A Victorian artist painted a plant and a century later, a scientist finds out that the plant is a brand new species

Anita Durairaj

Painter and artist Marianne NorthPhoto byUnknown author; Public Domain Image

An article in Atlas Obscura describes how a botanical mystery was solved after almost 150 years.

Marianne North (1830 - 1890) was a Victorian artist and biologist. She specialized in plant and landscape paintings.

North had her own distinctive style when she painted because, unlike other painters of the time, she painted and documented the plants with scientific accuracy.

She was interested in the environment and ecology so she would paint closeups of parts of the plant such as the stamen.

Critics of her time were not a fan of her paintings but no one knew that 133 years after her death, her painting would reveal something very unique - the discovery of a new species.

It all started with Tianyi Yu who was a botanical illustrator working at London's Kew Gardens. Yu was especially drawn to one of North's paintings.

This painting was created in 1876 and was called Curious Plants from the Forests of Matang, Sarawak, Borneo.

Yu was captivated by a cluster of berries that he saw in the painting. He suspected that the cluster of berries belonged to a plant with the genus Chassalia.

Species in the genus Chassalia are widely distributed in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the species are poorly documented and there are not many images.

Yu compared the plant in North's painting to real-life plants that were found in the Kew Gardens of London. The Kew Gardens contained more than 50,000 species of plants but Yu narrowed his range to the plants obtained from the Matang Forest in Borneo.

The search paid off as Yu was able to match the plant in the painting to a plant specimen collected in 1973.

The plant specimen was a new plant species and was called Chassalia northiana. It was named after North who had accurately portrayed the plant in a painting more than a century earlier.

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Trained with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, I write unique and interesting articles focused on science, history, and current events.


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