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Blandfordia in History

Tony Cavanagh

In common with so many of our native plants, Blandfordia was extensively grown in Great Britain in the nineteenth century as a greenhouse and conservatory plant. All four specimens were grown, most being introduced under different names. Some of these introductions were undoubtedly hybrids as the genus is known to produce hybrids. A hybrid between B.cunninghamii and "B.flammea" (B.grandiflora) was deliberately produced in 1874.

The name Blandfordia was chosen by the English botanist Sir James Edward Smith in 1804, based on specimens supplied by the Colonial Surgeon John White from Port Jackson. Apparently, Smith was so impressed by the specimens (which were of the least attractive member of the genus) that he decided to commemorate a worthy patron of horticulture, George Spencer Churchill, the Marquis of Blandford who owned an extensive estate near Reading, England. The name Smith gave was Blandfordia nobilis, a species found on the heaths south of Sydney almost to the Victorian border.

The next to be named was B.punicea, but it carried the name Aletris punicea given by its discoverer Jacques de Labillardiere in 1805. The English horticulturist Robert Sweet in a listing of plants then being cultivated in England and published in 1830, correctly identified it as a Blandfordia. It was subsequently known for many years, especially in the nursery trade, as "Blandfordia marginata". Blandfordia punicea is endemic to Tasmania where apparently it is widespread, usually growing in moist, acid soils.

The remaining two species are confined to eastern Australia and both are noted for their large, showy flowers and the large number of flowers per plant, as many as 20. Blandfordia grandiflora was named by Robert Brown in 1810 from specimens he had collected near the Hunter river. Possibly because he had not seen Labillardiere's Aletris punicea, Brown cited his species in synomy with a query, a suggestion that caused considerable confusion among botanists and horticulturists alike as to exactly what the "true" B.grandiflora was. For many years, it has also been called "B.flammea" while the golden form was given the name "B.aurea".

The last species to be described, B.cunninghamii, is confined to a restricted area of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and is extremely showy. Cunningham collected the original specimens but due to the variability of plants in the field, he failed to recognize a new species and instead labelled it "a very luxuriant specimen of B.nobilis". John Lindley was to name the species after Cunningham in 1845.

Cultivation of Blandfordia in 19th Century Britain

At about the same time as White's dried specimens of Blandfordia nobilis were reaching Smith, seed reached English nurseries. However, it wasn't until 1818 that the first Blandfordia was flowered in cultivation, at Whiteley and Brames' nursery in London, presumably from a plant imported from Botany Bay.

Several other nurseries were to grow this species in subsequent years, Stockwells in the early 1820s and Colvilles in 1824 where "growing in the open border of a conservatory... it flowered in great beauty and profusion". It had been raised from seeds collected by a Mr. John Richardson but such was the confusion which existed with identification that it was described as "B.grandiflora". This confusion existed right through the century and most of the illustrations in horticultural magazines of the period referring to "B.grandiflora" are of B.nobilis, albeit with generally larger flowers than normal.

The first "true" Blandfordia grandiflora was illustrated in Paxton's Magazine of Gardening and Botany of 1849 under the name of "B.flammea". It was introduced through Messrs Low and Son of Clapton from seed collected on the banks of the Hunter river. Though new to cultivation, the writer tells us that "it has been known for some years in a dried state, Dr. Lindley having specimens four feet in length, received from Port Stephens."

Blandfordia grandiflora - Illustration by Edward William Minchen, (1862-1913) .
Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (34k).

In 1854, Curtis' Botanical Magazine was to sing the praises of what was "unquestionably the most beautiful and distinct of all", another specimen of "B.flammea". This had an interesting history - "The root (i.e., plant or division) was brought from the Sydney Botanical Garden (under the name of B.grandiflora) four years ago by Lord Walter Butler, to the Countess of Carrick, who presented it to Sydney from Hunter's River..." The account goes on to say "Dr. Mackay's specimen had the flower stalk three feet and a half high and in all had fifteen flowers on it...". Truly, this must have been a spectacular sight.

Finally, in 1869 the golden form of Blandfordia grandiflora made an appearance under the name "Blandfordia aurea", imported by the nurserymen Veitch and Sons from New South Wales.

