E.J.H Corner, a Ficus Authority and “My Father in His Suitcase”

I was searching online for ficus information, came across “FigWeb” and saw this reference:

Berg, C.C. & Corner, E.J.H. 2005. Moraceae – Ficus. Flora Malesiana Series I (Seed Plants) Volume 17/Part 2. National Herbarium of the Netherlands, Leiden.

Holy Moly! Was Corner still alive in 2005? No, he passed in 1996. The monograph was published posthumously.

As a ficus bonsai enthusiast, I think there are two botanists whose names are worth knowing beside Carolus Linnaeus the Younger who first described our ubiquitous Ficus microcarpa. These two botanists are:

C.C. Berg: He was the one who clarified the scientific name of Willow Leaf aka Narrow Leaf Ficus, described it in a paper with a very interesting title: “A New Species of Ficus (Moraceae) of Uncertain Provenance”. His description was based on container plants (bonsai, pre-bonsai??) from Florida, which became the type specimens. So Willow Leaf Ficus’ scientific name is officially Ficus salicaria; and salicaria means willow-like in Latin, a round about way of calling it a willow-like ficus. Many people still use the names F. nerifolia, F. salicifolia, but they are different species, not the one we grow in bonsai.

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Cornelius (Kees) Christiaan Berg 1934-2012
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My Ficus salicaria CC Berg shohin bonsai.

E.J.H. Corner: This is the man this blog is about, an authority on Asiatic ficus; another botanist I think we ficus bonsai fans ought to know too.

EJH Corner
E.J.H. Corner, 1906-1996.

For years F. microcarpa is erroneously called F. retusa, and still is. Below are F. retusa specimens in the Kew Garden herbarium, determined by Corner in 1958 for his revision of Flora Malanesia. It is a species found only in the Malay Archipelago and is not available in the nursery trade. The ‘Kinmen’, ‘Tiger Bark’, ‘Ginseng’ bonsai we grow are F. microcarpa from Taiwan and China, not F. retusa, so please stop calling them a retusa.

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F. retusa, determined E.J.H. Corner, 8/1958.

Why do I write a blog on E.J.H. Corner?

I met Corner by chance in late 1978. I was not into bonsai then, nor did I know he was an Asiatic ficus authority. I was searching for a group of small, iridescent butterflies belonging to the genera Poritia and Simiskinia in Penang Hill, Malaysia.

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These nine Proritia and Simiskina species were collected in Penang, Kedah and Perak states in Malaysia in 1978 and 1979. Some of them look very similar to each other and could only be identified by going through the “Keys”.

Two gentlemen came along the trail, one asked what was I doing and we struck up conversations. He introduced himself, a Mr. Corner, the author of “Wayside Trees of Malaya”, published in 1940. He was very happy that a young man with a net in hand, in the middle of a jungle trail, recognized his name. Serious butterfly collectors also learn to identify butterfly host plants and their life histories. He jovially lifted his white cotton hat and showed me his white hair, that he was indeed old enough to be the author of the 1940 book. We had something in common to talk about. Later, the other gentleman, who was the Director of the Penang Botanical Garden, hurried him to move along as they were heading somewhere else,

I never thought about the man I met until I came across “Figweb”, began to read about him on the internet and found a book written by his estranged son, “My Father in His Suitcase”. It was a fascinating biography of Corner by his son who left home in 1960, aged 19, and would never see his father again. Corner was a very difficult father; I could not have imagined that since he was talkative and jovial when we met in Penang Hill.

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Corner, his Malay assistance and his monkey collector.

Corner left letters, photos and memorabilia for his son in a suitcase, which was nearly thrown away without being opened. After 46 years, John K. Corner faced his estranged father in a suitcase. It is a well written biography of this brilliant botanist. Here is a little background on Corner to pique your interest:

After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Corner thought it was a waste of time to get a Ph.D. (like Bill Gate?), so he headed out and worked in the Singapore Botanical Garden in 1929. There, he trained MONKEYS (!!!) to collect specimens from treetops of the rainforest. During the Japanese Occupation, he felt it was his duty to safeguard the Botanical Garden’s scientific collections, and was branded by some as a collaborator! The Emperor of Japan, a biologist and an orchid enthusiast, had his “Wayside Trees of Malaya” for bed time reading, so Corner was ‘well treated”, at least not confined in a POW internment camp during war time. Post war, he became a highly regarded botanist, head of tropical botany in the University of Cambridge, and received several honorary doctorate degrees and accolades!

wayside trees of malaysa
You can read part of this two volume work in this link. Note a trained monkey collecting tree specimen on the book cover.

I won’t go further, please read the book if the above short note intrigues you. A brilliant man could indeed be a very difficult man to be around.

The book mentioned he re-visited Penang in 1978 but I could not find the exact sentence mentioning it; it was somewhere 2/3 or 3/4 into this 400+ page book. I should have marked it. As butterfly enthusiasts, we are meticulous in labelling detail information on every specimen we collected, and my Penang Hill field trip dates were from November 14, 1978 to January10, 1979. A little note on the dates if John K. Corner ever read this blog.

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