Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Bernard Verdcourt, 1925-2011

The 85 family acounts of the Flora of Tropical East Africa written wholly or in part by Bernard Verdcourt will remain his greatest memorial.
The name Bernard Verdcourt will be unfamiliar to most, but for decades he was the doyen of East African botany. He was almost synonymous with the great Flora of Tropical East Africa, of which he wrote more parts than anyone else, spanning the period 1956 and 2005, from his bases first at the then East African Herbarium in Nairobi and later (and principally) at Kew, where he occupied an obscure and deliberately out of the way space. A generalist, he tackled families from Adiantaceae to Vitaceae, and as such his advice and commentary on specimens was greatly valued by all working in the FTEA area (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda), including myself.
Zehneria ridens Verdc., on Mt Meru, Tanzania in 2009.
While going through my specimens from Kilimanjaro in the mid-1990s there were several that I could not place, and it was to Bernard I turned. One odd little thing he quickly recognised as a Muraltia, a principally Southern African genus with the nearest known sites being hundreds of kilometres to the south: this specimen of Muraltia flanaganii remains the only record for Kilimanjaro and the most northern in its genus. Another puzzle was a scruffy-looking cucurbit of the bryony persuasion: in many ways it resembled the well-known Zehneria scandens, but differed in having enlarged sepals, making it appear as if the flower had ten lobes, instead of five in Z. scandens. I pointed-out the differences to Bernard and after due consideration he agreed that it was indeed a new species, and named it Zehneria ridens Verdc., with my specimen as holotype.  The epithet ridens means grinning or laughing, as Bernard said he could see a toothily grinning face in the arrangement of the floral parts, but this similarity has eluded me.

Bernard Verdcourt's other area of great expertise was in snails, particularly those of East Africa and he cajoled his botanist colleagues into collecting them along with their plants: in my case, a particular species of high altitude snail was wanted from Kilimanjaro. I found a selection and somewhere have his determinations list, but don't know if they included his desiderata. He wrote a great series of papers on snail collectors in East Africa, which, being typically thorough, are an excellent reference source for information on many explorers and naturalists. They are among over 1000 publications in botany, malacology, entomology and the Peugeot marque.

Bernard Verdcourt in old age
(img: Henk Beentje)
Long after he retired he made the journey from his home in Maidenhead to Kew each day, in a very elderly 2CV, and was generally the first to sign in each day. The last time I saw him he was in the Kew library, complaining loudly about the activities of a noted Swiss botanist, 'Bloody Greuter!' Sadly he suffered a stroke not long afterwards and for the past few years has been too incapacitated to work. He died on Tuesday and thus did not live to see the completion of FTEA, on which work started in 1949, but of which only a sparse handful of parts remain unpublished. (Thanks to Henk Beentje, Editor of FTEA, for passing on the sad news, and for a short obituary, information from which is used here).

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