Three illustrations of the queen's wreath vine,
antigonon leptopus

For a desert gardener, one of the rewards for having survived the never-ending heat of June and July is the late summer explosion of Queen’s wreath. With its dazzling clusters of hot pink flowers, Antigonon leptopus is a vigorous and sprawling vine that uses its tendrils to climb on and up anything in its path. The heart-shaped leaves are bright green with wavy margins and striking veination. Half-inch flowers range from pink to nearly red and are heavy nectar producers, making the plant very attractive to bees. The vine dies back in freezing temperatures but will readily regrow from underground tubers.

There are three species in the genus Antigonon, distributed from Mexico into Central America. Of the three, only the Queen’s wreath has spread far afield from its native range, having been introduced as an ornamental in the southeast and gulf regions of the United States, several Pacific islands and the West Indies. In many areas, particularly islands, the vine is considered invasive as it becomes rampant, smothering the native vegetation (much like the odious kudzu, only more attractive).

Antigonon leptopus was first described by Sir William Jackson Hooker from specimens collected in Mexico, in 1827. Two years earlier, the HMS Blossom, under the command of Captain Frederick William Beechey1with a crew of 100 men2, had sailed from England to the Pacific on a four-year scientific and exploratory expedition to the Arctic. Their objective was to rendezvous near the Bering Strait with Sir John Franklin, whose expedition was traveling on land along the Canadian coast from the east. While the Blossom reached the Arctic in the summers of 1826 and 1827, Franklin’s overland expedition never appeared. When not waiting around for Franklin, Beechey’s expedition traveled to China, several Pacific islands, including the Sandwich Islands, and the Kamchatka peninsula. The crew spent much time mapping and collecting specimens in the area around San Francisco. After the second missed rendezvous with Franklin, the ship made for England, stopping in Mexico for additional collecting.

The expedition’s botanical specimens were given to Hooker and George Walker Arnott, botanists at the University of Glasgow, who prepared a flora of the expedition. In 1841, they published The Botany of Captain Beechey's Voyage. The work contains 99 excellent botanical illustrations, 37 of which were drawn by Hooker.

The first drawing at right is from Hooker and Arnott’s flora. A few structures to note: Fig.1 at top right is an enlarged flower that shows three outer tepals with two smaller inner tepals; Fig.3 at bottom right shows the stamens with tepals removed; Fig.6 shows the pistil; and Fig.8 at bottom shows a single fruit.

The second illustration is from Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l'Europe, or Flowers of the Greenhouses and Gardens of Europe, one of the finest horticultural journals of its day. Published in Belgium in 23 volumes from 1845 to 1883 by the horticulturist Louis Benoit van Houtte, the journal presented some 2,000 chromolithographs by the most skilled lithographers in Europe. While the painting of the Queen’s wreath poses the plant in an unnatural setting, it is a faithful representation of the flower’s vibrant color and graceful vine.

At bottom is an illustration of Antigonon leptopus from the 1897 issue of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. The painting of the vine, by Walter Hood Fitch, the Botanical Magazine's renown illustrator, accompanied a description of the plant by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, William Jackson Hooker’s son. — Cindy Hartwell

1  Before assuming command of the HMS Blossom, Captain Beechey had fought in the War of 1812 and made two Arctic voyages, the first with Sir John Franklin (1817-18) and then with Sir William Parry (1819). In 1836, Beechey took command of the HMS Sulphur, another scientific and exploratory expedition, but by the time the ship reached Valparaiso, he became ill and had to return home, ceding command of the ship to Sir Edward Belcher. In 1831, he published Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Bering's Strait to Co-operate with the Polar Expeditions, 1825-1828.

Captain Beechey was the son of the famous portraitist Sir William Beechey, painter of British royalty and the aristocracy.

2  The crew of the HMS Blossom included Edward Belcher (1799-1877), the assistant surveyor and a specimen collector. In 1852, Belcher led five ships in the final British Naval rescue expedition to locate Sir John Franklin’s missing ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, which had sailed from England in 1845. After an unusually harsh winter in 1853-54, four of the five ships became frozen in the ice. In the summer of 1854, running low on supplies and wary of another brutal winter, Belcher decided to return to England with all the crew sailing on the HMS North Star. They reached England in September without having found any trace of Franklin’s ships.

One of Belcher’s four abandoned ships was the HMS Resolute, which became icebound near Melville Island. It managed to escape the ice and drifted some 1,200 miles where it was found, in 1855, in the Davis Strait by an American whaling ship. The American Congress authorized $40,000 to refit the ship in hopes that it would be used for another Arctic expedition to search for Franklin’s missing ships.

In 1856, the newly repaired ship sailed to England and was presented to Queen Victoria, but the British Navy refused any further efforts to find Franklin. The Resolute was retired, in 1879, and salvaged for its timber. Three desks were constructed from the Resolute’s timbers, with one being given to the U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes as a token of the Empire’s gratitude for the return of the Resolute. The Resolute Desk has been used in the Oval Office of the White House by several U.S. presidents.

An abbreviated version of this piece appears in the September 2019 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.