Tuesday, January 25, 2011


In February, after Valentine's Day my fiancee and I shall be commencing work on a small flower farm. Out intention is to grow novelty products for the cut flower industry. We are selecting plants based on their suitability to the climate in South Florida which tends to be hot and humid, and is classified by USDA as Zones 9-11. The group of ornamental flowers and berries that we have chosen is a mixture of South Florida natives and plants from around the world that thrive in hot weather. Most are tried and true, but others are completely unfamiliar but are entirely fascinating. As such, one that turned out to be a rather miserable failure as a cut flower but which is entirely enchanting is the so-called "Tropical Hydrangea". The name alone drew me to the flower as a moth to a lamp, and this year we finally got some flowers on the trial shrubs. They really are spectacular, but are quite short-lived as flower. They have a rather sickeningly sweet aroma, like cake icing, and produce copious amounts of nectar to which bees are attracted to in great numbers. Certainly, if pollination is required, this plant is a must for any farm, and we intend to plant several around our farm for this reason as well as for the aesthetic appeal of the shrub. In December and January masses of bright pink balls hang from the branches, and so profuse is the flower-set that the boughs bend down. From a distance the flowers look like hydrangeas hanging upside down from the bushes, although closer inspection reveals the florets are like those of a rhododendron although configured like a hydrangea.
Dombeya wallichi is the scientific name for this attractive plant and is named after a certain Josephe Dombey, a noted French botanist and plant collector, but who seemed cursed with bad fortune.
His outstanding exploration, cataloguing and collecting of new species all form important parts of botanical collections in the British Museum, The Royal Garden Collection in Madrid and the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1778 the French government sent him to Peru, where he amassed a significant herbarium. In 1780 he sent the collection back to France, but the ship carrying his cargo was captured by the British, who kept the collection, despite overtures from the French government that continue to this day. Josephe Dombey was able to assemble another collection containing some 300 specimens but when it was prepared for shipping the Spanish authorities confiscated it on grounds that indigenous specimens were not permitted export to foreign countries. This collection was subsequently sent to Spain where it formed the basis for a florilegium of "La Flora Peruana" produced for the Spanish Crown by noted Spanish botanists Pavon and Ruiz. As if that was not bad enough, he proceeded to Chile in 1782 where he assembled an outstanding collection of Chilean flora, but on his return to Europe he landed in Cadiz, Spain in 1785 whereupon his collection was confiscated and he himself was imprisoned. Dombey was only able to secure his release after assuring authorities he would not compete with Pavon and Ruiz' work, and even then was only about half of his Chilean herbarium was returned to him.
Such was his reputation for thorough work that he was able to secure a stipend from the French government, and retired to practise medicine in Lyon.
This turned out to be also not fortuitous as Lyon was a hotbed of the revolutionary resistance, and Dombey found many of his patients being removed from his practice and dispatched to the guillotine during the French Revolution. With the assistance of friends within the "Committee for Public Safety" Dombey, was given an important diplomatic mission to introduce the new Metric system to the US congress, with the sponsorship of many luminaries including Thomas Jefferson. He set sail for North America in 1794, yet the same bad fortune that plagued his entire professional life struck again, and even as the prospect of Philadelphia was on the horizon, a sudden violent storm swept the brig he was on down to the Caribbean where Dombey made landfall on the island of Guadeloupe. The governor of the island was still loyal to the French crown and immediately imprisoned the poor doctor. However, many of the townsfolk who were supporters of the Revolution, upon learning a representative of the new French government had been imprisoned rose up and stormed the garrison, freeing Dombey. However, in the ensuing violence Dombey caught a fever and rapidly perished.
It is quite amazing that the USA came so close to adopting the metric system early in its history, especially when one considers the disaffection for all thing British was quite prevailing in the New World. Yet literally, the winds of history blew that opportunity away, and to this day we continue to use a ponderous sytem of measurement based on an English monarch's shoe size that has even been abandoned by Britain.

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