The Late Brian Till, Professional Horticulturist and Cymbidium hobbyist, collected a vast amount of sundry orchid literature during his all-too-short life. His widow, Noreen, generously handed this aladdin's cave of words over to me after his death. Amongst the items was a yellowed, six page, foolscap, roneoed document entitled "THE CULTIVATION OF ORCHIDS IN SOUTH AFRICA. by G. van Son, M.Sc." On reading this, I realised that Georges van Son was a man who knew a considerable amount about orchid growing and orchids, in a period I had always thought was virtually the prehistory of South African orchid culture. So I set about finding more about this Orchid man and his life, and it has been a joy to unravel the little bit that I could find out about this incredible man.
Dr. van Son was best known as an Entomologist who worked on the butterflies of Southern Africa at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria from 1925 until his death in 1967. During this period he wrote many papers on butterflies and other insects, but the main product of his life's work was the 4 volume The Butterflies of Southern Africa, three volumes of which were published before his death. These volumes can be seen in the reference section of large public libraries in South Africa; I have consulted them for information regarding the Disa-pollinating Aeropetes tulbaghia at the Bellville Library.
Georges van Son was born in the Russian town or city of Orel, about 200 km south of Moscow on the 1st October 1898; the child of a Dutch diplomat and a Russian Countess, Comtesse Kamarowsky. His mother-tongue was French and he was schooled by private tutor. He spent much of his childhood observing and studying nature on his family's estate. His father was a keen amateur entomologist. At a young age Georges had learnt from the estate head gardener how to graft roses and fruit trees, but was unable to pursue his interest in gardening while enrolled at Cadet School, followed by a period with the Marine Corp at St Petersburg. During this time, in the service of the Imperial Russian Navy, he visited China and Japan.
While on cruise, the Russian Revolution of 1917 began; this altered the course of his life forever. His father was shot by a Bolshevik sniper and the family estate was laid to ruin. Georges, together with his mother and sister were imprisoned; but he was released to play the piano for a (Bolshevik?) butcher's wife! With great hardship, and some help from the Dutch Embassy (who apparently altered some details on Georges' father's diplomatic passport), Georges fled Russia in 1921 with his mother and sister to France and then on to Holland, to his father's family. (The Internet's ability to delve into deep, dark corners has allowed me to determine that in 1919, there was an apologist for the Orel Prison service with the name of H. S. van Son. Whether and how he may have been related to Georges, I am unable to determine.
See the Dutch page: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/haan008inru01_01/haan008inru01_01_0008.htm).
In Holland he found employment at institutes of biological study including the Rijksmuseum in Leiden. It was from here that he was recruited by Dr. A. J. T. Janse of Pretoria, as a personal assistant to work with Janse's private entomological collection, and came out to South Africa at the end of 1923. In 1925 he was appointed entomologist at the Transvaal Museum. Having no formal education, he studied as an extramural student through the University of Pretoria, gaining a B.Sc., M.Sc. and ultimately a D.Sc. in 1948. Some of his great attributes were his generosity, enthusiasm, excellent memory, an encyclopaedic knowledge of insects, his love of field work and his mastery of six languages; he often acted as translator for other museum staff, and all of this done with love and joy.
In 1936 he married Elfrieda Marion Saunders, and they honeymooned on a field trip to the northern Transvaal. They had three sons. Georges van Son became a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, President of the South African Entomological Association and he was also President of the South African Biological Association. This latter organisation was an interesting Pretoria-based society comprising, on average, 120 of the foremost natural history scientists based in Pretoria, coming from such institutions as the Transvaal Museum, University of Pretoria, Botanical Research Institute and especially the Veterinary Research Institute and Faculty at Onderstepoort. It was founded in 1907, one of its founders having been Sir Arnold Theiler, the "father" of Onderstepoort; and appears to have fizzled out in about 1978.
The Biological Association was truly a society of its times - erudite lectures were presented by the cream of the biological intelligentsia on a wide range of subjects. In the early twentieth century, it was still possible to be a natural history polymath, something that the rapid advance in our knowledge has now all but precluded. Increasing specialisation and a lack of the time necessary to delve into a wider study of biology was probably the death knell of this remarkable society. Georges van Son joined the Association in 1927, automatically becoming a life member 25 years later in 1952. He was President of the society in 1951; his Presidential Address being entitled Systematics and Nature. In this Address, he discussed butterflies and succulents, but unfortunately not orchids.
His interest in botany, rekindled after his arrival in South Africa, was expressed in collections of succulents and orchids. The succulent interest derived from his participation in the Vernay-Lang Kalahari Expedition of 1932. He was both entomologist and botanist to the Expedition. In 1934 he made a trip to Europe where he swopped succulent seed for orchid plants which he brought home to Pretoria to cultivate. He seems to have been the first South African to have made and raised orchid hybrids. From Sander's List we get the following entries in his name:
|Paphiopedilum Glaucolowii||(P. glaucophyllum x lowii)||1952|
|Paphiopedilum Glaucopar||(P. glaucophyllum x parishii)||1952|
The above three hybrids registered as
Cypripediums, as it was done in those days.
|(P. lowii x Edgar)||1953|
|BrassoIaeliocattleya Comtesse Kamarowsky||(Blc. Viscountess x Bc. Corrientes)
Named by van Son for his mother.
|Laeliocattleya Elfrieda||(C. Dupreana x Lc. Cowrata)
Named for his wife.
|Laeliocattleya Mossiella||(C. mossiae x Lc. Hassanella)||1953|
|Brassocattleya Corwar||(Bc. Corrientes x C. warneri)||1956|
|Laeliocattleya Pink Moonlight||(C. labiata x Lc. Sunburst) (St. Geo. Pk.)||1956|
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