Burchell is usually remembered in the field of natural history for his massive collection of botanical specimens, occasionally for his horticultural skills. He is also remembered in zoology for his, the first, scientific description of the white rhinoceros and for his distinction between the plains and mountain zebras, and the common name of Burchell’s (plains) zebra. Visitors to the eastern coastal and bushveld regions of South Africa will know the unmistakable call of Burchell’ s coucal. But fish? Yes. He took fishing tackle with him and caught three species of freshwater fish, all of which he painted – his paintings of the fish are at Museum Africa.
After successfully negotiating the Cape Fold Mountains on his way to Klaaarwater (now Griekwastad) he and his party headed across the Karoo plains to the Zak (i.e., Sak) River, the north-eastern border of the Cape Colony. Travellers in both directions usually camped at the outspan near the London Missionary Society’s nearby settlement. Burchell was travelling with a party of Klaarwater missionaries, and the entire group arrived at the Zak in the evening of the 30th of August, about 6 weeks after their departure from cape Town. They remained at the river for four days.
‘31st. This (the Zak River) is the principal river between the Hex River and the Gariep. The stream was at this time very inconsiderable, though still running. Its banks were clothed with the mat-rush, and here and there with some fresh grass produced by rains, which appeared to have fallen lately. Not a tree was seen, to break the uniformity of the plain through which it meandered, or to mark its course: nor could it even be discovered, till we reached its banks.
In the deepest of its pools I found a beautiful kind of carp, entirely of a yellow-green with a brazen lustre.* The largest we saw was at least two feet long: that from which I made my drawing measured nineteen inches and a half. With a hook and line we caught many without much difficulty; their flesh was white, and of a very delicate taste. It was known by the name of Geel-visch, (Yellow-fish.) A representation of it is given at the end of the chapter.’
Although we offered to lend hooks and lines to any of the Hottentots, scarcely one would take the trouble to use them. They appeared to have little relish for such food, and less for that mode of employment; eagerly preferring the more toilsome one of hunting. In this all who had guns, spent their time during our stay. Several quakkas were shot, and the meat shared amongst them; it resembled horseflesh, as might be expected from the nature of the animal, and, though much praised, I felt no desire to make a meal of it.
B Totus aënei coloris. Caput parvum, cirris duobus vix ore longioribus. Pinna dorsalis mutica radiis 10: pectoralis 13 vel 14: ventralis 9: analis 6; et caudalis 19: omnes concolores. Irides aëneæue. (I, 280-281)s in the eastern Cape.
SILURUS (CLARIAS) GARIPIENUS AT THE KY-GARIEP (VAAL RIVER)
Burchell, went with some of his party and also local residents on an excursion from Klaarwater to explore the Ky-Gariep where they intended to hunt for hippopotami with the local Kora and San inhabitants. 3rd. The two boys amused themselves in watching for fish, standing at the water's edge as motionless as herons. After patiently waiting more than half an hour, one of the fishes came within their reach, and with unerring aim, was instantly pierced through with their hassagay (Assegai). This is the fish which has been already mentioned by the name of Platte-kop (Flat-head) a species of Silurus.* It was nearly three feet long, entirely of a lead-color; but whitish underneath. The head was very broad and flat; the eyes pale-yellow and extremely small; and the mouth was bearded with several very long strings. The skin was smooth, and, like that of an eel, without scales. The flesh was white, and in taste very much resembled the conger-eel, being rich and nutritious. It is a remarkable circumstance, and one which is confirmed by the general observation of the colonists, that it is only those rivers which run to the western coast, (that is to say, to the northward of the Cape of Good Hope,) in which this fish is found; whilst, on the contrary, eels have never been seen in any but those which fall into the ocean eastward of that cape. Of this Silurus I completed two coloured drawings on the spot; of one of which, an engraving is given at the end of the chapter. (I, 424-425)
SILURUS (HETEROBRANCHUS) GARIEPINUS B
B.—Vide iconem capitulo XVII. adjectam. Longitudo, pollices (Angl.) 33½. Inter oculos et pinnas pectorales, maxima est latitudo; poll. 5½. Cirri 8, quorum longissimus, (poll. 7.) in angulo oris situs. Os edentule. Caput, anticé transverum, planum, plagioplateum. Corporis pars posterior valdè cathetoplatea. Appendix branchiarum ruberrima arboriformis. Pinnæ omnes inermes: D.69: A. 53: C. 18: P. 10: V.6: et Br. 5
Gariepinus is now Clarias gariepinu,s the air-breathing sharptooth catfish, which has been introduced in numerous countries for aquaculture.
