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A glimpse into the past of Charles Darwin

The young Charles Darwin by Ellen Sharples

Nick Wray and Christopher Weddell with the Botanic team.

6 March 2017

The first, a tender, winter growing, South African bulb called Lachenalia aloides was grown at Darwin’s family home, The Mount in Shrewsbury when he was a small boy, said Nick Wray Botanic Garden Curator. ‘I have long been fascinated by a plant that can be seen held by a seven year old Charles Darwin in a portrait of him drawn in chalk by artist Ellen Sharples in 1816’. When grown in a cool glasshouse the plant flowers in February and is often in full bloom around the time of Darwin’s Birthday 12 February. ‘I have long thought that this plant was Lachenalia aloides, because of the shape and colour of the inflorescence, particularly the distinctive green-blue markings at the tip of the flower tube.  One can imagine the young Charles and his sister Catherine Emily being asked to sit for their portrait to in and around the time of Charles birthday.

The portrait was completed in 1816, around the date of Darwin’s 7th Birthday and he is with his sister Catherine Emily. It is a magnificent piece done using chalk on paper, by the artist Ellen Wallace Sharples (1769-1849), who was settled in Bristol at the time - not far from the first University of Bristol Botanic Garden in Clifton.

Confirmation of the plant came on the 11 February when Nick Wray was asked to give a talk at the annual Shrewsbury Darwin Festival. David Wood Editor of the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church newsletter wrote:

'Shrewsbury Unitarian Church was packed out on Saturday afternoon, 11th February, to listen to Nicholas Wray, the Curator of Bristol Botanic Garden. He'd travelled up to give us a fascinating and entertaining lecture on 'The Evolution of Flowers'. In his beautifully illustrated talk he updated us on the latest changes in plant taxonomy and nomenclature, and introduced us the many and various ways flowers have evolved to ensure they are pollinated, whether by bees, beetles or birds. One of the fascinating insights was how bees can use the negative charge on flowers to decide which ones to visit and so avoid wasting energy in going into blooms where there was no nectar’.

‘He concluded by showing us a chalk drawing of Charles Darwin as a young boy holding a pot of Lachenalia aloides (which is reproduced on the front cover of this edition). This non-hardy plant from South Africa would have been quite rare in the early 1800s and would have to have been glasshouse grown. To connect us to this picture of Darwin Nick had brought up a pot of the same flower - and here he is holding it after his talk’.

In an article for the Garden History Society by Susan Campbell a number of plant lists for The Mount in Shrewsbury are published. One titled ‘Plants Grown in the Hothouse, Stove and Vinery’ lists Lachenalia pendula. This is the old name for Lachenalia bulbifera, a plant usually with red, tubular flowers. Nick points out that an orange form is known in the wild, but not yellow as appears in the portrait. If this is the plant that the young Darwin is holding, as Nick suggests, the plant was probably being growing under the wrong name and should be called Lachenalia aloides.

Artist Ellen Sharples

Ellen painted the portrait in 1816. She and her husband had gone back and forth between England and America. They had met in Bath and he was her tutor. But when he died in 1810, she moved to an apartment in Clifton with her two children (also artists) in 1811. She made her living doing portraits, as did her children. When she died in 1849, she left a substantial sum to the Bristol Academy which was instrumental in financing Bristol's first art gallery, now the Royal West of England Academy.

The second, is the Black Mulberry, Morus nigra. And is connected with Darwin’s own home at Down House in Kent. Nick Wray learnt from English Heritage Senior Gardens Advisor Christopher Weddell that Darwin’s original Black Mulberry had fallen into decline and was in danger of dying out. To preserve the species and establish new plants Christopher had asked the Head Gardener at Down House to propagate the Mulberry. This was successful and one of the few young plants established from this original tree will be presented to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden on Friday 3 March. Nick Wray Curator of the Botanic Garden said ‘I am delighted that we are fortunate to be able to receive one of these special young Black Mulberry trees from the original plant once grown by Charles Darwin. We don’t currently have this species in the Botanic Garden and this valuable addition to our collections will help enrich are plant displays both botanically and culturally’.  Christopher Weddell said, ‘it’s important to keep propagating plants like these to ensure their genetic stock continues for the next generation. I delighted to be able to offer a plant to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, a garden well-known for its evolutionary theme, strong links to teaching and where I started my horticultural career as a trainee horticulturist in 1992’.

The propagation project has taken two years to complete and the new plant at Botanic Garden will form part of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Display.