Although Blandfordia punicea was first named in 1805 and recognized as a Blandfordia in 1830, it wasn't until 1842 that a plant was flowered in England, at the Fulham nursery of Messrs. Osborne and Co. It came from Tasmania but the collector is unknown. Three years later, it was again illustrated in Edwards Botanical Register where the flowers were described as being of a "deep copper colour instead of half red and half yellow" and as forming "a nearly regular cone". One specimen examined by Lindley at the time had 23 flowers (which) "must have made a splendid appearance when alive". The plants described in the article were given two names , "B.marginata" (on account of the roughness on the edge of the leaves), and "B.Backhousii" (after the botanical collector James Backhouse) and were collected in Tasmania by the well known amateur botanist, Ronald Gunn. The cultivation notes advise growers that because it came from damp places, the plant required a good supply of water over summer.

When introduced in 1868 by Messrs. E. G. Henderson and Sons, Blandfordia cunninghamii was described as "by far the most handsome and profuse flowerer". Certainly the plant illustrated had very large showy flowers but little is known of the origin of the seed except that it came from the Blue Mountains.

Cultivation of Blandfordia

In the 1880s, Blandfordia were still popular and a very detailed article by W. Bull in The Garden of October 27, 1883, described the species then being grown and illustrated a form of B.cunninghamii. His opening sentence is worth repeating - "This beautiful genus of Lilaceous plants must take a foremost position amongst the many garden treasures we owe to Australia. It is by far the finest representative of the order to which it belongs...". Blandfordias were not regarded as "difficult" to cultivate although Bull tells us "They require a little extra attention, and in return for it will yield freely their spikes of brilliantly coloured flowers, which remain in good condition on the plants for several weeks". They were treated as cool greenhouse plants, potted in a mixture of sandy loam and peat or course sand and peat, and kept out of direct sunlight in the summer. All growers emphasized careful and regular watering, with regular "syringing" (foliage watering) in warm weather. Liquid manure was recommended when the plants were beginning to bloom.

Propagation was by seed or divisions although Blandfordia rarely set seed in England. Division was recommended in early spring although "care should be taken not to cut the rootstock too severely or disaster will result"; waiting until some good offsets were produced was suggested. Bull indicated that plants actually grew better in a peat bed in a conservatory providing it was not too shaded but conceded that most plants would still be grown in pots. As late as 1895, blandfordias were still in cultivation in England.

Finally, it is interesting to note that at least one hybrid was raised in England, "Blandfordia flammea-elegans", a hybrid between B.grandiflora and B.cunninghamii. It was grown by the nursery firm of E. G. Henderson and Son in 1874 but little more is know about it. In the field, B.nobilis and B.grandiflora hybridize readily, and specimens which could represent hybrids of B.grandiflora and B.cunninghamii have been found in the Blue Mountains. It is thus highly likely that several of the "named" species of the last century may represent hybrids, e.g., "B.marginata" may represent one of the intermediate forms between B.grandiflora and B.nobilis while Bentham's B.grandiflora var. elongata probably represents a hybrid between B.grandiflora and B.cunninghamii.

This article is reprinted from the March 1996 issue of "Australian Plants", the journal of the Society for Growing Australian Plants.

Tony Cavanagh has been growing Australian plants since the early 1970s and has had a long time interest in members of the Proteaceae, notably banksias and dryandras. He formed the Dryandra Study Group and is currently the Group's newsletter editor. In recent years he has been able to follow up information on the growing of Australian plants in England and Europe and has published several articles and lists of plants which were cultivated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He has other interests which include documenting the work done in other countries on Australian pest plants and producing a regular bibliography of articles on studies of banksias. Tony is currently Document Delivery Librarian at Deakin University-- useful in researching these topics.

The illustration of Blandfordia grandiflora by Edward William MINCHEN (1862-1913) is from 'The Flowering Plants and Ferns of New South Wales - Part 5' (1896), by J H Maiden, NSW Government Printing Office. Minchen was born in Perth (Western Australia) and had a varied career, following the sea, various trades and the stage, before attending the National Art Gallery. He later worked as a lithographic artist in New South Wales for the Lands Department, the Survey Office and the Government Printer.

Other illustrations by Edward Minchen can be seen at the Australian National Botanic Gardens' web site.

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Australian Plants online - December 1998
The Society for Growing Australian Plants