Well, here it is Valentines Day. What plant goes with that? Red Roses? Not for a wildflower nut, if you want hearts, Four Petal St. Johnswort is Cupid’s green gift, pesticide-free and less expensive.
Today’s journey is a question we could ask about any species, so why not this one? It has an interesting history How did a pretty little wildflower from the edge of the marsh wind up being described in 1797 in France by the storied French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck? Now, anybody who ever took a biology class knows one thing about Lamarck, that his theory of evolution was off the mark. Big surprise…he was a generation ahead of his time, and when the time came, Darwin who did get it right credited Lamarck with getting the ball rolling. In any case, Lamarck did much more than develop a discredited theory. One of those things was naming Hypericum tetrapetalum. Let’s see, here is that occurrence in Lamarck’s own words:
That’s nice, the christening of the species, and look at the final word, cordatis, heart-shaped, as in cardiologist. But our question is, how the heck did Lamarck get ahold of the little green hearts? He tells us in the final line of his writeup below:
So then we see, sent from Virginia by Monsieur Hingston. Gee thanks, not even a first name. But perhaps we can track it down. Was there an American colonial-era botanist named Hingston? No. Okay then, what was going on in Virginia around 1797 besides the American Revolution? The happening place was the Potomac area, you know, George Washington, Mt. Vernon. Alexandria was one of the most important seaports in the U.S. then. They still unearth old sailing ships there. Ships coming and going, including to France, given that the French were American Revolution sympathizers. Maybe Monsieur Hingston rubbed elbows with the first president, and sent the plant to France from Potomac region Virginia, back then likely Alexandria, across from present-day DC. To thicken the plot, Hypericum tetrapetalum grows only in Florida, Georgia, and a toehold in Alabama. How did it get to Virginia to begin with? Sounds like seeds.
Let’s play Clue. I guess Hingston did it, with seeds, around Alexandria, Virginia. The beauty of this case is that detailed historical records back into the 1700s exist for Alexandria, and even better, somebody put it all on-line. We can easily check for a seedy Hingston.
And, sure enough, he was well recorded. No single narrative, but Monsieur Hingston pops up repeatedly…in a real estate transaction, a legal case worth $3 involving a horse-drawn buggy, and he even bought newspaper ads. His first name was Nicholas, born 1750, died 1830. Here is one of his newspaper ads verbatim:
NICHOLAS HINGSTON, Respectfully informs his friends and the public in general, that he hath removed his store to king street, next door to Mr. Jos. Thornton’s, where he hath for sale an extensive assortment of SEEDS, Both of English & American growth. The former imported this fall per the ship Sheperdess, captain Wells, via Norfolk.
There it is. He was buying and selling seeds acquired from U.S. soil and beyond, involving ships coming up the Potomac. The amazon.com of the era.
Further snooping reveals he sold gardening tools, flowerpots, root glasses, groceries, and liquors. He printed fliers with instructions on growing the seeds he sold, and bought ½ acre at the (then) margin of Alexandria for a plant nursery. Maybe Lamarck in France was on the e-mail list.
There is a second kink to the life and times of Hingston, involving yet another famous French naturalist who had his own (amazingly accurate) pre-Darwin theory of evolution, Constantine Rafinesque. He lived most of his adult life in the eastern U.S., traveling widely. Rafinesque was interested in everything from archaeology to poetry to plants. Rafinesque must have met Nick Hingston, and maybe even picked up some seeds, as Rafinisque named a pretty sunny-flowered Virginia native wildflower Hingstonia exaltata, better known as yellow crownbeard (and now called Verbesina occidentalis).