flower power

How Britain’s love affair with ‘the world’s most beautiful tree’ blossomed in Calcutta

The story of Amherstia nobilis figures a governor general, a fairy tale, and a landmark day in labour history.

In 1826, John Crawfurd, a veteran British diplomat and administrator, was sent on a mission to Burma by Lord Amherst, the governor general of India. Crawfurd was in the habit of keeping detailed notes and wrote extensively about his travels. Among the curious entries he made was the account of his discovery of a flower that was until then unknown to the British. He saw the flower strewn carelessly in front of a Buddhist cave in Martaban, and even his untrained eyes knew that he had found something special.

“It is...too beautiful an object to be passed unobserved,” he wrote.

Like a good British colonialist, Crawfurd believed he had “discovered” a new genus. This was confirmed by Nathaniel Wallich, superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Calcutta. Crawfurd, who is controversially regarded as the founder of Singapore, had serendipitously chanced upon something that sparked off one of England’s most passionate love affairs with a tree – the soon-to-be-named Amherstia.

How significant was the tree in the colonial imagination? Not only was it counted as one of Calcutta’s tourist attractions, the Amherstia even found itself at the centre of a fairy-tale from British labour history.

Nathaniel Wallich. Lithograph by TH Maguire, 1849. Credit: Welcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0
Nathaniel Wallich. Lithograph by TH Maguire, 1849. Credit: Welcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0

The lady behind the flower

The Amherstia was officially included, through Wallich’s good offices, in a list of over 2,000 new species of plants found in Burma after the provinces ceded to the English East India Company. In his address to the Linnean Society in 1828, Wallich said, “The flowers of this splendid tree are disposed in pyramidal pendulous clusters two feet long, and ten inches broad at the base.” He decided to name it as a tribute to the Countess and Lady Amherst, and it came to be known as Amherstia nobilis.

The naming of things has often been politically motivated and for Crawfurd to flatter the governor-general by naming the flower that “surpasses all Indian plants” after the countess seems predictable. But the Countess, Sarah Amherst (1762-1838), and her daughter Sarah Elizabeth (1801-1876) were naturalists in their own right. Sarah Elizabeth left behind several sketches of the garden inside the Governor’s House, where she and her mother indulged in amateur botany.

Orchid Tree or Pride of Burma (Amherstia nobilis): flowering branch with separate fruit and sectioned ovary. Chromolithograph by P. Depannemaeker, c. 1885, after B. Hoola van Nooten. Picture credit: Welcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0
Orchid Tree or Pride of Burma (Amherstia nobilis): flowering branch with separate fruit and sectioned ovary. Chromolithograph by P. Depannemaeker, c. 1885, after B. Hoola van Nooten. Picture credit: Welcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0

The countess has also had a bird named after her – as she was responsible for sending the first specimen of the Lady Amherst’s Pheasant back to England in 1828. (The governor general, on the other hand, is remembered in Kolkata by the names of streets and squares.)

The Amhersts were not the only botany enthusiasts among the colonial elite. Emily Eden (sister of George Eden or Lord Auckland) wrote letters which bear testimony to her engagement with the subject. Presumably after their family had taken residence at the Governor’s House, on April 6, 1841, she wrote in a letter to the Countess of Buckinghamshire, which marked the origin of her preoccupation: “Lady Amherst made a magnificent garden all round the house, which stands in the centre of what we call a huge compound.”

After the change of governor general, she laments: “Lady William [Bentinck] said flowers were very unwholesome, and had everything rooted out the first week.”

The title page of Plantae Asiaticae Rariores, by Nathaniel Wallich.
The title page of Plantae Asiaticae Rariores, by Nathaniel Wallich.

The Amherstia’s fame spread rapidly. Visitors to Calcutta in the following years would regard it among the city’s tourist attractions. In 1843, one George W Johnson wrote about the “elegant and brilliant Amherstia, with its graceful pale tinted foliage, and long pendulous pink flowers”. In his travelogue, The Stranger in India, he described it as “one of the rarest, and certainly the most beautiful, of trees”. The sentiment was echoed across the Empire, and plants despite all appearances, can travel far and wide.

A few years prior to that, in 1837, the Duke of Devonshire had planned a botanical trip to Calcutta “to collect plants, and to procure the Amherstia nobilis, a plant native of Martaban, ‘unequalled in the flora of the East Indies, and perhaps not surpassed in magnificence and elegance in any part of the world’”. The man on this mission was John Gibson, who had been apprenticed to renowned gardener, Joseph Paxton. Gibson spent time in the Khasi region before taking back two samples of the Amherstia, along with a host of orchids remarkable for their narcissistic naming, recorded by him as Paxtoni, Gibsoni, Wallichii, Wallichiana, and others.

John Gibson
John Gibson

One of the two samples perished on the way. In Seeds of Fortune, writer Sue Shepherd describes the scene: “On arrival, the precious little tree sat in its sealed case in the hall at Devonshire House where the Duke sat eating breakfast with Paxton and ‘lavished their love upon the gem.’” An Amherstia House was built in Chatsworth Garden, where the tree was kept, exclusively to facilitate the growth of the Amherstia, described as “the most beautiful tree in the world, and the only specimen in European Gardens”.

Some sources claim that the one that reached via Gibson did not eventually blossom. The Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette reported in 1859 that “Mr Foy has at length succeeded in flowering the Amherstia nobilis, not the plant originally introduced by Mr Gibson, which has been dead some years”.

In Calcutta, however, the tree met with greater success. During a visit to the Botanic Gardens in 1864, George Ernest Bulger wrote, “I was much gratified by a sight of the world-renowned trees of Amherstia nobilis, albeit the bloom had only just commenced.” But the gardeners informed Bulger that the trees do not produce seeds in Calcutta, being native to a different climate. Over the decades the tree managed to survive and flower even outside the controlled ecosystem of the Botanic Gardens.

Fairy tale ending

The flower reached the pinnacle of fame in 1866 when it became the subject of a fairy tale. The Pall Mall Gazette published a story about a prince and his doctors, who had planted a tree and were waiting for it to grow: “Years and years went by, and the plant made no progress – no flowers grew upon it.” Until one doctor advised the prince to take it out of the grand tub and to place it in a humble pot.

The fairy tale dramatically disclosed that the prince was in fact the Duke of Devonshire and the doctor, Sir Joseph Paxton. The travellers who had brought the tree back were Wallich and his friend Crawfurd. The flower, of course, is the Amherstia nobilis.

This fairy tale was apparently told in the council room of the Horticultural Gardens by James Bateman, vice-president of the society, to 300-odd people who had assembled to see a specimen of the flower. The audience was in for a surprise, as the flames of the splendid Amherstia burst forth at last. Why that particular day? This was the same day that William Gladstone’s brought forward his Reform Bill that proposed enfranchisement of all male urban labourers in England and Wales. Never mind that the fairy tale contradicts more scientific records of its first blossom in England.

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