In September 1812, The Burchell party left Litakun, heading north-west into the Kalahari. The part stopped at Chue Spring (where he identified the white rhino), but his employees refused to head further north-west towards the Angolan coast. Consequently, he decided to return to the Kuruman area from which he would head back to Cape Town via Graaff Reinet, the Great Fish River mouth and then along the coastal plain. It seems the party suffered intense heat and shortage of water until they reached the Kuruman River. They lingered in the vicinity of today’s Kuruman for about 2 months, where they recuperate from their gruelling journey. It was at the first or second Eye of Kuruman that Burchell caught a tilapia. He drew and painted the fish, but his description has been lost with all but one of his journals – and he never published his return journey. So, all we have is his painting and a few descriptive notes. We are grateful to Paul Skelton for identifying the fish as Tilapia sparmanni.Andrew Smith, the zoologist and first curator of the South African Museum, was unaware of Burchell’s find and record of the fish and so, in 1840, he described the fish and named it in honour of Anders Sparrman the Swedish naturalist who had travelled extensively in the Cape.
AKA Breede and Tradouw redfin
Burchell did not see this critically endangered fish. Nevertheless, it was named in his honour by Andrew Smith in 1841. Pollution, altered river flow and the predatory smallmouth bass all contribute to its possible extinction. Perhaps one of these fish swam past his wagon on New Year’s Day in 1815, when he crossed the Tradouw River near Zuurbraak.
Burchell returned to Cape town via Albany and the coastal inland plateau. From the 29th of April until the 5th of August 1814, he lingered at Melkhout Kraal beside the Knysna lagoon. Soon after arriving, he took a walk to the Heads at the mouth of the lagoon. His painting of the scene is with a descendent of Burchell’s brother (left). He spent much of his time in Knysna exploring the forests, but probably also spent some time fishing in the lagoon. Museum Africa has his drawing, dated 4th of June 1814, of the dorsal and ventral views of the common eagle ray, his ‘pylstaart’ (Pylstert), Raja aquila, now Myliobatis aquila, which is commonly found in estuaries. The fish is good eating – we wonder if he had a fish braai that evening?
Burchell, W.J. Travels in the interior of Southern Africa, London 1822 & 1824 accessed 27 August, 2022,
Vol I: http://goo.gl/Bv9JXe
Vol. II: http://goo.gl/Rj3o34
Andrew Smith, S2A3 biographical database South African Science. Accessed 27 August, 2022:
Stewart, R. & Whitehead, M. Burchell’s African Odyssey: Revealing the Return Journey. Struik Nature, Cape Town 2022.
Intrepid explorer and naturalist William Burchell was honoured in 1822 when a small ornamental tree was named for him: Burchellia bubalina. Now commonly known as the wild pomegranate, the story of the naming of this beautiful South African tree reveals some of the intriguing intricacies behind botanical nomenclature.
William John Burchell (1781 – 1863) is renowned for his trek from Cape Town to the Kalahari (1811-1812) and for his extensive contributions to natural history, especially botany.i The first volume of his Travels in Southern Africa was published in 1822, but Burchelllia bubalina was not mentioned because Burchell collected specimens of it only on his return journey (1812-1815), which is not included in his book.ii
Unfortunately, Burchell did not write up his return journey and all but one of his journals from his incredible four-year trek across the South African veld in his top-of-the-range ox wagon are lost. Determined to fill in the missing years, our research revealed a fascinating story of the multi-skilled explorer’s collecting adventures – and misadventures. Among the stories we uncovered, we found where and when he collected three specimens of the plant that now bears his name.
In August 1813, one of his employees, Stoffel Speelman (left), brought him the first example at the ‘Kurukuru River’ (now Gaitu River), about 20 kilometres north-west of Grahamstown/Makhanda. Nearly a year later Burchell, collected another ‘in the forest, by the quarry’, at Knysna; and a month later he collected yet another during an overnight hike on the Postberg (George Peak), which overlooks the town of George.
