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Important Darwin plants unveiled at the Botanic Garden

A portrait in chalk of Charles and Catherine Darwin Ellen Sharples, 1816

The Botanic Garden team with Nick Wray, Curator of the Garden and Christopher Weddell, Senior Gardens Advisor at English Heritage, holding the Darwin plants Bhagesh Sachania

Press release issued: 3 March 2017

Two important plants connected with the life of naturalist, Charles Darwin, will be unveiled at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden today [Friday 3 March].

Visitors to the Garden will be able to see Lachenalia aloides, a tender, winter growing, South African bulb, which was grown at Darwin’s family home, The Mount in Shrewsbury, when he was a small boy, and Morus nigra, the black mulberry, connected with Darwin’s own home at Down House in Kent.

Nick Wray, Curator of the Botanic Garden, said: “For a long time I have been fascinated by a plant that can be seen held by a seven-year-old Charles Darwin in a portrait of him drawn in chalk by artist Ellen Sharples in 1816.

“I have long thought that this plant was Lachenalia aloides, because of the shape and colour of the inflorescence, particularly the distinctive green-blue markings at the tip of the flower tube.  One can imagine the young Charles and his sister Catherine Emily being asked to sit for their portrait around the time of Charles’ birthday.  When grown in a cool glasshouse the plant flowers in February and is often in full bloom around the time of Darwin’s birthday on 12 February.”

Confirmation of the plant came last month [11 February] when Nick was asked to give a talk at the annual Shrewsbury Darwin Festival on ‘The evolution of flowers’.

Darwin’s mother Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood), a Unitarian, worshipped together with her young children at the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church.

David Wood, Editor of the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church newsletter, wrote: “Nick concluded his talk by showing us a chalk drawing of Charles Darwin as a young boy holding a pot of Lachenalia aloides. This non-hardy plant from South Africa would have been quite rare in the early 1800s and would have to have been glasshouse grown. To connect us to this picture of Darwin, Nick had brought up a pot of the same flower.”

One of the few young plants established from Darwin’s original black mulberry, which had fallen into decline and was in danger of dying out, has been propagated by Rowan Blaik, former Head Gardener at Down House, will be presented to the Botanic Garden by Christopher Weddell, Senior Gardens Advisor at English Heritage.

Nick Wray said: “I am very pleased that we are fortunate to be able to receive one of these special young black mulberry trees from the original plant once grown by Charles Darwin. We do not currently have this species in the Botanic Garden and this valuable addition to our collections will help enrich our plant displays both botanically and culturally’.  

Christopher Weddell added: “It is important to keep propagating plants like these to ensure their genetic stock continues for the next generation. I am delighted to be able to offer a plant to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, a Garden well-known for its evolutionary theme, strong links to teaching and where I worked as a trainee horticulturist in 1994.”

The propagation project has taken two years to complete and the new plant at Botanic Garden will form part of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Display.

Further information

In an article for the Garden History Society Vol. 40, No. 2, winter 2012 by Susan Campbell a number of plant lists for The Mount in Shrewsbury are published. One titled ‘Plants grown in the hothouse, stove and vinery’ lists Lachenalia pendula. This is the old name for Lachenalia bulbifera, a plant usually with red, tubular flowers. An orange form is known, but not yellow, as appears in the portrait. If this is the plant that the young Darwin is holding, as Nick Wray believes, the plant was probably being growing under the wrong name and should be called Lachenalia aloides.

About the Botanic Garden
The Botanic Garden has a strong evolutionary theme and cultivates over 4,500 plant species forming four core collections that illustrate plant evolution, plants from Mediterranean climates, useful plants and rare and threatened native plants to the Bristol area. 

Star attractions include an amazing dell demonstrating the evolution of land plants including the dinosaurs’ favourite plants: ginkgos, cycads, tree ferns, monkey puzzles and the Wollemi Pine.  Other delights include the Chinese and Western herb gardens and an inspiring display of plants illustrating floral diversity. 

Opening times
The Garden is open from 10 am until 4.30 pm.

  • The Garden is open Monday to Friday and closed at weekends until 31 March 2017.
  • From 1 April 2017 until the end of October, the Garden is open for seven days a week including bank holidays.

Admission is £5.50 (Gift Aid payment)* or £5.00 (non - Gift Aid payment); free to University staff and retired staff, Friends of the Botanic Garden, students and children under 18.

*The adult gate entry fee of £5.50 includes a 50p voluntary donation which UK taxpayers' can pay, allowing the Botanic Garden to benefit from a 25 per cent refund of tax from the government on each adult ticket

Dogs (except registered disability assistance dogs) are not permitted in the Botanic Garden.

The garden is largely accessible for wheelchairs and mobility scooters with a designated path leading around the garden and glasshouses. Disabled toilet facilities are available on site.

Pre-booked guided tours of the garden for groups of ten upwards are available seven days a week.  Please contact the garden for further information.  There is a charge for the guide.

Directions to the Botanic Garden
From the city centre go to the top of Whiteladies Road, at the junction and traffic lights go straight ahead across Durdham Down towards Stoke Bishop. At the traffic lights go straight ahead and take the first turning on the right into Stoke Park Road, The Botanic Garden at the Holmes is 150 metres on the right.

Members of the public wishing to support the work of the Botanic Garden should join the Friends of the Garden. For more information go to the Friends of the Botanic Garden or write to Susan Redfern, The Membership Secretary, 24 Dublin Crescent, Henleaze, Bristol BS9 4NA.

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