A few years ago, whilst researching Polyscias (commonly called Aralia) cultivars for a magazine article, I came across mention of their discovery and introduction by William Guilfoyle during his voyage on the HMS Challenger in 1868. I was surprised to learn this was the same W R Guilfoyle (1840 – 1912) who later became the famous curator at the Melbourne Botanic Garden.
This discovery helped resolve many of my questions. How had the many popular plants from the Pacific Islands – Acalypha, Cordyline, Codiaeum (croton), Polyscias, and Pseuderanthemum plants arrive in Queensland? Who had introduced them? And finally, why had they remained so popular after all these years? Frequently older gardeners told me that these plants were grown by their grandparents, and yet in recent years, many of these plants were being promoted as being new introductions to Australia. What had created this confusion?
But Guilfoyle’s travels on HMS Challenger resulted in more than just plant introductions. I believe they also influenced his garden designs, his use of plants, and in turn have influenced Australian gardeners to this day. These gardens evoke far away places, lost paradises and a continued love of exotic foliage. I also believe that Guilfoyle’s plants and the way they have been used in tropical and subtropical Australia is unlike other warm climate regions and the aesthetics, like the plants, have more to do with the South Pacific.
William Guilfoyle introduced many plants. In fact this may have been the single largest introduction of new plants to Australia. These included 100 Cordyline (50 green and 50 coloured), Acalypha, Croton, Polyscias, Pseuderanthemum, Hibiscus, Pandanus, palms and many other plants. A box containing an inventory of these plants and specimens is lodged at the University of Melbourne Library. One day I hope to open this box and investigate the inventory and other contents.
Guilfoyle recorded in detail many of the plants he found and introduced. These include one of my ‘all time favourites’, popularly known as Cordyline fruticosa ‘Schubertii’ in Queensland. This is one of the most widely grown Cordyline fruticosa cultivars in Australia and I have numerous specimens in my own garden. It is also one of the largest of the colourful cordylines. The plant is very drought hardy, grows in full sun, is a vigorous grower and has distinctive orange striped leaves. It is also sterile, refusing to set seeds.
Guilfoyle wrote in the Horticultural Bulletin London:
“Cordyline sheperdii is noted to be the most beautiful introductions of recent years, in form of the foliage and also colour of the petals. But it is distinguished by the strangely coloured and large longtitudinal bands of obliques which give it a very great originality”.
Guilfoyle notes that he tried to locate seed in the wild, but that the local people told him it that it was never produced on this plant. This was 146 years ago. They were right. The plant is sterile and this has perplexed hybridist for the intervening years.
Guilfoyle records discovering Cordyline sheperdii growing in a forested valley in Fiji. To this day this plant is known as Cordyline ‘Fiji’ in New Zealand. Few Cordyline fruticosa cultivars are hardy enough to grow outside in New Zealand’s far north, however this cultivar rises to the occasion – suggesting it should be more widely grown in Sydney and Melbourne.
It is commonly referred to as Cordyline fruticosa ‘Schubertii’ in Australia, however the Brisbane Nursery, Perrotts, in catalogues from the 1950s refers to it as Dracaena sheperdii (cordylines were known as draceanas at the time and plant cultivars were generally described as species). It has been proposed that the Sheperd Nursery in Sydney may have been one of the sponsors of Guilfoyle’s voyage, hence the name.
Hand coloured plates from the Victorian period show this plant as Cordyline gloriosa. It seems that John Gould Veitch took many plants from Guilfoyle’s Exotic Nursery back to the Chelsea nursery, James Veitch and Sons, following his visits there. They were also renamed and described by the botanist E.F Andre.
Cordyline fruticosa ‘Baptistii’ retained its name for a little longer. It was collected by Guilfoyle on the island of Aneityum in Vanuatu. Named for the Baptist family, possible sponsors who also ran a nursery in Sydney, it is widely grown in Australia and is still being grown under this name. However in the 1990s it was reintroduced from Hawaii under the name ‘Kilauea’ and is more widely known by that name in Queensland.
Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Compacta’ was discovered and named by Guilfoyle, and is a popular hedging plant in Queensland and the Northern Territory. It is long-lived, vigorous, dense and responds well to regular pruning. A sport of this plant discovered in the Northern Territory has been marketed as Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Inferno’ in Australia and overseas and is now one of the most popular Acalypha cultivars in cultivation.
Guilfoyle discovered and brought back many Polyscias cultivars from the Pacific. These are extremely hardy and long-lived shrubs and small trees and large and ancient specimens can be found in older gardens in Brisbane. They are popularly known as aralias by older gardeners but are practically unknown by younger gardeners. This is a great shame as they are hardy, narrow and dense and make great screening plants for today’s smaller gardens.
Polyscias have great spiritual significance to the peoples of the Pacific and South East Asia. They are thought to originate in Malaysia and were taken by the voyagers with them during their colonisation of the region. There are four species and numerous cultivars commonly grown. One of them is Polyscias guilfoylei.
Crotons are synonymous with coastal northern Australia. Guilfoyle introduced many outstanding cultivars. Many were named after the voyage and its probable sponsors including Croton guilfoylei, Croton challenger and Croton andersonii. Of course all these plants are now considered cultivars of Codeaum variegatum. Some of these plants, such as the Ramshorn Croton (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Recurvifolium’), are popular garden plants to this day.
One of the most popular tropical plants grown around the world is the strikingly variegated Pandanus tectorius ‘Baptistii’. This spineless Pandanus originated in the Solomon Islands and has striking yellow stripes down the centre of each leaf.
Guilfoyle documented his travels in great detail. He was observant and had a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the vegetation of the region. He described many locations that I am familiar with myself. As a youngster I lived for a period with my family in Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides) and have visited many other Pacific islands, then, and in more recent years. Guilfoyle describes in great detail visiting the live volcano, Mt Yasur, on Tanna, a visit I made many years ago myself. It is humbling to think that he did this at a time when these places were quite dangerous for foreign visitors, and that this was almost 150 years ago.
After his voyage, Guilfoyle moved north to northern New South Wales where he grew sugar and tobacco at Cudgen in the Tweed Valley. Many of his plant introductions must have performed more vigorously in this climate and it is likely they moved from this location to gardens in northern New South Wales and Queensland.
And now to the mystery regarding the introductions of plants to Australia……. During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of people including Ron Hilder, Dennis Hundscheidt and Bruce Dunstone introduced plants from Hawaii. As discussed, many older gardeners claimed the plants had already been grown in Australia.
If we investigate, we find many of these plants were introduced to Hawaii by the curator of the Lyon Arboretum (then the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association Experimentation Station), Dr Harold L. Lyon. Lyon sourced many of his ornamental plant introductions from Eugene Andre, who had a famed garden of exotic plants on the island of Trinidad.
Eugene André was a renowned horticulturist, botanist and collector. His name is immortalized in the names of many plants, which he is credited as introducing into cultivation, such as Anthurium andraeanum, Pitcairnia andraeanum, Tillandsia andraeanum and Cordyline fruticosa ‘Madame Eugene Andre’. He was a great friend of John Gould Veitch and described many of his plants (remember the Cordyline gloriosa saga noted earlier?) It seems many plant introductions went back and forth between England and Trinidad. In turn Veitch had sourced many of his plant introductions from the Guilfoyle nursery.
It seems that some of Guilfoyle’s plants have travelled around the globe and back to Australia.
I continue to search the internet for articles regarding William Guilfoyle’s voyage on HMS Challenger, the Guilfoyle nursery and gardening trends last century. Guilfoyle was a prolific writer so I am sure more of his articles will surface.