His descriptions of these specimens reflect some of the confusion surrounding the name of this tree at the time. In his Catalogus Geographicus, Burchell identified his Gaitu specimen as ‘Cephaëlis (Lonicera bubalina)’. He also noted: ‘nomen “bubalina”(Buffelhorn) ex errore debatur’ ‘quum numquam, vel nusquam, buffelhorn Colonis audit‘. A translation of his Latin is:‘named buffalo-horn by mistake; have not heard of buffelhorn anywhere in the Colony’).
Burchell again considered the binomial when he came across a second example of the plant in Knysna. He identified it in his Catalogus Geographicus as Caphaëlis capensis, but his label for this specimen reflects his uncertainty about the genus; the specimen label is headed Gardenia avallenacea corylana (Fig. 6). He explains the species epithet: Capitula fructus referunt avellana: fruit heads represent (call to mind) the hazelnut (corylanais associated with the hazelnut tree: Corylus avellana).The Gardeniabelongs to the Rubiaceae family.
Burchell had dismissed the buffelhorn common name in the record of his first specimen of the plant found near the Gaitu River (Fig. 6). He must have discussed the common name again with the locals when he documented his Knysna specimen 10 months later. Burchell was meticulous in providing aboriginal and Dutch common names of places, animals and plants and he wrote the Dutch common name on the label for this specimen: ‘Wilde Granaat’ (Fig. 6) - and the name has stuck.
THE BOTANICAL NAMING CONUNDRUM
Burchell was not the first to collect specimens of this lovely small tree. In 1776 Anders Sparrman returned to Sweden with plant specimens he had collected on long journeys through the Dutch Cape Colony. Carl von Linné the younger (better known to botanists as Linnaeus the younger or Linnaeus filius) investigated the collection. In the 1781 edition of his Supplementum Plantarum, Linnaeus filius described and named one of Sparrman’s plants: Lonicera bubalina, using the binomial system introduced by his father.
But in his 1805 Synopsis Plantarum, Christiaan Persoon, the South African-born mycologist, assigned the plant to the genus Cephaëlis. Both of these genera belong to the Rubiaceae family, along with gardenia and coffee plants.
Next to enter the nomenclature fray was Robert Brown, a botanist and pioneering microscopist who is perhaps most widely remembered for his description in 1827 of the random movement of pollen in a fluid medium; now known as Brownian motion. A few years earlier, he had investigated a specimen of the Loniceraor Cephaëlis bubalinathat was, apparently, the first to flower in England, in the hothouse of James Colville’s nursery in Chelsea, London. Brown concluded that the plant belonged to a new genus within the Rubiaceae. In the 1820 volume of the Botanical Register, he named the new genus Burchellia, having ‘availed himself of the appropriate occasion of honouring the merits of Mr. Burchell, the zealous and enterprising investigator of the regions to which our plant belongs.’ That edition of the Botanical Registerwasedited by the botanist, John Lindley (who was responsible for naming the genus Clivia, a plant discovered by Burchell in Albany in 1813 – but that’s another story).
Linnaeus filius named the species bubalinain reference to the buffalo after its apparent Dutch common name: buffelhorn. When Brown named the new genus in 1820, he incorrectly assigned a new species epithet: capensis, reflecting the colony in which the plant grew. Loddiges & Sons, the famous London nurserymen, applied the same epithet in 1822 in their own publication, Botanical Cabinet. Then, in the same year, they correctly suggested that the plant should be Burchellia bubalina. They proposed this in the Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, a rival publication edited by John Sims; the illustration of the plant (Fig. 3) was executed by John Curtis (no relative of William Curtis who launched the magazine).i And so, today the recognised scientific name is Burchellia bubalina (L.f.) Sims. L.f. is Linnaeus filius, who first described and named the plant, and John Sims who, as editor of the 1822 edition of the Botanical Magazine, was the botanical authority behind the current name, with the correct species epithet of bubalina. Sims did not actually propose the name of the plant – this proposal was ‘communicated by Messrs. Lodiges and Sons’: such is the tradition of botanical nomenclature.
