Benedict Roezl

Today in Mailbox we reveal the name of our July mystery man and ask a new quiz question for the month of August. Listeners/readers quoted: Y. Venkata Ratnam, Mike Shea, Paul R Peacock, Sunilbaran Das, Li Ming, Zara Modu, Colin Law, Charles Konecny.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Hello and welcome to Radio Prague’s Mailbox programme where we quote from your e-mails. This one is from Y. Venkata Ratnam from India:

“It is after a long gap I am writing to Radio Prague. Sometimes I am of the opinion the changes the world has seen in the last 15–20 years are extraordinary. The days of snail mail, telephone dialing and waiting for the reply, leaving a message to call at a particular time, listening eagerly to analog/digital transmissions from distant radio stations, all these have changed a lot or gone altogether. But those days are great to remember and discuss with old-timers.

“The changes are also to be invited – as long as they are good for the present conditions. The mobile wherever and whenever you want to call and talk to somebody. The Internet where lots, lots of information is kept stored and people make use of it from nook and corner. The Internet Radio where one can listen to hours of broadcasting without many setbacks. These are a few to name. Keep going .... It is all the best that happens.... “

And now, as every month, it’s time to look at your competition answers to our mystery Czech quiz question. Mike Shea from Scotland wrote:

“The mystery Botanist is Benedict Roezl. Born in Prague in 1823, after early years in Bohemia, Roezl traveled extensively, initially to Belgium but fairly soon to America, Mexico, Cuba (where he lost his left hand in an accident, which he replaced with a hook) and then to South America, Peru and the Andes. He made a huge study and collection of some 800 orchids new to science over 40 of which carry his name. He retired to Prague where he died in 1885. A statue stands to his memory in Charles Square.“

Paul R Peacock writes from Australia:

“Benedikt Roezl was probably the most famous collector of orchids of his time. He became the Chef de culture at the School of Horticulture of the Belgian Government in 1852 after holding several horticultural posts. In 1854 the opportunity arose for him to travel to Mexico via the USA. Unfortunately he lost his left hand in 1868 in Havana, Cuba while demonstrating his fibre-extracting machine but afterwards he wore a hook in its place.

“Travelling extensively through North and South America he often had to climb mountains to altitudes of up to 6,000 meters to collect thousands of specimens, eventually returning to Prague where he retired and passed away in October 1885. A monument was erected to him in Prague in 1898 and this still stands on Charles Square. If one visits this they will see an orchid in his hand and an Indian sitting behind him.”

Sunilbaran Das writes from India:

“Roezl was also the founder of the Czech botanical magazine Flora in 1880, he travelled to NewYork, New Mexico, Havana, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Titicaca, and many more places. I know about him because I am also interested in orchids and have some of the orchids in our garden.”

Li Ming from China sent us this answer:

“Benedikt Roezl was one of the most widely traveled orchid hunters. He spent decades in Central and South America stripping orchids from the wild. Almost all of his travel was on horse or by foot. He is credited with the discovery of about 800 species of plants. For the rest of his life he was interested in news in the field of gardening and botany. He corresponded with colleagues abroad. A number of plants, mainly orchids, were given names to which ‘Roezli’ was added. He is commemorated today by a Prague statue that raises an orchid with one hand and clasps a book with the other.”

The monument to Benedict Roezl on Charles Square,  Prague,  photo: PeregrinusX,  CC 3.0 license
Zara Modu writes from Nigeria:

“Traveller, gardener and botanist, Roezl was first trained as a gardener at count Thun's gardens in northern Bohemia, the western part of the Czech kingdom in the Austrian empire. After taking several gardening jobs in 1846, he started working as a gardener in the Louise van Houtte garden in the Belgian Gent. He became the main gardener of its tropical greenhouses and later, when the garden became a national institute, he was named the main gardener, too.”

Colin Law from New Zealand sent a thoroughly researched answer:

“Taking up the occupation of his father, Benedikt first trained and worked as a gardener in Count Thun’s gardens at Děčín in north Bohemia. Following his apprenticeship he worked in several gardens in Europe and in 1846 gained a position as a gardener at Louis van Houtte gardens in Ghent, Belgium, later becoming head gardener. However Benedikt’s work in the tropical greenhouse saw him yearning to visit the tropics to study the plants in their natural environment.

“In 1855 Benedikt left from the port of Vlissingen in Holland to sail to New Orleans and thence to Mexico where he started a nursery for European fruit trees. He invented and patented a machine for extracting and cleaning fibre from hemp and in 1868 his invention gained him a diploma from an Agricultural Exhibition. Unfortunately a subsequent demonstration of his invention in Havana, Cuba, went wrong and Roezl severely injured his left arm while feeding leaves into the machine. For the rest of his life he was conspicuous because of the iron hook he wore in place of his left hand and it was an item of great interest to the native tribes he met frequently on his plant-gathering expeditions throughout the Americas.

Orchids in Prague's botanical garden
“Roezl sent large consignments of plants and seeds back to Europe, including occasions when he sent eight tons of orchids from Venezuela to London, ten thousand plants from Peru and the Andes, 800 species of flowering plants and trees previously unknown to European horticulture and numerous shipments of orchids including those which came to be named after him. Among them are miltoniopus roezli, pescatorea roezli, selenipedium roezli and sobralia roezli. Some commentators suggest that we should be grateful that the days of ‘savagely pillaging entire populations of orchids for the mass market’ are long gone!

“Roezl finally returned to settle in Prague in 1875 and began selling exotic plants around Europe. The Flora botanical society appointed him as their first president and in 1880 he founded ‘Flora”, the first Czech botanical magazine. In 1884 Roezl was a visiting expert at the International Gardening Exhibition in St Petersburg where he was awarded the Imperial Russian Order of St Stanislaus for his life-long achievements.

“On October 14th 1885 Benedikt Roezl died in Prague and he was buried beside his father in Panenský Týnec.”

Charles Konecny writes from Ohio:

The grave of Benedict Roezl in Panenský Týnec,  photo: Gortyna,  CC 3.0 license
“Roezl became a gardener by working at some of the famed gardens of Europe. His interest in orchids began to take hold and he got the itch to go elsewhere in search of trees and other flora but especially orchids. So it was off to the Americas. It wasn't easy, as he traveled North and South America for years by foot and horseback. It wasn't made any easier when he lost his left hand in Cuba. But he was very successful and sent thousands of orchids back to Europe and to that deal he had with Sander & Co. in London. He discovered over 800 species of orchids and became the foremost expert on orchids of his time. Roezl never amassed much wealth doing what he did but he did amass a ‘wealth of love’ for the orchid. He is honored by a statue in Prague and also has a very nice grave site. Who knows, maybe I gave a Roezl orchid to my date at our high school prom.”

Thank you very much for your answers. This time the lucky winner is Jaroslaw Jedrzejczak from Poland. Congratulations and here is another question for the month of August.

“In August we would like to know the name of the Czech chemist who was behind the development of a number of groundbreaking antiretroviral drugs used around the world to treat diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and who sadly passed away in July 2012, aged 75.”

Please send us your answers by August 24th. We are also looking forward to your comments – either by e-mail or on Facebook – as well your questions and reception reports. Until next time, happy listening.