During our recent Botany Blitz where we were cracking open boxes that have been patiently waiting to be processed and databased, we catalogued many specimens, learned new things about our collections, and discovered many fascinating stories along the way. Botany Curator Heidi Meudt talks about delving into a folder of what she thought might be the first documented collection of a hebe cultivar from the 1920s, and her findings.
A plant cultivar mystery
One of the boxes I tackled had a folder of specimens labelled “Veronica hartiana”. Searches online and in books and journals found very little information, and it appeared that this name had never been published. However there were some search hits on the name Hebe ‘Hartii’ (or Veronica ‘Hartii’), which is listed as a registered cultivar in the 2001 book, International Register of Hebe Cultivars by Lawrie Metcalf.
Cultivars are cultivated varieties of plants that have distinctive or interesting characteristics that people grow for horticultural, ornamental or agricultural uses. Cultivars may have been created in the garden using hybridisation or artificial breeding, or they may have been selected from plants growing in the wild. The names of cultivars begin with the scientific name (in italics) or common name, followed by the cultivar name (capitalized and in single quotes). Since the mid-1800s, over 800 different hebe cultivars (genus Veronica) have been created by English, French and New Zealand plant breeders.
Darton and Hart – plant collectors and horticulturalists
The folder contained six specimens, most of which were collected by Henry Darton in 1922 and 1923 (and annotated by Donald Petrie). Henry Lawrence Darton (1863–1947) and his friend Henry Hart (1865–1944) were avid plant collectors and plant breeders, and hebes were clearly some of their favourites. Of the 82 total specimens in Te Papa’s collection collected by Henry Darton (75 specimens), Henry Hart (7 specimens), or both of them together (6 specimens), 73 of them are hebes!
An Otago Daily Times article in a series entitled ‘Romance of the New Zealand Flora’ from 1922 details – with great enthusiasm – how Darton and Hart went about their botanical work. They visited many public and private gardens, studied herbarium specimens, “traversed the mountains near their own district” to make their own collections, and gratefully received collections from other botanists around the country.
By the early 1920s, they had built up quite a collection of Veronica plants at their nursery at Wetherstones, near Lawrence, Otago with another 1922 Otago Daily Times article suggesting they had almost all of the New Zealand species growing there!
Darton and Hart were clearly well connected and well respected in the New Zealand botanical world, and in fact, Donald Petrie named Veronica dartoni after Henry Darton when he described it in 1924. Petrie explained: “This plant is named in honour of Mr. H. L. Darton, of the Lawrence High School, who, in conjunction with Mr. H. Hart, has done so much to create public interest in the varied forms of this genus.”
Finding clues on 100-year-old plant specimen labels
Based on the label of one of the specimens I found during the Botany Blitz, it appears that Petrie may have intended to name these Veronica plants after Henry Hart.
Felix Cox (1837–1915) lived on the Rēkohu | Chatham Islands and sent many botanical specimens to botanists to mainland New Zealand. One of them was this Te Papa specimen of the Chatham Island endemic prostrate species, Veronica chathamica:
A Rēkohu | Chatham Island origin for Veronica ‘Hartii’?
A letter from Ms Erica Baillie, Secretary of the New Zealand Alpine Rock Garden Society (Inc.) dated 2 Dec 1941 which accompanies plant specimen SP115159 goes a step further, writing, “Dear Sirs, This Veronica (Hebe) is the one I would be pleased to have identified. Baker [?] said that Captain Hooper of the Amokura ? brought it back from one of the outlying islands. It is absolutely prostrate and is about the best of the NZers.”
This letter is interesting on several fronts. First, Ms Baillie had grown this plant in her garden in Wellington, so this shows the plant was being cultivated by New Zealand gardeners two decades after Darton’s specimens were collected. Second, and perhaps most importantly, she mentions that her plant is “absolutely prostrate”, which may be a clue that V. ‘Hartii’ is V. chathamica, or closely related to it.
Third, it suggests Captain George Samuel Hooper may have been involved in transporting viable material to mainland New Zealand. From 1907 to 1921, Hooper captained the training ship Amokura, making numerous voyages to several subantarctic and other offshore New Zealand Islands. These trips were training exercises for 13–15-year-old boys to train them to become sailors.
Hooper appears to have been interested in natural history, and Te Papa has several of his photographs from a whaling expedition to the Ross Sea in 1924 as well as a handful of his plant specimens:
Is the hundred-year-old mystery solved?
Darton’s and Baillie’s specimens, and the notes written on them, show that Veronica ‘Hartii’ was likely first collected on the Chatham Islands by Felix Cox, transported to the South Island (perhaps by Captain Hooper?), given to a solicitor in Timaru, finally emerging as a cultivated plant at Lawrence in the garden of Darton & Hart in the early 1920s. From there, specimens were sent to Donald Petrie (and eventually Te Papa), and the cultivated plants spread to Ms Baillie’s garden in Wellington, and beyond.
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 (like Cox’s specimen SP005295 shown above) and they match most of the characters in other botanists’ descriptions of V. chathamica. If you look closely at one of Darton’s specimens shown above (SP115152), you will see it even has one plant labelled as V. chathamica. Perhaps the Darton Hart Project – which is recreating some of the gardens at Lawrence – will shed some additional light on this hundred-year-old mystery!
Thanks to Phil Garnock-Jones, Eleanor Burton, Leon Perrie, Siobhan Leachman, and Ben Hart for their comments and assistance with this blog.