Charly’s Flower

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones

The emergence of the first buds in early Spring lifts the soul and promises new beginnings on many fronts. Even seeing the same Spring flowers opening year after year is exciting. So imagine how special it must have been in the 18th and 19th centuries for plant collectors and botanists from far off lands to encounter our amazing floral heritage for the first time. Botanists from Europe and Britain competed with each other to collect specimens for their great national botanic gardens as well as for private collectors. Botany was a fashionable and popular interest for both men and women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly amongst the British aristocracy.

In 1798 two young sisters, who were accompanying their parents to India, stopped at the Cape where they ‘…ramble[d] about all day hunting for plants…’ finding ‘…many of the most beautiful…which are poor creatures in England in our hothouses, and which are now…all under my feet…’ The sisters were Harriet (12) and Charlotte (Charly) (11), the daughters of Lord Edward and Lady Henrietta Clive. Lord Edward had been appointed Governor of Madras, and his wife, a feisty and independent woman, had, unusually for that time, decided to accompany him with their two young daughters. Both parents were interested in botany, in fact Lady Henrietta was interested in a wide range of subjects. Their stay in India must have made a lasting impression on the sisters, particularly their journey through South India where they travelled over mountains, through jungles inhabited by tigers, crossed crocodile-infested rivers, mostly camping. They searched for local flora and fauna, shells and rocks and visited East India Company officials and British military representatives as well as Indian polygars [feudal chiefs] and fakeers [Muslim ascetics]. At a certain stage Lady Henrietta said ‘…I see Charly will be very fond of plants…’

Thirty years later, in 1828, Charly’s name was given to a plant which is very popular in Knysna gardens today and seems to have held a particular fascination ever since it was first discovered by British explorers in the early 19th century.  This is the clivia, a member of the beautiful Amaryllis family. Most common in our gardens today is the Clivia miniata, which was first found in the wild in the forests of KwaZulu-Natal. But Charly’s flower is the Clivia nobilis, from the Bathurst region of the Eastern Cape.

How the plant that became known as the Clivia nobilis first arrived in England is full of contradictions. Most agree that Willam Burchell, the traveller and naturalist, was the first person to collect it in September 1813. Some say Burchell wanted to name it a Forest Cyrtanthus; others say he thought it was an agapanthus. Whatever the case Burchell never actually described and named the plant himself.

Others credited James Bowie, a plant collector not noted for his truthfulness, as being the discoverer of the plant in 1822. Bowie wanted the plant to be named after William Townsend Aiton, head of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from 1793-1841. But it was the name given to it by the eminent Kew botanist and horticulturalist, John Lindley that became accepted. Lindley called the plant Clivia nobilis ‘…in compliment to her Grace the Duchess of Northumberland, to who we are greatly indebted for an opportunity of publishing it. Such a compliment has long been due to the noble family of Clive; and we are proud in having the honour of being the first to pay it.’ This was none other than Charly – Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive – who had married the exceedingly wealthy Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland in 1817.  The Northumberlands’ gracious London home is Syon House, very close to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, on the opposite bank of the River Thames.  It was in the gardens at Syon House that the Clivia nobilis first flowered in 1827. Information about and drawings of the plant had been supplied to the botanical world by a certain Mr Forrest.

Richard Forrest, son of a Scottish nurseryman and florist from Dalkeith, was the new, highly-regarded head-gardener who had been appointed to the gardens at Syon House in 1826. Forrest was in close contact with the botanists and plant collectors at Kew having trained under William Aiton. In correspondence between Dr William Jackson Hooker, Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, and the Danish botanist, Dr Nathaniel Wallich in December 1831 there is mention of the clivia at Syon having been ‘migrated’ or ‘deserted per nefas’ [in an improper way] from Kew. We will probably never know exactly what happened. Suffice to say that the acquisition of interesting and exotic plants from distant lands was of great importance to collectors in Britain. The Duke of Northumberland apparently enjoyed displaying ‘his magnificence’ and was fascinated by botany – possibly influenced by his wife.

In 1837 a cousin of Charly’s mother, the Hon Revd William Herbert – exceptional polymath, amateur botanist and botanical illustrator – published an important work on the Amaryllidaceae. In this he disputed the fact that Bowie was the first to bring the clivia to Britain, describing how an army officer stationed at the Eastern Cape frontier had brought him the plant some time before Bowie had even seen it. Herbert was, however, unable to get the plant to flower – that triumph happened in the beautiful gardens of Syon House under the care of Richard Forrest and the encouragement of both Charly and her husband the Duke of Northumberland.

Admin note:  We have been  corrected on numerous occasions  on how to  pronounce Clivia correctly –  (KLY-vee-uh)   Your pronunciation of  “KLIV-ee-ah”  to rhyme with “trivia” is not entirely wrong,  according to Sir Peter Smithers, “Botanical Latin is a written language, not a spoken one.” Botanical Latin is intended to be an international language. When it comes to pronunciations, all are right, none is wrong. What matters is that the person you are speaking with understands what plant you are talking about. So don’t let any language snobs bully you!