James BeattieEpacris impressa – a history

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.

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4 thoughts on “Epacris impressa – a history

  1. bernhardfeistel on said:

    Plants and their association in/with (also personal) history is always a fascinating topic. Thank you for this post, James. Do you know Anna Pavord’s (of tulips’ fame) The Naming of Names? This is a treasure trove of connections and associations. It was interesting to learn that Josephine is not only connected with roses. And the common heath is so powerful when in bloom (I’ll send a picture to C.S.).

    (I slightly disagree, though, with the date when Bobby Fischer became world chess champion.)

  2. helen mckerral on said:

    Hi James
    Epacris is in flower right now throughout my Adelaide Hills. I love the variability of this plant – not just in flower colour, but in plant habit. Most plants asre a bit sprawly, but several times I’ve come across a particularly compact, floriferous plant and thought, “Hmmm, cultivar potential!”.

    • James Beattie on said:

      They do have cultivar potential, Helen, that’s for sure! There are number of CVs out there, Cranbourne Bells being one that’s pretty speccy which has double flowers. But the trick seems to be getting them to grow with some degree of long term perennation. My experience with them as a horticultural plant is that they’re best grown as annuals or biennials as they don’t seem to last long beyond a year or two in the garden. That being said I have seen specimens grow beyond these time constraints, with the most long-lived being in gardens that have either a fair amount of indigenous vegetation to begin with or at least a variety of planted native grasses that are known to be local in the area. My guess is there’s some kind of native mychorrhizal association that’s needed for them to survive long-term.

      And Bernhard – my apologies on the Bobby Fischer claim. It appears 1958 was the year he won the US chess championship, not the world championships!

  3. Stu Burns on said:

    One of my favourite plants from a favourite family. It shoudl be far more widely grown in formal planting, but there are still problems with propagation, which I spent some time working on during my PhD project, only to swap plant genera to take on a broader study.

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