In 1842, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society held its annual exhibit in a building that was originally the Chinese museum of Philadelphia. Covering the show, the Farmers’ Cabinet** reported an Urania Speciosa, a banana-like plant donated by Richard S. Field of Princeton as one of the star attractions. The plant must have been quite tall because the report notes that there was fortunately enough space for its towering stalks in the large exhibition room with high ceilings. A year earlier, a description of important green houses in Princeton*** lists an Urania Speciosa among a collection of plants in the hot-house of Richard S. Field. Thus, we can safely assume that this Urania Speciosa was the same plant as the one entered into the show in Philadelphia a year later. Richard Field who is also the first owner and creator of what is now Marquand Park, may have carefully cultivated this exotic and rare species to be exhibited in the show.
The Urania Speciosa or Ravenala madagascariensis (also known as the Traveler’s tree) is a tropical plant with large paddle-shaped leaves arranged like a giant fan. Although already mentioned in the 17th century by explorers traveling to Madagascar, it was carefully described and illustrated for the first time by Pierre Sonnerat in his Voyages aux Indes orientales et à la Chine of 1782. Arboreta like Kew Garden in London and Les Jardin des Plantes in Paris had an Urania Speciosa in their collection in the 19th century. They were considered rare and exotic specimens. Richard Field was an active collector of plants and trees and well known for his horticultural interests. Privately owning and exhibiting such a plant must have been especially thrilling for him.
**The Farmers’ Cabinet, and American Herd-book: Devoted to …, Volume 7; edited by Francis S. Wiggins, James Pedder, Josiah Tatum, 1842, p. 103
***The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries …, Volume 7; edited by M. Hovey, Boston 1841, p. 123.