History connects Pensacola, Florida with a small group of lovely flowers scattered across the southern United States, including Texas. Both the genus — Palafoxia — and Palafox Street, the boulevard that lies at the heart of Pensacola’s colonial town, are named after General José de Palafox y Melzi, a Spanish nobleman and military hero.
The connection is understandable, since Pensacola is the site of the nation’s oldest European settlement.
Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna sailed into what we know as Pensacola Bay in August of 1559, charged by Spain’s viceroy of Mexico, Luis de Velasco, with establishing a settlement there.
Luna arrived in Pensacola six years before Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés reached Florida’s Atlantic Coast and founded St. Augustine, generally regarded as the oldest city in the United States. Had it not been for a hurricane, Pensacola might have held on to that honor, but as the Smithsonian points out, only the Menéndez colony endured:
On September 19, 1559, only weeks after he dropped anchor, a powerful hurricane blew in from across the bay, sinking all but three of Luna’s ships.
Luna dispatched a remaining ship to Veracruz, Mexico, in hopes of enlisting rescuers. For more than a year, the settlers hung on, their numbers and stores dwindling. At last, some vessels arrived to transport survivors to safe haven in Havana. By spring of 1561, only a military outpost remained; in August, its handful of soldiers abandoned the site and returned to Mexico.
It would be 1698 before Spain established another garrison in Pensacola.
Whether those earliest Spanish explorers noticed Florida’s coastal plain palafox (P. integrifolia) or its endemic relative (P. feayi) is hard to say. But eventually the flowers did get noticed and named.
By the 1800s, botanical exploration was common, and Julien Reverchon, a French botanist who collected in Texas during the late 1800s, was honored by having his name attached to one of our state’s several species.