A tribute to the great Swiss natural historian — in fact, polymath — Conrad Gessner (in the biological literature, Gesner), whose name has popped up in my life three times recently: in connection with the striking plants known as gesneriads (among them, African violets); as an early chronicler of mountain climbing (specfically on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland); and as the source of the first description of the alphorn, or alpenhorn (the musical instrument).

Gessner and some of his subjects, as depicted in a set of commemorative stamps issued by the African nation of Guinea on the 500th anniversary of his birth:


Gessner himself might have been archetypically Swiss, but the gesneriads are tropical plants, of Africa and South America.

Some background on the man, from Wikipedia:

Conrad Gessner (Latin: Conradus Gesnerus; German: Conrad Geßner … ; 26 March 1516 – 13 December 1565) was a Swiss physician, naturalist, bibliographer, and philologist. Born into a poor family in Zürich, Switzerland, his father and teachers quickly realised his talents and supported him through university, where he studied classical languages, theology and medicine. He became Zürich’s City Physician, but was able to spend much of his time on collecting, research and writing. Gessner compiled monumental works on bibliography (Bibliotheca universalis 1545–1549) and zoology (Historiae animalium 1551–1558) and was working on a major botanical text at the time of his death from plague at the age of 49. He is regarded as the father of modern scientific [that is, systematic] bibliography, zoology and botany. He was frequently the first to describe a species of plant or animal in Europe, such as the tulip in 1559. A number of plants and animals have been named after him.

… In 1753 Carl Linnaeus named Tulipa gesneriana, the type species of the Tulipa genus, in his honour. The flowering plant genus Gesneria and its family Gesneriaceae [known as the gesneriads] are named after him. A genus of moths is also named Gesneria after him.

Gessner was almost absurdly ambitious intellectually and was industrious in equal measure.

Some incidental notes:

— On mountain climbing. From the Britannica site on Conrad Gesner:

In an early work, a medical tract on the virtues of milk, Libellus de lacte et operibus lactariis (1545), he included a letter to a friend in which he extolled mountains as one of the greatest wonders of nature. This reference and a later account of his scaling of Mt. Pilatus (1555) provide one of the first records of mountain climbing.

(Mount Pilatus caught my eye in a poster (from a hundred years ago) about its famous mechanical railway (opened in 1889) chugging to the summit; I’ll write separately about the railway and the poster. Here I just note that mountain climbing, as recreation and athletic contest, is only about 500 years old; what was new in Gessner’s day was the idea of climbing to the summit or climbing up difficult mountain faces, rather than climbing mountains only insofar as was necessary to get to the other side — something that people had been doing in Switzerland ever since the place was first inhabited.)

— On the alp(en)horn. From Wikipedia on the instrument:

Conrad Gesner used the words lituum alpinum for the first known detailed description of the alphorn in his De raris et admirandis herbis in 1555.

(The alp(en)horn has attracted my attention a number of times, most recently in a celebration of Wisconsin Swiss music that I’ll post about separately.)

Then on to the main course, the botanical Gesner.

Earlier on this blog:

on 9/9/15 in “Plant family backlog”:

African violets are not violets, or even in the violet family. They are Saintpaullias, in a new family [on this blog], the Gesneriaceae.

on 10/21/16 in “Pingu watches over the gay boys”, on the plant genus Pinguicula, the butterworts:

The name Pinguicula is derived from a term coined by Conrad Gesner, who in his 1561 work entitled Horti Germaniae commented on the glistening leaves: “propter pinguia et tenera folia…” (Latin pinguis, “fat”). The common name “butterwort” reflects this characteristic.

Now on the Gesneriaceae, from Wikipedia:

Gesneriaceae [or the gesneriads] is a family of flowering plants [in the order Lamiales] consisting of about 152 genera and ca. 3,540 species in the Old World and New World tropics and subtropics, with a very small number extending to temperate areas. Many species have colorful and showy flowers and are cultivated as ornamental plants.

Three genera from the family: Sinningia, Streptocarpus, and Columnea:


(#2a) Some gloxinia (Sinningia) cultivars

(#2b) More gloxinia cultivars

Sinningia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Gesneriaceae. It is named after Wilhelm Sinning (1792–1874), a gardener of the Botanische Gärten der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. There are about 65 species of tuberous herbaceous perennials, all occurring in Central and South America, with the greatest concentration of species occurring in southern Brazil.

The best-known species, Sinningia speciosa, was originally introduced to cultivation as Gloxinia speciosa and is still commonly known to gardeners and in the horticultural trade as “gloxinia”.

… Most of the species have large, brightly colored flowers. Because of this, numerous species and numerous hybrids and cultivars are grown as houseplants.

Cape primroses:

(#3) A Cape primrose cultivar

A popular house plant, Streptocarpus, is an Afrotropical genus of flowering plants in the family Gesneriaceae (the Gesneriads). The genus is native to Afromontane biotopes from central, eastern and southern Africa, including Madagascar and the Comoro Islands.

… Although generally referred to simply as “Streptocarpus”, or “Streps”, the common name for subgenus Streptocarpus is Cape primrose, referring to the nativity of several species to South Africa and their superficial resemblance to the genus Primula. The common name for subgenus Streptocarpella is nodding violet.

flying goldfish plants:

(#4) Columnea crassifolia

Columnea is a genus of ca. 200 species of epiphytic [growing on another plant but not parasitic on it] herbs and shrubs in the flowering plant family Gesneriaceae, native to tropical America and the Caribbean. The tubular or oddly shaped flowers are usually large and brightly colored – usually red, yellow, or orange – sometimes resembling a fish in shape. A common name is flying goldfish plants (see also the related Nematanthus [or goldfish plant]) due to the unusual flower shape.

The generic name Columnea was [given] by Carl Linnaeus after the Latinized spelling of the name of the 16th-century Italian botanist Fabio Colonna (Latin: Fabius Columnus).

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