2. Notes on the Discovery of Dactylanthus Taylori.
In Vol. xli of the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute” Mr. H. Hill, in describing the Dactylanthus Taylori, Quotes a letter he received from Mr. D. H. Williamson, in which that writer claims that his father, the late Francis Williamson,
was the discoverer of the plant, but that instead of sending it to England as he originally intended he gave it to the Rev. Richard Taylor, who was then on the point of paying a visit to the Old Country. The concluding sentence of the letter indicates that Mr. Williamson has a grievance against Mr. Taylor because Dr. Hooker (now Sir Joseph) associated the name of the veteran missionary with the plant.
The Rev. R. Taylor came to New Zealand in March, 1839, and paid his first visit to England in 1855. Hence the late Mr. Williamson must have found his specimen early in that year. Possibly Mr. D. H Williamson was led to make the claim on behalf of his late father on reading an article in Vol. xxviii of the Transactions where the late Mr. T. Kirk mentions 1857 as the probable date of Taylor's discovery. But as Mr. Hill points out, there is a sketch of the Dactylanthus in Taylor's “Te Ika a Maui,” which was published in 1855.
In the second edition of “Te Ika a Maui” (page 697) Taylor says, “I first found it (Dactylanthus) on a mountain range near Hikurangi, returning from Taupo, and noticed it growing among the roots of a tree near the path…. Mr. Williamson afterwards brought me another specimen which he had found in clearing some ground. The whole plant and flowers were entirely covered with vegetable mould; the stem between the bracts was of a rusty brown. There were twenty-five flowers open all at once; another excrescence had eighteen. He states the odour of one plant was something like that of a ripe melon, whilst the other had a disagreeable earthy smell.”
Dr. Hooker, who described and named the plant, says, “For a specimen of this singular plant I am indebted to my friend the Rev. R. Taylor, of New Zealand, who brought a fragment of it to England in 1856, and, on my pointing out its probable interest, promised to procure more on his return to New Zealand. This he did, and early in the present year (1859) I had the pleasure of receiving from him a dried specimen of a female plant, a perfect male inflorescence in a letter, and a pen-and-ink sketch of the peduncle and flowers, with notes on the same.”
The most important evidence was discovered by Mrs. Harper, the wife of Mr. H. S. G. Harper, in whose possession the Rev. R. Taylor's unpublished journals are. The whole entry for the day is copied out exactly as it stands, except that the writer of these notes has supplied the punctuation-marks.
“March 18, 1845.—It was a rainy night, and very cold, wet, and cheerless. In walking through the dense, humid forest I was soon as wet as if I had been in the water. We had constantly been ascending and descending. We crossed the Mangawera [Mangawhero] after dinner. The stream here makes a remarkable noise, which I fancy is occasioned by its flowing through some cavern in the rock. The Natives say it is a large tuna. I found the Parei myself to-day. It is certainly one of the most remarkable vegetable productions I have seen, and appears to be the union of fungus with the plant. I passed several, taking them for toadstools, but one more remarkable than the rest caused me to stop and gather it. I then found that it was a plant in full flower, although very much resembling a fungus. It has no leaves, and has a calyx containing a kind of pollen with rather a disagreeable smell. The Natives say it is more prolific than the potato, but will only grow in the forest We passed through several small manias to-day and had some very wearisome and precipitous ascents. We are encamped for the night where the road for Pukehika branches off from that to Ikurangi [Hikurangi].”
This quotation, the compiler ventures to think, establishes the fact that the Rev. R. Taylor discovered the Dactylanthus in 1845. It is not improbable that the specimen received by Hooker in 1856 is the one Mr. Williamson refers to in his letter. But as Taylor had seen the plant more than ten years previously, he could hardly be expected to represent it to Hooker as the discovery of another man. Besides, he is quite frank in mentioning the specimen he received from Williamson. So I think the hint in the conclusion of Mr. Williamson's letter that Taylor was guilty of something akin to sharp practice has nothing to support it.
These notes have been compiled to vindicate the character of the Rev. R. Taylor, a man who worked strenuously not only for the good of the Natives, but also for the public generally. Like many more overworked men, he found time to study the natural history of the district over which he made so many journeys. He wrote two books, the second edition of one of these being practically a new work, numerous articles of a scientific nature, besides many volumes of unpublished matter.
Unfortunately, no biography of Taylor has yet been written. Until some one accomplishes that work the man will remain unknown. Suffice it to say here that, even if the evidence in his diary had not been forthcoming, the man was so upright in character that he would never have been guilty of attempting to appropriate another man's discovery.