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 Beecheywith a crew of 100 men, 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 sailed to 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 and the Sandwich Islands, and 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 is by Walter Hood Fitch, the Botanical Magazine's renown illustrator, that accompanied a description of the plant by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, William Jackson Hooker’s son. — Cindy Hartwell

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.