Charles Curtis (botanist) - Plant Hunting

Plant Hunting

In 1878, Harry Veitch despatched him to Mauritius and Madagascar, from where he sent seeds of Nepenthes madagascariensis, a species of pitcher plant, and various other tropical plants, including Angraecum sesquipedale. Unfortunately, following "treachery" by one of the African helpers, who cut the rope which held the raft on which the plants were being floated downriver, the first consignment of plants collected was lost and, as a result, the collecting work had to be repeated.

Curtis returned to England in 1879, but a year later was sent to the Dutch East Indies, where he explored Borneo, Sumatra, Java and the Moluccas. Veitch instructed him to collect specimens of Nepenthes northiana, which had been discovered by Marianne North in Borneo, although the precise locality where the plant grew was unknown. On the trip to Borneo, Curtis was accompanied by a young gardener, David Burke, who later became a plant collector himself. The search for the elusive pitcher plant was unsuccessful, but the pair discovered many other species, including many interesting stove (hot-house) plants, palms, and orchids. At the end of the trip, Curtis accompanied Burke to Singapore, from where Burke returned to England with the collection of plants, including large consignments of the slipper orchids, Paphiopedilum stonei and P. lowii, as well as many Vandas, Rhododendrons, and the beautiful foliage plant for British hot-houses, Leea amabilis.

From Singapore, Curtis travelled to Pontianak in Dutch Borneo, with the special object of obtaining a consignment of Phalaenopsis violacea, then known in England but still rare. He was successful in locating the plant, but again, owing to a mishap with the boat, a month's collections and all his clothes and instruments were lost, and he narrowly escaped with his life.

In 1882, Curtis eventually located Nepenthes northiana in Borneo and sent seeds back to Chelsea, as well as N. stenophylla and seed from a plant that became known as N. curtisii, although now known as N. maxima. Curtis was not meticulous in recording where he located individual plants – although it was originally believed that he collected N. curtisii in Borneo, Charles Clarke points out that he also visited Sulawesi on the same trip, and N. maxima is common there. He also sent back the orchid which was originally named Paphiopedilum curtisii, although now known as a synonym for Paphiopedilum superbiens; Curtis did not reveal where he found the plants, other than saying that this was in Sumatra.

According to the account in Hortus Veitchii, Curtis had been commissioned to go in search of Nepenthes northiana, and

"after long and unsuccessful effort, Curtis gave up hope, under the impression that Miss North had been wrongly informed, but fortunately before leaving the district it occurred to him to look over a steep escarpment in the hill-side, accomplished by lying prostrate on the ground, when to his great joy he discovered the long-looked-for plant some distance below. He succeeded in gathering ripe capsules, and lost no time in transmitting them to Chelsea, where the seed soon germinated",

and was introduced in the James Veitch & Sons catalogue in 1883.

Other plants introduced to England by Curtis, include two species of Vireya rhododendron – Rhododendron multicolor (with the red variety Curtisii named after him) and R. teysmannii (now considered to be subspecies of R. javanicum) – before he terminated his engagement with Veitch early in 1884.

Read more about this topic:  Charles Curtis (botanist)

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