When Brown proposed the new genus, he declared in Latin: Buffelforn. Colonis batavis Cap, B. S. (ob lignum durissimum). He explained his Latin shorthand: ‘The shrub is called Buffelhorn (Buffaloe-horn) by the Dutch colonists at the Cape of Good Hope, from the hardness of the wood.’ He attributed this information to Francis Masson, who had undertaken lengthy journeys in the Cape (1772-1774 and 1786 – 1795). However, Masson did not mention the plant or the wood in his book, nor is it among his herbarium specimens at Kew. Coincidentally, Sparrman, who provided a specimen of the plant to Linnaeus filius, has a buffalo connection: he is well known to zoologists for his introduction of the Cape buffalo to science and for his detailed description of its ‘perverse disposition and great strength’. What about the short line in Linnaeus’s Supplementum: ‘buffelhorn. Belgar’? We could not find who or what Belgaris or was; nor could an eminent botanist friend who knows his botanical history. We recently contacted the Linnaean Society seeking clarification. Isabelle Charmantier, the Society’s helpful curator of collections, suggested that Belgaris an abbreviation of Belgarum,the genitive plural of Belgae – the people of Belgae. Belgaewas a Roman controlled territory in the lowlands that included today’s Belgium and southern Netherlands. By the 1780s, Belgae was an anachronism, but it was used in Latin to refer to the Dutch Republic - it was only in the 1830s that Belgium, as we now know it, came into being. So ‘Buffelhorn. Belgar’means that buffelhornwas the Dutch common name – a name Burchell rejected in favour of wildegranaat, a name that has stuck.
PlantzAfrica reports that the accepted common name of Burchellia(S.A. Tree No. 688) is the wild pomegranate (wildegranaat) i. The author of the PlantzAfrica article, Mhlonishwa David Dlamini,provides alternative explanations of bubalina. ‘The species name bubalina can also refer to the Latin for buff-coloured, possibly referring to the yellowish hairs found on some forms of this tree.’ ‘The tree bears new twigs that are always covered with hairs. This also refers to the buffalo-like horns of the mature calyx that, in this plant, is found on the fruits.’ He continues: ‘The tree has a hard, dense and close-grained wood which is used to build huts. The wood is also used to make agricultural implements, like hoe handles and cattle yokes.’ This is consistent with the notion that the bubalina refers to the lignum durissimum (hard wood) referred to by Robert Brown. Dlamini then picks up on Burchell’s Dutch common name of ‘Wilde Granaat’ and clarifies that the association is not taxonomic, but aesthetic: ‘When the tree is in full bloom, it bears a superficial resemblance to the true pomegranate, hence the common name, wild pomegranate.’ The flowers of the tree contain copious nectar and is attractive to birds, which often slit the petal tube near the base to obtain this sweet energy source, notes Keith Coates Palgrave in Trees of Southern Africa. ii He adds that the tree is particularly suitable for gardens as it is beautiful year-round, particularly when in flower, and is easily propagated from seeds or cuttings. It was the South African tree of the year in 2006.
Burchellia bubalina, named in the Botanical Magazine in 1822, is the only species in the genus and recognises Burchell’s great contribution to natural history – his name also lives on in the common names of diverse animals, such as Burchell’s zebra, coucal, brown (butterfly), redfin (a freshwater fish) and sand lizard; as well as in the scientific names of some, such as Equus quagga burchellii (i.e., Burchell’s zebra). The common name of Burchell’s sugarbush is well known in the Cape; burchellii is the species epithet of this protea and hundreds of other plants. Today, Tree 688 has lost its apparent misconnection to the buffalo; it is now the wild pomegranate, an aesthetic, not a taxonomic association with the true pomegranate. It’s a rewarding species that will thrive in a shady spot in the garden as one’s own private tribute to the great naturalist.
Anne-Lise Fourie of the National Biodiversity Institute; Katherine Harrington of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, for photos from manuscript documents and Isabelle Charmantier of the Linnaean Society for her assistance with the Belgarconundrum.
Photos of Burchellia bubalinagrowing in the wild by Marion Whitehead (www.marionwhitehead.co.za).
Note:Burchell’s herbarium specimens of Burchelliaat Kew may viewed at https://bit.ly/3snzQdS.
*Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead are the authors of a new book Burchell’s African Odyssey | Revealing the Return Journey 1812-1815. (Struik Nature: 2022).
Burchell was the first to describe fresh water fish from Southern Africa. The descriptions are in his book (see Bibliography) and the illustrations are currently at Museum Africa.