The contribution of broken hearts to the advancement of Australian botany has, I think, been underestimated. On the other hand very few plants bear women's names; this is a story that combines the threads, though not perhaps as you might suppose.
Carl Alexander Anselm, the Baron von Huegel, was the son of the flourishingly named Concommissarius of the Reichstag, who had to flee with his family to Austria at the turn of the 19thcentury, when young Carl was only five. Carl later fought in the Austrian cavalry against Napoleon, returning to civilian life and his passion for natural history in 1824, expressed in his magnificent Vienna garden which featured many of the then fashionable plants of New Holland. Things were about to turn sour for him however, though European appreciation and understanding of Australian plants would benefit. His beloved fiancée Melanie, apparently under extreme pressure, broke off her engagement to Carl in favour of his patron, the chancellor Prince Metternich, to whom he nonetheless managed to remain loyal.
He couldn't bear to stay in the same city however, and in his words became “a man who sought healing and oblivion in every land on earth”. Plants he collected throughout the new worlds poured back into Europe; these included the treasures gathered in 1834, which he spent in Australia. (I would recommend his diaries of this time, translated by Dymphna Clarke as New Holland Journal.) Later in his stay he was highly critical of what he saw as the crudity and crass commercialism of Australian society; he was also dismayed by the brutal convict system and the treatment of Aboriginals. Later still in his life he relented and wrote with nostalgia of his time here.
Finally back home a hero, having sent 32,000 natural history specimens ahead of him, he became a diplomat and was recognised by international scientific organisations. Before his return to Europe though, many of his specimens were received and preserved by his sister, Franziska von Hardenberg. She had married into one of Germany’s leading families, so presumably had the time and resources to devote to caring for his collections. Among the specimens was a beautiful and profuse sprawling pea shrub with rich purple flowers, on which the Dutch botanist George Schneevoogt bestowed Franziska’s married name – Hardenbergia. In south-eastern Australia, Hardenbergia violacea, known as Happy Wanderer or False Sarsparilla, adorns roadsides or colonises quarries due to the wonderful pea trick of harnessing bacterial colonies in its roots to fix atmospheric nitrogen. It also climbs through shrubbery and from late winter glows purple in the local forests (and on our back fence).
Another species, H. perbrevidens, has only recently been described from the Blackdown Tableland in Queensland, while a third, H. comptoniana, brightens up the bush in south-western Australia. This one is remarkable, and perhaps unique, in commemorating the names of two women, the other being Mary Compton, Marchioness of Northampton, who apparently first grew the plant in England.
|Hardenbergia comptoniana, Mount Barker, Western Australia|
Hardenbergias always give me great joy, but I also reflect on the sad count; I hope he got some comfort from them.