Plant 386

Swainsona formosa (G.Don) J.Thompson (Fabaceae)

Sturt’s desert pea

Swainsona formosa, a plant with spectacular flowers occurs in hot dry landscapes from the northwest coasts of Western Australia through the interior to eastern and southern Australia. It has bright red elongated pea-like flowers arranged upright on vertical stalks, usually in groups of five, above prostrate compound leaves. The flowers can be up to 90 mm in length and have a bright red or black boss at the centre.

Back in 1699 this plant attracted the attention of a former English privateer, the navigator and naturalist William Dampier (1651-1715). He was the first European to collect a specimen of this plant, to show people back home, when he landed on what is now called East Lewis Island in Western Australia to search for fresh water. An unnamed artist on board his ship, The Roebuck, drew the plant and this became the first published illustration of Sturt’s pea. Remarkably, the botanical specimens Dampier collected survived shipwreck on the journey back to Britain. With the help of the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705), the plant was named ‘Colutea Novae Hollandiae ...’. Ray would have compared it with a European species of Colutea in cultivation in Britain. The name was first published in 1703 in a book written by Dampier. The dried specimen is held in Oxford University Herbaria and is part of the first authenticated and documented collection of plants from Australia.

The plant has been through numerous name changes over the centuries because its distinctive floral structure has perplexed taxonomists. Under the Linnaean system, it was first named Donia formosa in 1832, using material collected in the Malus Islands of the Dampier Archipelago in 1818 by Allan Cunningham (1791-1839). However, the name Clianthus dampieri was used in 1835, followed in 1950 by Clianthus formosus, and reclassification to Swainsona formosa in 1990. A proposal to rename it again to a new genus Willdampia was made in 1999. Molecular systematic studies are being undertaken to try and place the species with its closest relatives but for the present it remains as Swainsona formosa. The current generic name commemorates Isaac Swainson (1746-1812), a London physician who developed a private botanic garden. The common name commemorates the English explorer Charles Sturt (1796-1869) who explored the interior of Australia.

To Aboriginal Australians the flower represents the spirit of a young girl who came back as a beautiful flower after tragically being killed for falling in love.

Further reading

Cross HB et al. 2018. The Sturt pea through 300 years of Australian botanical exploration. Swainsona 30: 1-8.

Dampier W 1703. A voyage to New Holland etc. in the year 1699. Vol III. James Knapton.

Symon D and Jusaitis M 2007. Sturt Pea: a most splendid plant. Board of the Botanic Gardens & State Herbarium.

Serena Marner