Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Oviedo and Acosta

1 Pineapple Oviedo

Pineapple pictured in Historia general de las Indias (1535) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with early European botanical exploration in Asia and how it was documented both in publications and in herbarium collections that are still extant.  This set of entries again looks at early European botanical exploration in Latin America.  Here again, publications resulted from the work, but there are few known plant collections surviving.  So why even discuss the topic in a blog devoted to herbaria?  Well, I argue that this absence reveals something about the history of herbaria, the aims of exploration, and the many threats to the longevity of preserved plant material.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) published the first work on the natural history of the New World by someone who had been there.  This was in 1526 after he had traveled in the Caribbean and South America from 1514 to 1523.  He returned again in 1526 and remained for 20 years, during which he published a second larger version, Historia general de las Indias (1535), with 35 woodcuts.  Like most early natural histories on newly discovered lands, this one dealt not only with plants but with animals and the cultural use of natural materials as well as geography.  Still, it was filled with wonderous and novel plants, especially food plants.  The book included what may be the first illustration of corn, and Oviedo also described the avocado, banana, and papaya.  He explained the preparation of cassava and in his 1535 book, introduced the pineapple to Europeans, discussing its delicious sweetness as well as its odd structure.  The book included an illustration of the fruit (see figure above), but the drawing wasn’t done from live material, so while it gives the essence of the pineapple and is identifiable, it is hardly an accurate rendition.  However this doesn’t reduce the value of Oviedo’s work that documents what an early European observer found most exciting about the vegetation of the American tropics.  He emphasized the importance of direct observation of wonders that were so different from those in Europe.  Since the earliest known herbarium dates from 1532, it’s not surprising that Oviedo didn’t collect specimens.  Physical documentation of what was observed would come later, though seeds and cuttings reached Europe from Columbus’s time on.

Another plant Oviedo described was the cacao tree, and he wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by chocolate and the ways it was used by indigenous peoples, including mixing it with eggs and feeding it to children.  Others discussed its medicinal benefits in treating diarrhea, coughing, and other ailments.  Among these writers was José de Acosta (~1539-1600), a Jesuit missionary who spent 20 years in Latin America, first in Peru and then for a short time in Mexico.  In Peru he had an number of positions, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo.  Acosta took extensive notes on what he saw, not only on the animals and plants, but on the geography of the regions in which he traveled and the customs and history of the indigenous peoples.

When Acosta returned to Spain in 1588, he wrote a seven-volume book on his observations, Histoire naturelle et moralle des Indes.  As the title suggests, he wrote from a Christian perspective about this new world and its native populations, noting their customs and their response to Christian ideas.  But this was more than just a religious work.  Acosta was an acute observer who gave detailed, firsthand descriptions and did not sensationalize native customs as some Spanish writers did, nor did he push the religious viewpoint too far.  He discussed granadilla or small pomegranate, which had been described as the passionflower because some observers saw its intricate flower as having anthers that resembled the nails of Christ’s cross and the corolla, the crown of thorns.  Acosta considered this fanciful and metaphorical, and didn’t think it added anything to the description of the plant which had important medicinal uses.

Acosta was an early example of a class of botanical observers, that is, religious missionaries, who made important contributions to botanical knowledge well into the 20th century.  Especially at the time he visited Latin America, people didn’t travel just to study plants.  This role was tacked on to others, such as physician, colonial administrator, military man, or missionary.  In some cases, these occupations took most of the individual’s time and natural history observation was a sideline.  In other cases, the latter became the main focus.  This was in part because learning about the natural world was seen as a way to learn about God through his creations and also as an important part of taking control politically and culturally in these new lands.

Aside from the web sources I’ve linked to, much of the information for this post came from Daniela Bleichmar’s book, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (2017), based on an exhibition of the same name at the Huntington Library, Arts Collections, and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California.  It’s a beautiful book with a very interesting text, but I was loathed to buy it because I had Bleichmar’s earlier book (2011), Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, which covers Spanish expeditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I thought there would be a great deal of overlap.  Then I read a review in which Patricia Jonas had made the same assumption and then discovered that she was wrong.  So I bit the financial bullet and bought the book; it was definitely worth it.  There is little redundancy between Bleichmar’s two works, and Visual Voyages is striking in the way text and illustrations are closely connected and complement each other.  I will again be using the book as a source for the following posts about other early writers on Latin American natural history.


Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s