Odoardo Beccari (1843 - 1920)

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An Italian botanist who was born in Florence, Beccari spent a few months at Kew Gardens after his university graduation. At Kew he met not only Charles Darwin and William and Joseph Hooker, but also James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak. The latter was a useful connection, as Beccari had already decided to explore Sarawak, and sailed there from Southampton in April 1865, joined at Suez by his brother Giovanni and another botanist. These companions stayed only a few months, but Beccari stayed for three years. He was provided with a bungalow near the royal palace at Kuching, and which was, he said only a few hundred yards from the primeval forest. Nothing better could be wished for by a naturalist.

At first he explored and collected only nearby, but after finding that the Dyaks, once head-hunters, had been pacified under the autocratic rule of the British Rajah, he travelled far into the interior; even to Brunei, on the Rajahs gunboat, and to many islands off Malaysia and New Guinea. Sarawak, he wrote later, is of all countries of the world the best provided with great rivers, and can be travelled all over by water. The first time he met a Dyak in the forest he felt a certain amount of diffidence, for the thought struck me that he might take a fancy to my head. Back at the bungalow, he would pack up his collections to be picked up by the first available steamship that was going back to Europe. Apart from plants, these collections included shellfish, butterflies and other insects, and skins of orang-utans.

Beccari was enthralled by all the plants of the tropical forest, and was delighted to find a Rafflesia, consisting of one gigantic flower with a terrible smell, parasitic on a creeper, among the most marvellous products of nature in existence, and a phosphorescent fungus that was bright enough to read a newspaper placed on it. On cliffs along the coast were Cycas_circinalis, one over 30 ft high with a twice bifurcated trunk. He set up a field research hut in what was, at the time, remote jungle on the slopes of Gunung Matang, now part of Kubah National Park.

But palms were becoming his primary interest and there were plenty of new ones to collect: 130 species in 25 genera, mostly climbers, but including 15 Pinanga and 12 Licuala species, and species of Areca, Arenga, Caryota, Cyrtostachys, Eugeissona, Iguanura, Johannesteijsmannia, Pholidocarpus and Zalacca.

One of these, Iguanura_palmuncula was at that time the smallest of known palms. The only genus peculiar to Borneo was Gigliolia, which he named after a friend, but that one today is just another Areca. His health remained fairly good, apart from the expected bouts of fever and a severe stinging by bees; and there was no way of avoiding the leeches. After one particularly violent attack of fever in 1868, he at last headed for home.

He returned to Florence for a while and went exploring in Ethiopia, but was soon drawn again to the tropics: to New Guinea with d'Albertis in 1872. After illness forced d'Albertis to withdraw to Sydney to recover, Beccari continued the exploration. In spite of being stricken with smallpox enroute, he went on to explore many of the islands between New Guinea and Indonesia. It was 1876 before he returned to Florence. In 1877 he was off again, to Australia, returning in 1878 via Sumatra, where he discovered the famous Amorphophallus titanum, largest of the Aroids.

Beccari married in 1882 and had four sons. Finally settling into herbarium life, he became the most prolific of palm taxonomists, establishing 500 species and 35 genera, and publishing major studies of palm flora in many countries in Asia and the Pacific, Cuba and Madagascar.

Rhapis_subtilis from Thailand and Rhapis_laosensis were discovered and named by Odoardo Beccari. He named several Australian palm species, including Carpentaria_acuminata, Livistona_decipiens , Livistona_loryphylla, Livistona_rigida, and the genus Howea. Various plant genera were named after him: Beccarina, Beccarianthus, Beccariella, Beccarinda and the Madagascan palm Beccariophoenix, although only the last two of these genera are still valid and unchanged. His name is also commemorated also in the palm species Hydriastele_beccariana, Licuala_beccariana, and Pritchardia_beccariana.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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