Other Callings

Plate from William Keble Martin’s The Concise British Flora in Colour, Ebury Press, 1965.

In an earlier series of posts (1,2,3,4), I wrote of herbaria and war, including stories of individuals in the military who fed their passion for botany by collecting plants in free moments.  This got me thinking about others who didn’t let their careers stop them from botanizing and provided myself with the topic for this series.  I’ll begin with what is a sizable category—the clergy—with examples from the earliest days of herbaria on.  In fact I could do an entire series about this group and may tackle that in the future.  For now, I’ll race through the centuries.  In the early years of plant collecting, it’s not surprising that there were ties to religion, because clergymen were often among the better educated and in many cases were caring for the physical as well as spiritual needs of their flocks, which could mean preparing herbal medicines, sometimes grown in cloistered gardens.

Some religious became deeply involved in collecting specimens and learning about plants.  In early modern Italy, the Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscans, were particularly involved in studying nature (Egmond, 2010).  Fra Gregorio da Reggio, whose herbarium survives at the Oxford University Herbarium, ran the pharmacy and infirmary at a monastery in Bologna, but also collected for notable Italian families, providing specimens, seeds, cuttings, and information used to enrich their gardens.  Carolus Clusius corresponded with him and also with the Augustinian friar Evangelista Quattrami, who had a doctorate in theology but was also herbalist to the Este family in Rome.

It was the Jesuits who literally put clerical collectors on the map.  They were a missionary order founded in 1534 in response to the Protestant Reformation and charged with spreading Catholic doctrine around the world.  Michał Piotr Boym was a Polish Jesuit serving in Portugal, who was in a group of 13 clergy sent to China (Clarke, 2016).  He wrote of the plants and animals he found there, published an illustrated book, and managed to convert the last Emperor of the dynasty to Catholicism.  The Jesuits also sent missionaries to India and to South America.  José de Acosta held a number of positions in Peru, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo (Bleichmar, 2011).  It was not uncommon for religious to also have official posts of various kinds, thus mixing politics with religion and botany.  Acosta wrote a massive work about his observations on the plants, animals, and geography of the areas he visited.

In the next century, one of the most noteworthy religious travelers Charles Plumier was more a botanist than a missionary.  His journeys were essentially collecting trips, and he wrote descriptions of many of the plants he encountered.  Plumier traveled in the West Indies and as did the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste du Terte (Duval, 1982).  As time when on, there were more and more missionaries proselytizing around the world, and often collectors took advantage of these well-placed individuals.  I have focused on Catholics so far, but the British Anglican Bishop Henry Compton, groomed a young priest with an interest in botany, John Banister, to collect in Virginia, and Compton’s friend James Petiver communicated with a number of missionaries in the Americas, Africa and Asia (Stearns, 1952).

In the 19th century, there were several notable French botanist/priests from the Vincentian order in China.  These included Jean Marie Delavay, who shipped over 200,000 plant specimens to France, and Armand David, who sent back skins of a rare bovine that came to be known as Père David’s deer and of the giant panda, introducing this animal to the West.  David was particularly interested in plants and went on several long collecting trips, finding hundreds of new species, perhaps most notably Davidia, the handkerchief tree named for its dangling white bracts (Kilpatrick, 2014).

South East Asia was fertile ground both religiously and botanically for British Protestant missionaries, who were often assisted by their wives, many of whom were skilled artists.  Charles and Elizabeth Parish served in Burma and were both interested in botany and drawing (Bynum & Bynum, 2017).  Charles had a living collection of orchids and a herbarium, and both Parishs documented these plants in drawings (Clayton, 2014).  No matter what the religious affiliation or era, missionary work by its nature is difficult:  living in foreign lands, often dealing with barriers of custom and language, yet surrounded by amazing living things.  Many found comfort and enjoyment in botanizing.  Sending specimens and information back home was a way to stay in contact with their former lives, ones that they often longed to return to.

There were also many clerical botanists who were not missionaries and pursued their collecting closer to home.  Edward Lee Greene was an American who began as an Episcopal priest, but then converted to Catholicism while always maintaining his passion for botany.  He collected in the American West and worked for some time at the University of California, Berkley.  Later he taught at Catholic University, which was the training ground for a number of men and women who combined their vocations with their botany, including Sister Mary Teresita Kittell who co-authored a flora of New Mexico and Arizona.  Greene himself wrote Landmarks of Botanical History as well as many taxonomic works.

In Britain the number of clergymen/naturalists were legion, most notably Gilbert White, but also John Henslow, and in the 20th century, William Keble Martin.  It was a blog post about Keble Martin that spurred me to write this post.  Holly Morgenroth recently described spending her covid lockdown studying specimens from Keble Martin’s herbarium and matching some of the plants to his drawings of the same species.  This art was used to construct species-filled illustrations for his The Concise British Flora in Color, published in 1965 when he was 88 (see image above).  A collection of both his drawings and specimens are at RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, and like many of us, Morgenroth was pleased to find a satisfying and fruitful botanical project while working from home.


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

Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Clarke, V. (2016). Plant: Exploring the Botanical World. New York: Phaidon.

Clayton, D. (2014). The Reverend Charles Samuel Pollock Parish – plant collector and botanical illustrator of the orchids from Tenasserim Province, Burma. Lankesteriana, 13(3), 215–227.

Duval, M. (1982). The King’s Garden. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

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

Keble Martin, W. (1965). The Concise British Flora in Colour. London: Ebury.

Kilpatrick, J. (2014). Fathers of Botany: The Discovery of Chinese Plants by European Missionaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

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