The year 1958 is remembered for many significant events and milestones. Elvis joined the army. De Gaulle, bearing a more than passing resemblance to Peter Sellers, became presidential founder of the Fifth Republic of France. A child prodigy, Bobby Fischer, became the US world chess champion. In the antipodes the state of Victoria, by way of official parliamentary decree and with the blessing of one Henry Bolte, Premier, the pink form of the common heath (Epacris impressa), was adopted as the official emblem of the state.
Victoria was the very first state in the country to adopt a floral emblem, a fashionable act that every state and territory would follow soon after. The Victorians have been horticultural trendsetters ever since. To me the history surrounding the scientific discovery and description of the common heath is no less interesting than the plant itself. The common heath is in full flower around the state right now, coinciding with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on Napoleon that has a little known connection with the state’s floral emblem.
The common heath is named such in the vernacular due to its widespread distribution and not some throwback to nineteenth century Britain where the word ‘common’ was used to describe the grubby working classes. The common heath is far from common in appearance, punctuating the many shades of green in the Australian bush with its brightly coloured flowers, which range from pure white to deep burgundy and all shades of pink in between. It usually forms drifts of colonies that just beg to be admired, standing out so strongly from their surrounds that it is impossible to miss them. Some epacris plants flower so profusely that they superficially resemble little bottlebrushes sticking out of the ground. What has all this to do with Napoleon, you ask?
The man responsible for naming the common heath, Jacques Labillardière, collected the first specimen known to science as part of a Napoleon-endorsed expedition to find missing explorer La Pérouse in the late eighteenth century. Labillardière collected the first specimen in 1793 somewhere in Tasmania. His eventual full description of the new species appeared in the early 1800s after some trouble retrieving his scientific specimens off the British, who had commandeered them as war booty after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792. Labillardière’s specimens were returned to him from the Brits in a very magnanimous act to ensure that the then gentlemen-only pursuit of science remained gentlemanly. In the early 1800s Labillardière published the very first detailed account of the flora of Australia somewhat unapproachably titled Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, in which he describes and names the common heath Epacris impressa.
The two volumes of this very work are on display as part of the Napoleon exhibition now showing at the NGV until early October. Housed in a room devoted to Napoleon’s wife and her love of Australian flora and fauna, the gardening-inclined are very much encouraged to get along to see it. I had a limited knowledge of Josephine Bonaparte’s fascination for Australian plants and animals before I visited. Her interest in the flora of our country was extensive to say the least and many contemporary artifacts such as hand-coloured plates of original botanical etchings are wonderfully displayed in the exhibition. It was an unexpected treat for this gardener when I visited the gallery last week.