Early North American Plant Exploration: Canada

1 Cornuti

Title page of Jacques Cornuti’s Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635), Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with plants brought back to Europe from early explorations of Central and South America.  Some of these species were indeed spectacular and whetted European appetites for more botanical novelties.  Gardening was becoming a passion and having the latest flower or tree was a sign that a gardener could not only afford a rarity but had the connections to obtain them.  Yet the impulse to find horticultural wonders was about more than just showing off; it was part of a larger political and economic drive to investigate the riches, botanical and otherwise, of the New World.  While the Portuguese and Spanish were focusing on the south, France and Britain, though operating in the Caribbean, were also attempting to establish colonies in North America.  One of the their prime goals was to discover a passage to the East.  Many were convinced that there must be a navigable body of water that crossed this land, though they were uncertain as to how vast the land might be.  It is the botanical fruits of these explorers, and the herbarium specimens that document their efforts that are the topic of this series of posts.

The first major French expedition was in 1534:  Jacques Cartier’s (1491-1557) voyage to Newfoundland and then on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence with stops in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  He returned to France the same year, and in 1535 set out again, this time traveling down the St. Lawrence River to what is now Montreal.  There his ships were stuck in ice for the winter, and the crew survived the ordeal in part because indigenous people told the French of the restorative powers of a conifer that Cartier called arborvitae or tree of life (Thuja occidentalis) because it had cured his men’s scurvy.  After this harrowing experience, Cartier returned to France in 1536, bringing seeds of a number of plants as well as tales of the wealth in gold and diamonds to be found in what he came to call Canada.  It was the promised mineral wealth that led the king to send Cartier back to Canada in 1541 to establish a colony.  Problems arose when the king then dispatched a friend, Jean-François Roberval, to take over command and ordered Cartier to provide back up.  After the explorer had loaded his ships with ore, he angrily sailed back to France, only to find out that the rocks didn’t contain precious minerals or gems.  That was the end of Cartier’s service to the king, but he did write a report of his second voyage in which he described over 30 plants.  Some of the seeds he gathered flourished in the king’s garden and were distributed to gardeners and botanists in Britain and Spain.

The same held true for plants collected by Samuel de Champlain, who arrived in Canada for the first time in 1603, 60 years later.  He eventually made over 20 voyages between Canada and France over 30 years, exploring along the St. Lawrence River and founding the city of Quebec.  Champlain described a number of plants and brought back seeds for such notable plants as the “potato of Canada,” the Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus.  In 1635 Jacques Cornuti described about 60 Canadian plants in his illustrated Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635) (see title page above).  These descriptions were based on plants grown by Jean Robin and his son Vespasien in the king’s garden, and many of them were probably brought back by Champlain from his own garden in Canada (Dickenson, 1998).

In the first half of the 16th century when Cartier was traveling, the herbarium had only recently been first developed, probably by Luca Ghini in Italy, so it isn’t surprising that the Frenchman didn’t preserve specimens.  However, the plants that grew from Cartier’s seeds were used as sources of specimens.  The Robins shared seeds and cuttings with a number of botanists including Carolus Clusius, an avid botanist and horticulturalist and garden networker (Egmond, 2010).  They  also traded seeds with the botanist John Gerald and the nurseryman John Tradescant in England, Cardinals Farnese and Barberini in Rome, and Caspar Bauhin in Switzerland, who described many of these plants.  The latter sent some of the seeds to his correspondent Joachim Burser who not only grew plants from the seeds he received, but took cuttings and made herbarium specimens from them.  This collection was particularly important because Carl Linnaeus studied it in concert with Bauhin’s book, Pinax theatri botanici, thus many of the specimens in this herbarium are type specimens for Canadian species.  The collection is now in the herbarium of the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden, as still another example of plant specimens zigzagging around in the course of botanical investigations.

The Canadian plants were of interest to gardeners was because these were more likely to grow in European climates than were the tropical plants from Central and South America.  However, they often weren’t as novel as the southern plants.  Because the climates in North America and Europe were somewhat more similar, the plants tended to be similar—not identical—but similar.  This created the need for more careful taxonomic work to parse out just how different these new finds were, and whether they constituted new species, which in many cases they did.  The same held true for the plants of the more temperate climate of the British colonies which were being created at about the same time a little to the south.  These will be the subject of the next posts.


Dickenson, V. (1998). Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

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