Percy H. Gentle

(December 3, 1890 – August 16, 1958)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) curates about two dozen specimens collected by Percy H. Gentle.  However, as Central America has not been a focus of our cataloging efforts, it is likely that we will find more specimens collected by Gentle as our inventory and cataloging efforts continue.

Gentle’s specimens are curated by herbaria across North America.  As Cyrus Longworth Lundell collaborated closely with Gentle, it is not surprising that the Lundell Herbarium (LL) and University of Texas Herbarium (TEX) in Austin, Texas curate over 1800 vascular plant specimens collected by Gentle.  Likewise, as Gentle was a close collaborator of Harley Harris Bartlett, the University of Michigan Herbarium (MICH) curates about 200 of his vascular plant specimens (and at least 23 fungal specimens and 23 bryophytes).  The Field Museum Herbarium (F) curates over 500 specimens collected by Gentle.  Other North American herbaria curating substantial numbers of Gentle’s specimens include Arizona State University (ASU; 154 specimens), Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM; 166), Harvard Herbaria (HUH; 263), Purdue University (PUR; 7 fungal specimens), University of Arizona (ARIZ; 154), Missouri Botanical Garden (MO; 88 bryophytes), New York Botanical Garden (NY; 49 bryophytes) and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (WIS; 118).  Like NCU many of these herbaria continue to catalog their holdings, so it is possible that more specimens collected by Gentle will be found.Due to confusion over “Honduras” and “British Honduras” many of Gentle’s specimens are mistakenly attributed to Honduras instead of Belize.13

“Percy H. Gentle was born in Belize, British Honduras [now Belize] on December 3, 1890 and died at Stann Creek [a district of Belize] on August 16, 1958.  Baptized Percival Hildebert Gentle, he was educated in local schools. In 1931 he accompanied Professor H. H. Bartlett on the botanical expedition of the University of Michigan – Carnegie Institution of Washington to Peten [Guatemala].14  Subsequently through 1932 he collected in the Colony for Professor Bartlett.  He was Dr. C. L. Lundell’s field assistant on expeditions to Peten and British Honduras in 1933 and 1936.  Also, in  1933 Mr. Gentle began work under Dr. Lundell’s sponsorship in British Honduras, and his botanical exploration was continuous thereafter until his death.  Covering a span of nearly twenty-six years, his series totals 9755, and he made as many as twenty specimens of each number.  The first set of his collection, for the period 1931-1943, is in the University of Michigan Herbarium [MICH].  The Lundell Herbarium [LL] contains the complete set from 1944 through 1958, and much of his earlier material as well.  His name is commemorated by the genus Gentlea  (Myrsinaceae), and by numerous species named for him.  Percy H. Gentle will go down in history as the first important botanical explorer of his race.”1

The University of Michigan Herbarium (MICH) curates wood samples collected by Gentle.  “Although the herbarium contains more than 180 of Gentle’s wood specimens, Bartlett recorded in his field notebook that many of Gentle’s specimens were “lost in the great Belize hurricane [of 1931].” Some of Gentle’s samples are accompanied by Mayan names or other ethnobotanical notes.”2

The 1931 British Honduras hurricane was the deadliest hurricane in the history of British Honduras (known as Belize since 1973).  [The storm reached] Category 4 hurricane intensity on 10 September.  The hurricane subsequently made landfall in Belize City with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph… Belize City was devastated, with the entire city being inundated by at least 5 feet of water.  Property on six street was completely swept away, while overall 70% of the city was destroyed.  Among the buildings severely damaged or demolished included many buildings and resident halls at St. John’s College and the U.S. Embassy building; the Consul suffered fatal injuries during the collapse of the building…. Within a 25 mi radius of Belize City and about 40 mi upstream the Belize River, all agricultural plantations were obliterated… The storm left approximately 2,500 deaths, making it the deadliest tropical cyclone in the history of Belize.”3

The Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University curates a two page list of plants collected in British Honduras by Gentle (with determinations by Standley).  The document is dated 1934 — in the early stages of Gentle’s collaboration with Bartlett, Lundell and Standley.Meerman and Sabido note that “Gentle, a Belizean, collected from 1931 to 1958, amassing nearly 10,000 specimens, the largest number from different individual plants of any botanist in Belize.” 6

Vanilla inodora, formerly known as Vanilla pfaviana. Photo by A. P. Karremans in Karremans et al. (2020) A Reappraisal of Neotropical Vanilla. With A Note On Taxonomic Inflation and The Importance of Alpha Taxonomy in Biological Studies. Lankesteriana. 20. 395-497. 10.15517/lank.v20i3.45203

