Many lovers of South African flora and fauna are familiar with Burchell’s name. You know of Burchell’s Zebra, and his Coucal, but what do you know about him and his clivia?
He was born in Fulham, London, in 1781, the son of a nurseryman. Having worked for a time at Kew, he was employed on the island of St Helena as a schoolmaster and acting botanist. His fiancée sailed from England to marry him there but went off with the ship’s captain instead. Burchell, who never married after that experience, left for Cape Town in 1810. There he had a wagon specially built for him, and in June 1811 he trekked off into the interior on a journey lasting four years, accompanied only by six Hottentot servants and his span of oxen. His wagon and equipment cost , 600 (around , 40000 in today’s money, i.e. R550000, or US$64000), all apparently financed by the 30 year-old Burchell himself.
He collected over 40000 plants on his 4500 mile (7200 km) trip; most now dried specimens in the Kew Herbarium. Many were described as new species and several were named in his honour. He returned to England in 1815, laden with all manner of specimens and data collected on his remarkable trek. He had also made many drawings, including landscapes, portraits, and costumes, zoological, botanical and other features. “Probably no such collection gathered by one man ever left Africa before or since”, wrote the author of A A botanist in Southern Africa (Hutchinson 1946: 625).
Burchell spent the next decade back in Fulham, arranging his specimens and writing up his results. These record the locations and dates of observation of about 8700 plants, taking up 14 volumes of neat manuscript, now stored in the library at Kew. One of his specimens (there were two others collected later) is the earliest scientific record of a Clivia nobilis, collected on 28/9 September 1813 at “Kaffir Drift / Date Tree Station” , in the Bathurst district. This spot lies south-west of where Bowie is recorded by Hooker as having found plants near the mouth of the Great Fish River, probably in 1823, ten years later. According to Dr Robert Archer of the National Botanical Institute in Pretoria, it appears that Burchell may have intended to publish his specimen as Cyrtanthus sylvatica , i.e. the forest cyrtanthus, but he never got around to doing so. This would probably have preceded Lindley’s name of Clivia nobilis.
During his time at Fulham many enthusiasts visited Burchell to see his collections, and one of those who saw “Burchell’s Clivia” was instrumental in locating and importing living specimens to Britain, some time in the 1820’s.
John van der Linde
(from the Clivia Society Newsletter #1 of 2003)