Significance of Nepenthes in Victorian European Culture
Nepenthes is the genus of pitcher plant native to Southeast Asia, Australia, and Madagascar. Nepenthes contains roughly 150 species. Although it is a tropical plant belonging to humid climates, European explorers, scientists, naturalists, and those with a chair in government found interest in these exotic flora.
THE FIRST SPECIES
European involvement in Nepenthes dates back to the year 1658, when French colonial Governor of Madagascar, Etienne de Flacourt described Nepenthes as a “Flower” in his work: Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar. Flacourt called the plant Amramatico. Later it was given a proper name: (Nepenthes) N. madagascariensis. This plant was the first species in the genus to be discovered.
THE SECOND SPECIES
The second species to be discovered in Nepenthes distillatoria (N. distillatoria). In the year 1677 Thomas Bartholin (Danish physician) described N. distillatoria and named it Miranda herba (marvelous herb). Shortly after a dutch merchant by the name of Jacob Breyne called this species Bandura zingalensium. Thus, the commonly used name for the genus Nepenthes became Bandura until Linneaus used the term Nepenthes in 1737. Nepenthos means “without grief” in latin. Nepenthes pharmakon is a drug mentioned in ‘The Odyssey’. Carolus Linneaus published Hortus Cliffortianus and in it he introduced the name Nepenthes for the tropical pitcher plants. Here is his explanation:
If this is not Helen’s Nepenthes, it certainly will be for all botanists. What botanist would not be filled with admiration if, after a long journey, he should find this wonderful plant. In his astonishment past ills would be forgotten when beholding this admirable work of the Creator.
In the 1700’s Europeans began to explore and colonize Asia. As people discovered new species and genera of flora, glass greenhouses were built, allowing Europeans to enjoy tropical plants not suited for a cold environment that were being discovered. That was when the Royal Botanical Gardens was started. There were many happenings which enabled Nepenthes to be popularized. In 1833 the wardian case was invented, enabling plants to survive ocean voyages to England. In 1845, taxes were eliminated from glass. And the economy boomed which meant middle classes could afford the plants and the greenhouses. Nurseries opened and plants were mass produced for ornamental value and sold. Garden magazines were published, thus encouraging the public to purchase and cultivate plants that were a la mode or ‘in the fashion’. Through the 19th century, Nepenthes were winning flower shows, and those who had complex and rare hybrids prized their collections. New species were being discovered. In the 20th century, everything came to an end. This may have been a result of economic depression and world wars. Though Nepenthes may be a thing of the past to others, they are a thing of the future to me.