Who was Madame Legrelle? A fragmented, detective story…

Punica granatum 'Legrelliae', Tostat, August 2015

Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’, Tostat, August 2015

Spotting new flowers on my non-fruiting Pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’, I was doodling about on the internet trying to find out more about it’s name.  I bought it as ‘Legrelliae’ but it is often named as ‘Madame Legrelle’, and this internet browsing led me, on a hot day, to the beginnings of a detective story.  A blog intrigued me more, with mention of a Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis and her gardener, Francois Veervoot, from Antwerp winning medals and exhibiting in London in 1866.  So, here is what I found out about the origins of this beautiful and tough plant.

Punica granantum 'Madame Legrelliae' 1858  credit: www.anarkalilove.tumblr.com/

Punica granantum ‘Madame Legrelliae’ 1858
credit: http://www.anarkalilove.tumblr.com/

This lithograph appeared in 1858, and may be the first illustration of the plant.  It appeared in the most important Belgian horticultural periodical entitled  l’Illustration horticole, journal spécial des serres et des jardins by Charles Lemaire (editor), published by Ambroise Verschaffelt.  But the story may have an earlier twist. The 2104 Delaware Centre for Horticulture catalogue for their Rare Plants Auction contains a fascinating short passage on Madame Legrelle.  Her full name was Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis and she lived in Berchem, near Antwerp. Caroline was regarded as a distinguished amateur horticulturalist by The Magazine of Horticulture, and it is believed that she got the original Punica plant from a Mme. Parmentier, another Belgian woman horticulturalist, living in Illinois, US. Madame Parmentier is reputed to have said that the plant she gave to Madame Legrelle was the only one of its kind.

Punica granatum 'Legrelliae' New Garden, Tostat, June 2015

Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’ New Garden, Tostat, June 2015

Caroline may have been the daughter of another famous Belgian horticulturalist from Antwerp, Jean-Francois Legrelle d’Hanis, who lived from 1817-1852, and she herself only lived to the age of thirty, dying in 1874.  Very possibly, she never married and took over the pioneering work of her father in the nursery.  She was also connected to other reknowned botanists and horticulturalists and clearly possessed a warm and engaging personality, as well as a sense of mission about her work. She is referred to often as generous and helpful in texts of the time.  A charming inscription exists in a book given to her by her friend, Henri van Heurck, in 1864 when she would have been only 20 years old,

To Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis, Protectrie de la Botanique, Berchem, 3 Janvier 1864

Henri van Heurck himself was a key figure in Belgian science and horticulture. He developed pioneering work on microscopes to support his own botanical studies, was an important plant collector, and finally, persuaded the city of Antwerp to set up its own botanical garden, and became its first Director. His own plant collection was purchased by the city on his death and housed in the Botanical Garden he had founded.

In 1860, Caroline exhibited to great success at the exhibition in Brussels of the Societe Royale de Flore de Bruxelles. The exhibition catalogue states that she

exhibited a large and beautiful collection of palms, more than 50 varieties and examples of Begonia, a brilliant collection of 23 Caladium, also a Dracaena Australis flowering at more than 3m

It is also possible that Caroline’s mother may have been a partner in the pioneering horticultural work at Berchem, from the following quote concerning the discovery of Chysophyllum imperiale.  A Mr Linden won a prize for his work on this plant at the Paris Exposition in 1867, and he recounts that

This noble plant was an inmate of both British and Continental botanical gardens for thirty years before its           genus was determined […] according to a careful history of it drawn up by M. André (L’Illust. Hortic. vol. xxi,         1874, p. 77 & 152, t. 184), the first living specimen known in Europe belonged to to Madame Legrelle-d’Hanis,       at Berchem, where M. Linden saw it in 1846 with the name Theophrasta imperialis.

Thank you, Jardim Formosa, for these useful bits of information.

That’s all, just these tantalising fragments of a life in botany, and a life that allowed a woman, unusual for the time, full recognition and parity with her peers.  That is something to be celebrated by planting Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’.

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