Oakes Ames credited Percy H. Gentle with finding a very rare Vanilla Orchid, Vanilla pfaviana Reichenbach filius.  “From 1889 (the year of Reichenbach’s death) until 1914, V. pfaviana remained an obscure species; its identity could not be established because the type was inaccessible being a part of the Reichenbachian Herbarium in Vienna and unapproachable by the terms of Reichenbach’s will during the twenty-five years following his decease.  In the original description, Reichenbach cited Mexico as the native country of V. pfaviana, saying that it was found by one of Mr. Pfau’s collectors, yet, what I take to be the type indicates Endres as the collector and Costa Rica as the source… Among the collections of orchids secured by numerous expeditions to Mexico since 1888, specimens referable to V. pfaviana failed to appear prior to 1933 when plants were collected in the vicinity of Atoyac near Vera Cruz; and, notwithstanding the intensive collections made in Costa Rica in recent years, nothing answering to the original description was discovered until 1936 when Alexander F. Skutch found specimens in the Province of San  Jose.  In 1935, Percy H. Gentle found specimens in British Honduras… BRITISH HONDURAS:  Gracie Rock, Sibun River, May 1, 1935.  Percy H. Gentle 1672.” 9 

Gentle is also credited with collecting the type specimen of another orchid, Scaphyglottis wercklei Schltr. var. major C. Schwinfurth:  BRITISH HONDURAS, Belize District, Gracie Rock, Sibun River.  Epiphyte in secondary forest.  January 30, 1936.  Percy H. Gentle 1781″  (Holotype:  MICH, Isotype:  HUH: AMES).10

“[Gentle] devoted the latter half of his professional life to collecting herbarium specimens throughout the country [of Belize].  His collections were sent to the United States and from there distributed to herbaria throughout the world.  Our data sows that 153 specimens collected by him were described as new taxa… From 1931 until shortly before his death in 1958, Gentle collected 9756 numbers, easily making him the most prolific collector f the Belize flora… The quantity and quality of the specimens reflect the dedication of a resident botanist who traveled widely and was always attuned to species not previously encountered… Percival Gentle had a keen eye for plants he had not previously collected.  Based on collection data in our databases, we estimate he collected approximately 65% of the flora.  His numerous and well-executed specimens are a testament to his dedication and skill as a botanist and a legacy enriching our understanding of the Belize flora.”15

Cyrus Longworth Lundell named the genus Gentlea (placed in the Myrsinaceae family by some botanists, in the Primulaceae by others) in honor of Percy H. Gentle.  Gentlea are shrubs or small trees found primarily in upper cloud and elfin forest formations from western Mexico (Jalisco) south to Peru.  While there have been as many as 22 species placed in this neotropical genus, Ricketson and Pipoly recognize nine:  Gentlea austin-smithii (Lundell) Lundell, Gentlea crenulata Lundell, Gentlea lancifolia Lundell, Gentlea micranthera (Donn. Sm.) Lundell, Gentlea penduliflora (A. DC.) Pipoly & Ricketson, Gentlea standleyi Lundell, Gentlea tacanensis (Lundell) Lundell, Gentlea vatteri (Standl. & Steyerm.) Lundelland Gentlea venosissima (Ruiz & Pav.) Lundell.

There are a plethora of plant species named in honor of Percy H. Gentle.

AnacardiaceaeMetopium gentlei Lundell
ApocynanceaeLaubertia gentlei Lundell; Matelea gentlei (Lundell & Standl.) Woodson; Vincetoxicum gentlei Lundell & Standl.
AquifoliaceaeIlex gentlei Lundell
CelastraceaeCrossopetalum gentlei (Lundell) Lundell; Myginda gentlei (Lundell) Lundell; Rhacoma gentlei Lundell
ClusiaceaeClusia gentlei Lundell
CommelinaceaeCallisia gentlei Matuda
DichapetalaceaeDichapetalum gentlei Lundell
EriocaulaceaePaepalanthus gentlei Moldenke
Euphorbiaceae:  Acalypha gentlei Atha
Fabaceae:   Acacia gentlei Standl.; Bauhinia gentlei Lundell; Pithcellobium gentlei Lundell; Vachellia gentlei (Standl.) Seigler & Ebinger
LauraceaeDamburneya gentlei (Lundell) Trofimov; Nectandra gentlei Lundell; Persea gentlei Lundell; Phoebe gentlei (Lundell) Standl. & Steyerm.
LecythidaceaeGrias gentlei Lundell
LoranthaceaeStruthanthus gentlei Lundell
MalpighiaceaeBunchosia gentlei Lundell; Heteropterys gentlei Lundell
MalvaceaeHeliocarpus gentlei Lundell; Quararibea gentlei Lundell
MarcgraviaceaeMarcgravia gentlei Lundell
MelastomataceaeGraffenrieda gentlei Lundell
MoraceaeBrosimum gentlei Lundell; Ficus gentlei Lundell
MyrtaceaeChamguava gentlei (Lundell) Landrum; Eugenia gentlei Lundell; Myrcia gentlei Lundell; Psidium gentlei Lundell
NyctaginaceaeNeea gentlei Lundell
PhyllanthaceaeHieronyma gentlei Lundell
PiperaceaePiper gentlei Trel.
PolygonaceaeCoccoloba gentlei Lundell (Type specimen curated by MICH, collected by Percy H. Gentle #56, along the Belize-Sibun River road, Belize District, British Honduras, 1931-1932; duplicate in F.)11
Primulaceae:  Ardisia gentlei Lundell
RubiaceaeRandia gentlei Lundell
RutaceaeZanthoxylum gentlei Lundell & Standl.
SalicaceaeCasearia gentlei Lundell
SantalaceaePhoradendron gentlei Trel.
SapotaceaePouteria gentlei Lundell
SchlegeliaceaeSchlegelia gentlei Lundell
SmilacaceaeSmilax gentlei Lundell
SolanaceaeMarkea gentlei Lundell; Solanum gentlei Lundell
ViolaceaeRinorea gentlei Lundell

