Contents of the summer 2009 Northants News

Gordon's Stapelia  1                                                   Trevor Wray        


Masson plate of Stapelia gordoni

While trawling the second hand book shops of Dorchester I bought a picture of 'Stapelia gordoni'. Obviously old taxonomy! Luckily we have an expert on this sort of thing in the branch. I sent a snapshot to Colin Walker and asked if he had any idea where the print came from. It was such a curious representation I thought it might be a NN filler if I could source some background info. Our emails ran...

Hi Trev, Looks familiar. Do you want to bring it along tonight? Iíll bring along Massonís Stapeliae Novae where thereís a plate that looks like this. If itís indeed that original plate then youíve got yourself a very interesting plate, but it may be a copy from elsewhere. Gordonís Stapelia is the one from 41 plates in this book that Masson didnít paint himself. Cheers, Colin

Hi Colin. I just love your expert responses! Thanks. Yes I'll bring it tonight. Doubt if it is an original (for £10?) but there is the number 40 top right which suggests a page number. See ya. Trev

Hi Trev,  Found it! After a better surf. Your plate is definitely the Masson Stapelia gordoni, whether original or copied. How big is it Ė Ďcos as you know, size IS important?  Apparently plates in Stap. Nov. are 38 x 27 cm, i.e. folio. So if yours is only small, i.e. less than A4, then it isnít an original.  And does it look old, the paper, etc.? Cheers, Colin

Hi Colin. The print is at least 225 x 330mm. So a fair bit bigger than A4. It certainly doesn't look like old paper. However the provenance is assured cos the vendor has written 'Original flower print' on the sticker. Absolutely true!

Must also be good because Sue said 'That's horrible! Where you going to hang it? There's no room in this house'. So, a collector's item. All this going in that article. Trev

Anyway I took the print to the meeting that night for Colinís appraisal. Did you think it was an original? (for £10?). Read the background and definitive answer from Colin below Ö


Gordon's Stapelia  2                                                                           Colin C Walker        

Trevorís botanical print is a reproduction of the first published illustration of what is now a Hoodia Ė this is its story.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew were established in 1759 and during the reign of George III, Sir Joseph Banks became the unofficial director. Francis Masson (1741Ė1805), a dour Scot, was appointed as a gardener under William Aiton, the first curator/head gardener. Banks was keen to expand the living collections at Kew and Masson became Kewís first overseas plant collector, with South Africa being the first destination because of its rich flora. Between December 1772 and March 1795 Masson undertook four collecting trips at the Cape and sent back to Kew large consignments of plants. He discovered and collected hundreds of new species, notably of Pelargonium, Erica and Oxalis that were first introduced in to cultivation via Kew and described by Aiton in his book Hortus Kewensis (first edition 1789). Masson is commemorated in the genus Massonia Thunberg ex Houttuyn (Hyacinthaceae), a fitting memorial to an explorer who played a major role in the enhancement of the reputation of Kew and in the development of British horticulture (Gunn & Codd, 1981).

NMK Branch members,Peter, David, Colin and Jack look at the Masson print

Branch members Peter, David, Colin and Jack compare the print with Colinís facsimile reprint of Massonís Stapeliae Novae.

Meanwhile Dutch born, but also of Scottish descent, Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon (1743Ė1795), went to the Cape in 1772Ė3, met with Masson and together they went on foot on a trip at the Cape in May 1773. Later, in JulyĖAugust 1779 Gordon went on an expedition with another Scottish explorer Ė Lieutenant William Paterson Ė up the west coast of South Africa to the mouth of what Gordon named the Orange River, after William of Orange. It was on this trip that Gordon discovered a new stapeliad. He like Masson was a competent draughtsman and he drew this new plant, but his drawing was never published by him and the original is now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Gunn & Codd, 1981).

Masson went on to publish his only botanical work, Stapeliae Novae, in London in 1796Ė8, as the first monograph of South African stapeliads in which the majority of the 41 species included were newly described. In this now very rare book, 40 of the 41 hand coloured engraved plates were based on his original water colour paintings, all produced in the field during his travels in South Africa (Masson, 1796Ė8). The odd one out here is what he first described as Stapelia gordoni Masson in honour of Gordon, but the engraving in Massonís book is a copy based on Gordonís original drawing. As far as Iím aware, this is the only plant named after Robert Gordon.

For Masson, all his 41 stapeliads were species of the single genus Stapelia, but following on from him the genus was split into many smaller genera, such as the familiar Caralluma, Duvalia, Huernia and Piaranthus. In 1844 Gordonís Stapelia was transferred to the new genus Hoodia where it now resides as Hoodia gordonii (Masson) Sweet ex Decaisne, with Massonís engraving in his book being the type. An intriguing mystery here surrounds the Mr. Hood of England after whom this genus was named, since we know absolutely nothing about him other than he was a grower of succulents (Bruyns, 2005).

Today Hoodia is genus of 13 species distributed through western Angola, Namibia and South Africa, with a smaller disjunct range in eastern Botswana and south-eastern Zimbabwe. H. gordonii is the most widely distributed species, ranging from just north of Mossel Bay on the south coast of South Africa and east to Kimberley, then north of Windhoek in Namibia. Not surprisingly for such a widespread species itís very variable and has been redescribed as at least 10 other species that are today all lumped together. Its flowers are up to 10 cm across and range from pale flesh-coloured to deep purple-red (Bruyns, 2005).

Finally what of the source of Trevorís so-called ďoriginal botanical printĒ? Well, regrettably for Trevor, itís no such thing. The ďprintĒ turns out to be a page untimely ripped, or at least cut, from The Book of Flowers (Coats, 1973), so unfortunately for Trevor he hasnít found a rare original print at a knock-down price that he could resell on eBay for vast profit!


(Ed: and I thought I might retire on the profits!)


Bruyns,P.V. (2005) Stapeliads of Southern Africa and Madagascar. Umdaus Press, Hatfield, South Africa.

Coats,A.M. (1973) The book of flowers. Exeter Books, New York.

Gunn,M. & Codd,L.E. (1981) Botanical exploration of southern Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam.

Masson,F. (1796Ė8) Stapeliae novae: or, a collection of several new species of that genus; discovered in the interior parts of Africa. Facsimile reprint 1998, Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Firenze, Italy.


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