Ferdinand von Mueller, John Dallachy, and the Golden Penda

Plant hunting in Far North Queensland

Rainbow Lorikeet on Golden Penda, Atherton Tablelands. © Bronwen Scott

Golden Penda (Xanthostemon chrysanthus) are in flower. One moment, these small rainforest trees are covered in lime green buds, the next those buds explode like supernovae. Birds, bees and butterflies waste no time. Those flowers are rich in nectar.

John Dallachy arrived in Australia in 1848. Born in Scotland, he had trained in horticulture in the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Chiswick and Kew. After spending a few years in Sri Lanka, Dallachy and his family moved to Melbourne, where he was appointed curator of the city’s newly established botanical gardens. An enthusiastic collector, he gathered seeds and cuttings from native plants all over Victoria and brought them into cultivation.

In 1853, Ferdinand von Mueller accepted an invitation from Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe to become official botanist for the Colony of Victoria. Mueller had migrated from Germany to Australia in 1847. A pharmacist by profession, his passion was botany. He settled in Adelaide and spent most of his time studying the plants of eastern South Australia, from Mount Gambier to the Flinders Ranges.

At the Melbourne botanical gardens, Mueller’s focus was on documenting the flora of Australia. When given the opportunity to join the North Australian Exploring Expedition, Mueller took leave from his government position so he could take part. The expedition, led by Augustus Gregory, began in Joseph Bonaparte Gulf on the north-west coast of the continent, travelled east around the Gulf of Carpentaria and along the coast to Brisbane. Among the many new species of plants that Mueller collected on the Victoria and Fitzmaurice rivers at the start of the expedition was a small tree with showy yellow flowers. On his return to Melbourne, he published his findings in Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Gardens Miscellany. He named the tree Xanthostemon paradoxus, creating Xanthostemon as a new genus to accommodate it.

Things were changing at the botanical gardens. Mueller was offered the position of director. To compensate for his diminished curatorial role, John Dallachy’s collecting work expanded. But the death of Anne, his wife of twenty-one years, and his increasing financial debt, took their toll on Dallachy’s mental health. Then at the end of 1862, his position became redundant.

Mueller persuaded the Colony’s administrators to pay Dallachy to collect and prepare material for the Melbourne herbarium. The rate was 10/- for every day of work. So in 1863, Dallachy headed north to the Queensland tropics, stopping first at Rockhampton and then at Bowen. He collected plants at both localities and sent them south to Mueller. While in Bowen, he met the town’s founder, George Dalrymple, who planned to create a settlement at Rockingham Bay, 300 km to the north. In January of the following year, the group of settlers arrived at their destination.

Golden Penda (Xanthostemon chrysanthus) in the rain, Atherton Tablelands. © Bronwen Scott

During the first three months, Dallachy collected in the mountains close to the coast, while Dalrymple led an expedition to find a transport route to his property in the Valley of Lagoons. On Dalrymple’s return, Dallachy followed the track across the southern end of the Seaview Range, exploring rainforest and eucalypt woodland. On 12 April, he encountered a tree covered in exuberant yellow flowers. He took a cutting, pressed and dried it, and sent it to Mueller in Melbourne.

Mueller, having had second thoughts about the validity of Xanthostemon as a full genus, named it Metrosideros chrysanthus. He recorded that it was a tall and elegant tree and that the flowers were full of nectar and had a sweet scent. (Presumably these descriptors came from Dallachy’s notes.) Later, Mueller’s collaborator and rival George Bentham of Kew Gardens resurrected Xanthostemon, encompassing containing both of Mueller’s species, as well as others from New Caledonia.

After seven years of dedicated work in the Far North, John Dallachy succumbed to a fever on 4 June 1871. He was buried at Vale of Herbert Station.

As I write this, the Rainbow Lorikeets and Hornbill Friarbirds have gone quiet. They are feeding in the Golden Penda, heads down among the flowers, too busy to make a noise. In 1864, John Dallachy collected a specimen of this tree from a creek bank near Cardwell. He marvelled at its beauty. A hundred and fifty-seven years later, some distance to the north, I am marvelling too.

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland.

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