Tropical Plants Named After Explorers & Scientists

When a new plant is discovered, the honor of naming it goes to the first person to publish a botanical description in a widely published botanical journal. Early European explorers often took a botanist or what was then called a naturalist along with them to gather different samples of flora along the way, and to identify potentially medicinal and edible plants that might help the crew in their journey. These early naturalists discovered, described and named many plants are still grown today when their journals of the voyages were published after their return to Europe.

Slipper Orchid

The 19th century naturalist Sir Hugh Low and owner of the famous Hugh Low & Company nursery in London was one of the first Englishmen to extensively explore and document the flora of inland Borneo. Numerous different plants were named in his honor including one of the island's native slipper orchids, Paphiopedilum lowii, that he discovered on a trip to Mt. Kinabalu. He first described the plant in his 1848 book Sarawak, Its Inhabitants and Productions. Paph. lowii is a small plant with narrow strap like leaves up to 16 inches long and one inch wide. Five to seven individual flowers are produced on long stalks. Each flower is about 4 to 5 inches wide. The petal tips and characteristic slipper pouch are flushed with purple. It grows in shady areas usually on tree trunks or in loose cracks in limestone.


According to the ship diaries, when the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville landed on the island of Mauritius in November of 1768, his on-board botanist Philibert Commerson had enough of the seasickness and chose to disembark from the round the world journey. Before Commerson and Bougainville parted ways, Commerson promised to name a plant he had discovered almost two years earlier in Brazil in honor of the explorer. That plant is the Bougainvillia vine. Bougainvillias are commonly grown in gardens in areas that rarely receive frost. They grow as evergreen woody vines or mounded shrubs. The leaves are oval-shaped, green and about 2 to 4 inches long. They produce bright colorful flowers periodically throughout the growing season in shades of purple, yellow and red.

Darwin Barberry

During his second voyage on the exploration vessel the Beagle, Charles Darwin discovered what is known as the Darwin barberry bush (Berberis darwinii) in 1835 on the coast of Chile. It was later introduced into European cultivation by William Lobb and named in Darwin's honor. Darwin barberry is a small evergreen shrub that reaches a height of 5 to 10 feet. It has waxy green oval shaped leaves and prolific clusters of yellow orange flowers that later form small purple berries about a quarter of an inch long. It is a robust plant that is easy to grow and maintain.

Keywords: Paphiopedilum lowii, Hugh Low, bougainvillia, darwin barberry, famous explorers

About this Author

Brian Albert has been in the publishing industry since 1999. He is an expert in horticulture, with a focus on aquatics and tropical plants like orchids. He has successfully run an aquatic plant business for the last five years. Albert's writing experience includes the Greater Portland Aquarium Society newsletter and politics coverage for a variety of online journals.