Monday, 28 December 2009

The Reeves connection

One of the projects here this year has been the raising of a brood of Reeves's Pheasants from a setting of eggs bought on Ebay and placed under a broody hen borrowed from a friend. The eggs took 24 days to incubate: all ten were fertile, but only seven chicks survived the hatching process. From minute, beautifully patterned chicks they grew very rapidly into adult-sized birds, reaching full plumage after about four months. After passing some on, and a couple of escapes, we have three left, a hen and two cocks. One of the males will have to be rehoused, and replaced by another female if possible, before the breeding season starts again in spring. Although extremely handsome they are not very satifactorily ornamental, being completely neurotic and ducking for cover or rocketing around when approached. The dominant cock shows signs of becoming tamer, approaching for food as in the picture above.

Reeves's Pheasants are found wild in forests in central China, but in consequence both of habitat loss and the fact that it is a large and (presumably) tasty gamebird its population has become reduced and fragmented, so that the total number of wild birds is considered to be less than 10,000 individuals and it is classed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. The species Syrmaticus reevesii was brought to the attention of science in the late 1820s, when skins reached naturalists in London, presumably they were sent by the eponymous Mr. Reeves as both scientific and common names commemorate him. The first living specimen to reach London (a male) certainly came from Reeves, and was exhibited in the Zoological Society of London's collection in Regents Park in 1831: a second came in 1834. Since then it has been a popular avicultural subject and has become naturalised in a few parts of the world. In the Czech Republic, for example, it is sufficiently well established to be a prized hunting trophy.

John Reeves (1774-1856) was an employee of the East India Company, and was sent to China in 1812 to work as Assistant Inspector of Tea, rising to be Chief Inspector, and known to the Chinese as Li Shi, Tea Chief. He spent at least twenty years in China, returning to England only twice in that time: his son, also John, spent thirty years there. They were among a small, select group of Europeans established on the edge of China for trade purposes. Canton (now Guangzhou) was the only port at which European ships could come into for trade and the big European companies maintained warehouses for goods there, but their personnel were only permitted in Canton when trading ships were present. For the rest of their time they lived on the Portuguese island of Macao. One of John Reeves's neighbours was John Livingstone, a surgeon for the Honourable Company, who had a particular interest in vegetables and other 'economic' plants; another was Thomas Beale, who worked in China for fifty years until his death in 1841. Beale was another keen naturalist and gardener, noted for his hosptality and generosity. He is now most famously commemorated in horticulture by the winter-flowering, beautifully fragrant Mahonia japonica Bealei Group (formerly Mahonia bealei), but it is probable that many other early introductions of Chinese plants can be at least indirectly attributable to him. He kept a large collection of aviary birds and it seems that it was from there that Reeves sent home specimens of the exotic long-tailed pheasant that bears his name.

Since their movements on mainland China were greatly restricted these men had to obtain specimens of mammals, birds and fish from the market in Canton, while many plants came from the Fa-tee nurseries where choice specimens were grown for the local market, among them cultivars of Camellia, Chrysanthemum and Paeonia. When sent back to Europe these were often the first examples of their species to be seen, but they had to endure the long sea journey via the Cape, passing twice through the tropics. Even on a fast tea clipper this was a journey of several months, and a large proportion of plants did not survive. Reeves, however, was a cautious character and took great trouble in preparing plants for shipping to England, getting them establishing them in pots long before the journey.

For his return to England on leave in 1816 John Reeves prepared a selection of 100choice specimens, of which about 90 reached the Horticultural Society alive aboard the Cuffenels under Captain Welbank. Among them were camellias, but also the first living specimen of Wisteria sinensis to reach Europe. Shortly afterwards another arrived on the Warren Hastings ,captained by Richard Rawes. These two appear to have been grown by private individuals - the early history of the wisteria in England is as tangled as the vine itself - but early propagations from these, or perhaps other individuals, were soon planted at the Horticultural Society's garden in Chiswick, and another in the Royal Gardens at Kew. The latter plant still survives, growing over an ancient iron frame near the old Ginkgo. What is interesting about this Wisteria is that it was propagated by cuttings from a plant in the garden of a Chinese merchant in Canton, Consequa. This is probably still the commonest clone in cultivation - certainly most of the grand old specimens on old buildings are its descendants (including the old 1850s specimen here at Colesbourne): the cultivar name 'Consequa' has been proposed for it. Commemorating Reeves (or possibly his son) is the evergreen, berry-bearing Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana, still usually sold (as in several local garden centres at the moment) under the name S. reevesiana. It's great advantage is that the plants are hermaphrodite, so always set a good crop of fruits. The original clone, still the commonest in cultivation, is now named 'Robert Fortune' after the man who brought it to England in 1849, a worthy successor to John Reeves as an explorer of the horticultural riches of China.

John Reeves's other great contribution to knowledge was the set of paintings he commissioned from Chinese artists, illustrating the flora and fauna of Canton. In many cases it was these drawings that gave Western science the first glimpse of a Chinese species. They are now among the treasures of the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library and the Natural History Museum's collection of art. Among them was a painting of Consequa's wisteria, now in the Lindley Library and shown here.

Alas, the name of Reeves is also attached to a much less desirable introduction to our shores, Muntjiacus reevesii, the small deer known to many gardeners and foresters as a menace to their plants and now spreading rapidly through England. Luckily it is usually known only as 'muntjac' (although often prefixed with an expletive) and it provides excellent venison, so revenge can be tasty.


  1. Nice to know this story of Conseequa's wisteria. I am researching into the gardens of Canton and Conseequa is one of my study focus. Will try to look for the plant in botanical gardens in England. Do you know where can I find them?

  2. Nice post, you're a good photographer, but you are still an amateur. You need to develop another sense of color in order to advance.


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