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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Begonias- Part One : From the Louvre to the Antilles -

Charles Plumier
It's begonia season in SoCal.

The somewhat unlikely discoverer of this glamor queen of the botanical world was an extraordinary genius, a monk, a Frenchman who found the first rather unassuming begonia on Hispaniola (my gentle readers will remember Columbus found the island in 1492. However by the 17th c. the French held the island--- which was  an enormously valuable source of sugar.)
Market in the Antilles
 Sugar was the tech stock, the highflyer. Plumier found a patron with a sugar plantation on Hispaniola--- the flamboyant and successful courtier Michel Bégon of   the court of Louis IV the Sun King himself. 

 Michel Bégon was a passionate collector of many things, including plants. He went to the West Indies as Intendant of the Isles du Vent (Windward Islands) were he met and fostered Plumier. Bégon introduced Plumier to Louis XIV, who appointed the monk a royal botanist (which meant a "pension" from the king-- effectively a salary that allowed Plumier to continue his plant explorations. )

Michel Bégon by Hyacinth Rigaud
                         
With such a spectacular patron we'd expect the first begonia to look perhaps like this:
                                                     

Modern Picote Begonia

Nope. It was an unassuming flower, and the original plant seemed to not exist in a drawing anywhere, including the French Begonia Society in Rochfort, France located at 1 Charles Plumier, Rochfort. But surely it looked rather like this ?

Begonia domingensis photo from the French Begonia Society
begonia from Dominica catalogued 19c.

Now, thanks to Botanicus and the U of Missouri we can see a digital reproduction of  Plants of the Americas.Plumier left an incredible cache of drawing (6000) and 31 manuscript pages which the early botanists were able to see and plagarize, rather freely.  See:
http://botanicus.org/page/775194
 
The page can't be reproduced but the original begonia is right there in Tab XLV in Plumier's magisterial book in French and Latin.***Plumier discovered the fuchsia, Arum lily, plumeria....and in his 58 years appears to have worked about 24/7. Louis got his money's worth.
Then, the  plot thickens because the next begonia discoveries pass to the English, beginning with Joseph Banks .

 Kew Gardens becomes the place to see the newest begonias.Plumier falls into undeserved obscurity, as the English begin writing up his discoveries, and apparently not giving Plumier much credit. (Hooker?) History belongs to the victors, and in this case the victors appear to have been the English botanists. However, there  were some heroic  English plant explorers in the 19thc. Stay tuned. Part Two is the story of the tuberous begonia.



*** After a 2 week  search to find this drawing--felt like finding the Holy Grail. In the process of reading about Michel Bégon  re-discovered Dumas  historical novels of the period and the court of the Sun King. The Man In the Iron Mask deals rather crisply with the great Louis... Dumas, like Plumier, deserves your attention.


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