case of a plant famous to lovers of Agatha Christie’s novels.
Finally, a contribution of my own. Here is a picture I took yesterday of two types of toadflax growing on a wall. Creeping on top of the wall is Cymbalaria muralis (Ivy-leaved toadflax or Kenilworth Ivy), while growing out of the wall at right of picture is Linaria purpurea (purple toadflax). Previously they were both classified in Linaria in Scrophulariaceae, but the former was split off into a separate genus. More recently, Scrophulariaceae has been greatly broken up by chemotaxonomy, and Linaria is now found in Plantaginaceae.