By Claire Smith
Katharine Murray Lyell’s book, A Geographical Distribution of All the Known Ferns, was published by John Murray (who was also Charles Darwin’s publisher), in January 1870.
We know from Lyell’s handwritten catalogue, which is part of the University of Reading Herbarium’s collection, that she was able to amass a large number of ferns. On page 108 of this catalogue she regularly re-calculated the number of specimens required to build up a herbarium containing an example of every fern species known at the time.
We also know that Lyell was in correspondence with a number of eminent scientists including Alfred Russell Wallace (who sent ferns for her collection), Charles Darwin, and of course her brothers-in-law, Charles Lyell and Charles Bunbury. Lyell was also well acquainted with Joseph Hooker.
This unassuming little package, labelled “Hymenophyllum Bakeri Hook, Titirangi Range, New Zealand”, may not seem terribly impressive at first glance. However, a fragment cut from a letter is also mounted on the herbarium sheet:
“With Dr Hooker’s kind regards & the compliments of the season. Christmas 1870. A new species.”
On page 15 of Lyell’s own catalogue, the specimen is also labelled “Hymenophyllum Bakeri Hook, New Zealand”, with an “H” indicating that it was collected by Hooker himself. However, this name does not appear to have been used anywhere else, and may in fact never have been published.
Hooker’s Handbook to the Ferns of New Zealand was published in 1861, prior to the discovery of this species, and I have not been able to track it down in publications from 1871 onwards. It is notably absent, for example, from the 1871 catalogue of James Backhouse & Son in York, specialist growers and suppliers of Hymenophyllum and Trichomanes, and from the 1899 124-page catalogue from W & J Birkenhead, who boast of having over 1400 species for sale. Perhaps Hymenophyllum Bakeri Hook was known under a new name by 1899, or perhaps it was not successfully cultivated in the UK during this period. In the Transactions And Proceedings Of The New Zealand Institute Volume III (1870), published in May 1871, there is a very short article on page 213 regarding the re-naming of New Zealand ferns, although the list of ferns is dated 1868, before this species in question was described by Hooker.
Even turning to more modern technologies than printed catalogues does not always provide the answers that we are looking for. Many Hymenophyllaceae are native to New Zealand, and by using GBIF to narrow down both the geographical area and the date, it returns just one single result for Titirangi in the date range 1869-1872. This is listed as Hymenophyllum armstrongii (Baker) Kirk, with coordinates of 36.9S, 174.7E (now a built-up area in the city of Auckland), and a recorded (inferred) date of January 1871. However, this particular entry is attributed to Thomas Cheeseman, and documented in the Transactions And Proceedings Of The New Zealand Institute Volume VIII (1875), published in May 1876.
Cheeseman was a New Zealand botanist, and regular correspondent of Joseph Hooker. While almost 5,000 of Joseph Hooker’s letters have been digitised and are available to read online, neither Thomas Cheeseman or Katharine Murray Lyell are listed as correspondents, and there is no mention of Hooker’s discovery of a new fern species in his digitised letters from 1870 or early 1871.
Online databases, whether of books, correspondence, or plant species, are only as useful as the data which they contain, and although there is a great deal of information available, both historians and botanists are well aware that much of it is incomplete. Perhaps one day we will be able to uncover enough of a paper trail, between archives and herbarium specimens, to find out what became of Katharine Murray Lyell’s 1870 Christmas gift, Hymenophyllum Bakeri Hook.