It would be interesting to know if any specimens collected by Gentle remain in Belize.  According to Goodwin and Cayetano,  the Belize National

Percival Hildebert Gentle (1890-1958) was the first native of British Honduras (now Belize) to collect significant numbers of  herbarium specimens. He collaborated with Harley Harris Bartlett (MICH) and Cyrus Longworth Lundell (LL) to document the flora of Guatemala and Belize. Illustration by Myrl Robinson is frontispiece of Wrightia volume 3, 1961.

Herbarium (BRH) was established in 1928 and resided in the Paslow Building in Belize City.  In 1996 BRH moved to the capital city of Belmopan “due to fire”.  With the support of the Belize Forest Department and the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, BRH hopes to re-invigorate the herbarium as a resource for teaching, research and conservation.12

SOURCES:

  1. Lundell, Cyrus Longworth.  1961.  Percy H. Gentle.  Wrightea 3 (1):  ii-iii.
  2.  Xylarium, University of Michigan Herbarium.  https://lsa.umich.edu/herbarium/databases/xylarium.html  accessed on 1 February, 2022.
  3. Wikipedia contributors. “1931 British Honduras hurricane.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Dec. 2021. Web. 1 Feb. 2022.
  4. Search for collector  name contains “Gentle”.  Data Portal. 2022. http//:sernecportal.org/index.php. Accessed on February 01.
  5. https://archive.org/details/plantlist00gent/page/2/mode/2up  accessed on 1 February, 2022.
  6. Meerman, J. C. and W. Sabido.  2001.  Central American Ecosystems Map:  Belize.  Volume I.  Programme for Belize, 1 Eyre Street, Belize City, Belize.  http://biological-diversity.info/Downloads/Volume_Iweb_s.pdf  accessed on 1 February, 2022.
  7. Ricketson, Jon M. and John J. Pipoly, III.  1997.  A synopsis of the genus Gentlea (Myrsinaceae) and a key to the genera of Myrsinaceae in Mesoamerica.  Sida 17(4): 697-707.
  8. Search on specific epithet contains “gentl”.  Tropicos.org. Missouri Botanical Garden. 01 Feb 2022 <https://tropicos.org>
  9. Ames, Oakes.  1936.  A rare Vanilla.  Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 4(3): 26-29.
  10. Schwinfurth, Charles.  1937.  New orchids from Middle America.  Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 4(7): 101-126.
  11. Lundell, C. L. 1939.  Studies of Mexican and Central American Plants — VIII.  Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Clubb 66(9):  583-604.
  12. Goodwin, Zoe and Denver Cayetano.  2019.  Belize’s National Herbarium:  Further Development of an Important National Resource.  http://www.ukbelizeassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ZAG_UKBA_2019.pdf
  13. Nelson, C. 1990.  Early collectors of plants from Honduras and the confusion with British Honduras (Belize).  Taxon 39(4): 568-571.
  14. Bartlett, H. H. (1932). A Biological Survey of the Maya Area. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club59(1), 7–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/2480459 .  (See pages 18-20 for brief description of this expedition; Gentle is not mentioned in the text,)
  15. Galick, Michael J., Michael H. Nee, and Daniel E. Atha.  2000.  Checklist of the vascular plants of Belize.  Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden volume 85.  (page 18 deals with Percy Gentle)