Clivia gardenii was named for this many-sided man: professional soldier, civil servant, a gifted and observant journal writer, a prickly personality; a talented amateur, geologist, artist and a plant collector of note. He is also something of a mystery, as is his gardenii.
I say this because there is no trace of him or his parentage in the birth records of England, Scotland or Wales; nor a record of where and when he died. As for his plant, all that we know is that it was found somewhere in Natal. Annoyingly, he does not seem to have recorded the exact vicinity.
My guess is that Garden was born in India around 1820 and may eventually have died there, after an army career from 1839 to 1854 in India and South Africa, two years in Britain, and then consular service in India from 1856 to 1862.
He came to South Africa with his regiment to fight in the Frontier Wars in the Eastern Cape, and was thereafter stationed in Natal, mainly based at Pietermaritzburg, from 1848 to 1853. He joined up in 1839 and rose to Major in 1854, the year in which he retired from the army. By my reckoning he would then have been in his mid-thirties.
Garden was said to be a heavily built man, capable, but with little sense of humour, who quarrelled with his commanding officer and many others. He was sent to find a new way through the Drakensberg to what is now the Free State, but could not find a suitable pass. He was also sent on other official trips, maybe to get him out of his boss’s hair! Maybe it is also not a coincidence that he seems to have spent much of his own time (out on his own?) on ox-wagon trips collecting plants and geological specimens.
With an easy pen he recorded most of what he saw and heard; about plants, people and the history of Natal as it was unfolding. His journals, in which he was critical of Boers, Brits, missionaries, wagon drivers and others, are preserved in the Garden Collection in the Natal Archives in Pietermaritzburg. Several of his drawings and watercolour paintings, which show that he was an artist of some merit, are in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban.
Hooker mentions that when Garden arrived in England from South Africa he delivered an interesting collection of living plants to Kew Gardens, on which several new species were based, e.g. Clivia gardenii, Streptocarpus gardenii , Begonia natalensis , and Hypoxis latifolia . The clivia plant flowered at Kew in the English winter of 1855/6 and was subsequently described by Hooker in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1856. He abandoned the genus name of Imantophyllum (“strap-like leaves”) that he had initially used back in 1828 for the species we now know as Clivia nobilis . He used (with mixed feelings?) his rival author Lindley’s name, ” Clivia”, which by then was generally accepted, and created the species name “gardenii ” to honour our difficult friend, Robert Jones Garden. Another plant he named for Garden was Albuca gardenii.
Garden may have had private means because he apparently had intended to retire in England, working on and publishing his writings on Natal, but this was never done. Perhaps he could not adapt to the climate, because within a year or two he left for India to take up a post in the consular service there. He continued to send plants to Kew, at least until 1862. I wonder what became of him after that?
John van der Linde
(from Clivia Society Newsletter Vol 12 number 2, 2003)