Plant 191

Bobartia robusta Baker (Iridaceae)


Rush iris

Bobartia robusta is a South African evergreen perennial, petaloid monocotyledon. It grows in large tufts, spreading by creeping rhizomes, and has cylindrical leaves reaching heights of 120 centimetres. The yellow flowers, which are arranged in a particular type of inflorescence called a rhipidium, are extremely short-lived (usually lasting less than one day). In its native range, the bee-pollinated flowers are usually produced all year around but are especially frequent after rainfalls between August and October. The fruits are lumpy, woody capsules.

Bobartia robusta is native to coastal areas and at low altitudes on mountain slopes, preferring sandy, nutrient-poor soils on free-draining sandstone; it is extremely resistant to drought. Since it is unpalatable to livestock it will sometimes become dominant in fields that have been overgrazed. Furthermore, it quickly re-establishes after wildfires.

The genus Bobartia was named by Carolus Linnaeus in honour of the contributions made to botany by both Jacob Bobart (c.1599-1680) and his eldest son, also called Jacob (1641-1719). The Bobarts were responsible for the Oxford Physic Garden for nearly 70 years after its establishment. Bobart the Elder was born in Brunswick, and before being appointed the first Keeper of the Garden in 1642, he had served as a soldier, and was also a publican. When appointed, Bobart the Elder immediately began to build up a large collection of plants, while selling produce to fund the Garden. He apparently had a pet goat, and tagged his beard with silver on holidays. Bobart had a close relationship with Robert Morison (1620-1683), the University's first Professor of Botany, who used the Garden for teaching. Besides the living collection, Bobart also built up a herbarium and library that, along with his son's herbarium, become the foundation of the Oxford University Herbaria.

Jacob Bobart the Younger took over Morison's teaching and academic role after his death, and continued his father's work developing the living collection. Bobart inspired the botanical interests of William Sherard (1659-1728), a diplomat who eventually created one of the world's largest herbaria. Bobart the Young also had a lighter side to his character. For example, he modified the corpse of a rat to give it 'wings' and presented it to the scientific community as a dragon. Bobart the Younger's reputation as a great academic botanist led to disappointment in at least one visitor: 'his [Bobart] whole face and hands [were] as black and coarse as those of the meanest gardener.'

Further reading

Harris SA 2017. Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: a brief history. Bodleian Library.

Manning JC et al. 2002. Color encyclopedia of Cape bulbs. Timber Press.

James Penny