It was Grace Mulloon and fellow naturalist David Auyong who first spotted the magnificent scarlet inflorescence among a group of wild chaconia down a steep precipice along the narrow Blanchisseuse road that meanders through Trinidad’s northern range.
That was in 1957. The naturalists had discovered the only mutant chaconia plant of its kind ever found growing in the wild. Auyong saved the plant from extinction, risking life and limb to obtain suitable material for propagation. He succeeded with the help of Roy Nichols, plant physiologist at the then Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA), in getting three new plants established. In the nick of time, it turned out, since shortly thereafter the original plant perished during road works.
Dr Julian Duncan, former professor of botany at the University of the West Indies, explains: “The material was propagated at ICTA from soft stem cuttings, which rooted relatively easily in a sand medium, but the delicate nature of the fine roots made establishment extremely difficult.”
Only one of the three new plants survived, and great care had to be taken to grow it to maturity and then to propagate it. Officially named Warszewiczia coccinea, the flower is commonly called double chaconia. All plants now in existence are descended from this find. Methods of propagation and culture have greatly improved over the years and the double chaconia has become a common sight in the gardens of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as in overseas horticultural displays.
For most of the rainy season, and especially in August, the hills of Trinidad and Tobago are ablaze with the distinctive scarlet blooms of the wild or single chaconia. In 1962 the National Emblems Committee selected it to be the national flower.
The late Carlisle Chang, one of the committee members, remarked: “We were not aware of the existence of the double variety at the time; otherwise we might have considered it over the single.”
The mutant double chaconia, which is a much more spectacular bloom than the single, is truly a wonder of nature, and is often erroneously considered to be the national flower of Trinidad and Tobago.
While the single chaconia is also found in the northern regions of South America, the double variety is unique to Trinidad and Tobago, so there is a strong reason to have it officially replace the single as the country’s national flower.
The origin of the name chaconia is also in dispute. It is generally thought to be named after Don Jose María Chacon, the last Spanish governor of Trinidad,but some prominent naturalists disagree. They believe that the name is derived from the French word chaconne, a folk dance in which the participants wore little flags similar to the blooms on the trees. They also feel that the name should be spelled Chaconier.
Regardless of the origin and spelling of its name, the chaconia remains a remarkably beautiful flower, the double chaconia even more so.