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A flower in memory of a young artist

November 5, 2012

The plant genus Chorisia (Malvaceae) was created in honour of the German-Russian artist Ludwig Louis Choris who was tragically murdered by robbers in Mexico in 1828, only 33 years old.

Luckily, the plant name was coined by the German botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth (1788-1850) while Louis Choris was still alive (in 1821 or 1822). The reason this young man was awarded such an honour, was his phenomenal ability to ‘paint nature as he found it’. Young Louis Choris had joined the Romanzoff (Rumyantsev, Romanzov) expedition in 1816, which aimed at finding the northeast passage and exploring the Pacific (Alaska was a Russian territory at the time).

What about the plant bearing his name? Kunth worked on describing species from South America collected by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland and the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. In the collection was a large splendid flower in the mallow family, with peculiar 2-lobed staminodes surrounding the base of the fused stamens. He thought this characteristic was so different from other mallows he erected a new genus: Chorisia, and the species was Chorisia crispifolia.

In 1828 two other similar species were distinguished by the French botanist Auguste Francois César Prouvencale de Saint-Hilaire (1779-1853); Chorisia pubiflorum (with free stamens) and Chorisia speciosa (broader petals). As it turns out, all three species can hybridize and today’s American garden market is full of ‘hybrids’. Kirsten Llamas wrote that a species identification is highly subjective, and I think these three species and all hybrids could be considered one species (C. crispifolia). For further discussions on the species concept see my blog on calamondin.

At present, Kew Garden considers all Chorisia to be part of Ceiba (the kapok genus), and so Chorisia would be an obsolete genus name. However, like with Michelia (Magnoliaceae), Chorisia would give instant information about how the flowers look like, so the genus name is useful and I like to keep the memory of the talented Ludwig Louis Choris alive.

The vendor at Chiang Mai’s Khamtieng flower market could not give any information about the plant other than it was from Hawaii. Being grafted it is likely to be a garden cultivar. The fused stamens and spatula-like petals would indicate C. speciosa or a ‘hybrid’, but since I believe they are all conspecific the scientific name should be Chorisia crispifolia. In the Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil, it grows in the wild in a climate similar to ours, i.e. seasonally wet and dry, and so we planted it in Dokmai Garden’s South American section at a place where the sprinklers can not reach it. Like with our native Bombax ceiba, it will first shed its leaves as a response to drought and then flower.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

(Precipitation report: October only got 12 mm of rain: 2 mm on October 5th, 5 mm on October 6th and 5 mm on October 31st. Earlier this night on November 4th-5th we received 5 mm of rain, which is highly unusual. Apparently the Thai government is seeding clouds to save some rice harvests from the devastating drought. Whether this rain was natural or not is hard to tell.)

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