Catesby’s Travels

Yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava) and Southern toad (Anaxyrus terrestris) by Mark Catesby, Vol. 2 Illus. 69 in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

In the last post, I discussed the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre and its work to bring Catesby’s legacy into the 21st century.  Now I want to dig a little more deeply into that legacy and how it developed.  Every discussion of Catesby begins with the disclaimer that not much is known about his life, and to a certain extent this is true.  There is little information about his early years with somewhat more his life after he returned to England.  However, the more historians have studied existing records about him and put these together with what they can glean from others’ correspondence and journals, Catesby has, in a sense, has come more to life.  One expert is the botanist E. Charles Nelson (2018), a member of the Centre’s affiliated faculty, who has delved into what books were in Catesby’s library.  Nelson also researched Catesby’s relationship with his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll who was a gardener and was friendly with John Ray and with Samuel Dale, a supporter of Catesby’s travels.  This is likely where Catesby developed his interest in plants and learned the basics.  However, there is no record of his having any formal education, though he came from a family that was comfortable if not wealthy. 

The next phase of Catesby’s life was his first trip to North America from 1712 to 1719.  He accompanied his sister to get her safely settled with her husband, a physician serving the governor of Virginia at Williamsburg.  It’s assumed Catesby spent much of his time working on his brother-in-law’s farm, but he also developed a friendship with two men who had a serious interest in plants, William Byrd II and John Custis.  Byrd had a large library and a greenhouse, Custis a variety of exotic plants growing in his garden.  Catesby traveled up the James River toward the Appalachian Mountains and also made other trips closer to home.  He gathered seeds and various plant materials, sending them to Dale who was impressed with them and with Catesby’s knowledge (Nelson & Elliott, 2015). 

When Catesby returned to England, Dale put him in touch with other botanists of the day such as William Sherard and Hans Sloane.  They encouraged Catesby to return to North America and more systematically collect specimens, seeds, and seedlings.  They also encouraged his artistic talent and his ability to write vividly on natural history.  These three men, along with 9 others, sponsored his second trip which was focused further south.  Many were members of the Royal Society, and Catesby later presented a report on his travels at an RS meeting.  After he visited with the botanical minded in Charleston, he began to explore the area, particularly north of Charleston where there were several large plantations as well as much wild country.

Catesby had brought supplies for painting watercolors of the organisms he found and also for making collections, particularly of plants, though he did collect shells, skins of birds and other animals, and insects as well.  He wrote of Native Americans he encountered and their uses for plants, especially for medicinal purposes.  He traveled down the coast of Carolina and then inland, perhaps as far as Clemson probably using Native American trails (Brown, 2022).  He also visited Fort Moore, across the river from what is now Augusta, Georgia on three occasions, and explored central Carolina.   Georgia was then considered part of Florida.  Finally, Catesby sailed to the Bahama Islands where he remained for a year before traveling back to England.  This is a hurried travelogue, but I want to get to his artistic work after his return because without that there would probably not be a Catesby Centre.

Catesby presented his sponsors with the fruits of his voyage in terms of plant material and correspondence, but he did not want to relinquish his drawings until he had used them to create the illustrations for the book he was planning.  He quickly discovered that to publish a work on the scale he envisioned would be very costly.  He couldn’t afford to have an expert create etched plates, so he learned from a master of the art Joseph Goupy and made his own, as well as writing the text in both English and French and advertising for subscribers.  He even hand-colored some of the prints in the first volume himself.  This volume was completed in 1731 and the second in 1743.  Each volume had 100 spectacular etchings, and there was an additional 20 in an Appendix to the second volume that was published four years later. 

While working on this opus, Catesby collaborated with nurserymen who were cultivating a number of the plants he brought back.  At times, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands reads almost like a catalogue where he extols the virtues of a North American tree or shrub now grown by one of his associates.  After the second volume was published he began work on something of a spin-off, Hortus Europae Americanus, with plates based on portions of the original plates.  Published posthumously, It focused on trees and shrubs and was much closer to a nurserymen’s publication in that it included practical information on growth habits and conditions for the pictured species.  This is a much less spectacular work, but I find It very pleasing to look at, with each plate divided into four sectors picturing four species. 


Brown, H. (2022). Catesby in Carolina. South Carolina Wildlife, January/February, 4–11.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Dumbarton Oaks and Multimedia Communication

Echeandria terniflora from Novarum, aut rariorum plantarum Horti Reg. Botan., Dumbarton Oaks Research Library

In this series of posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed projects undertaken by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in Washington, DC.  It is affiliated with Harvard University and is known for outstanding scholarship in three areas:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  One result is the book Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that grew out of a 2013 conference; online and onsite exhibits also accompanied the conference, so it’s obvious why I used “multimedia communication” in the title for this post.  Dumbarton does a very good job of leveraging the scholarship it produces to speak to a variety of audiences through time and space.  There are other examples of its productions, but this is one that’s about botany and particularly interests me.     

Historians sometimes use the adjective “long” for a century, wanting to stretch one beyond 100 years to fit the topic they are covering.  This is an example of how human categories don’t always meet human needs, or describe the real world.  Expanding the eighteenth century here allows coverage to include some of William Dampier’s early botanical collecting, including plants in Western Australia in 1699; these were the first from that continent.  Johannes Commelin (1629-1692) would not seem to belong, but in his work as director of Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus, he began a project to publish on what was growing in the garden, including the many plants that were coming into the Netherlands from Dutch colonies in South America, South Africa, and Asia.  After he died, his nephew Caspar Commelin Jr. completed Horti medici amstelodamensis (1697–1701). 

Expanding the other end of century made it possible to treat the series of Spanish expeditions running from 1770-1820 and designed to investigate the botanical wealth in its colonies almost three centuries after they were first established (Bleichmar, 2011).  Earlier the emphasis had been more on exploiting mineral wealth, but the director of Madrid’s botanical garden convinced the king that plants from the species rich tropics could also be lucrative. Potatoes, maize, and tobacco had become major sources of wealth for many nations, why shouldn’t Spain benefit from “home grown” resources. 

It would have been a shame for the conference to ignore Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s private expedition to Latin America in 1803-1808 (Wulf, 2015).  For a variety of reasons, the Spanish projects did not yield as rich a result in terms of economic botany or even botanical publications as might be expected from the number of botanists who participated, the specimens collected, and the illustrations produced by both European and indigenous artists.  On the other hand, Humboldt produced over 20 publications, some with assistance from Bonpland.  These included seven volumes on plants as well as the Essay on the Geography of Plants that opened up the field of botanical geography, which had been developing in the background and with Humboldt’s analysis and illustrations became a significant theme in the 19th century. 

Such century expansion wasn’t really necessary because there was so much botanically important work produced in those hundred years.  Carl Linnaeus and his traveling students’ plant collections fit snuggly in here, as do James Cook’s voyages around the world, and Mark Catesby’s trips to the American Colonies and his illustrated masterwork, The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  But what I like most about the book are all the topics covered that I didn’t know anything about, including a plan presented to the French National Assembly in 1790 by Louis-François Jauffret to create models of all 25,000 known plant species.  He argued that these would be better than other representations because they would be three-dimensional.  He noted that at the time, botany had to deal with old, dry, pressed plants.  Jauffret had enlisted the assistance of Thomas Joseph Wenzel, Marie Antoinette’s florist, who had made many beautiful blooms often used to decorate her dresses.  I am very sorry that nothing came of this project (Tessier, 2020). 

There are also essays on the development of botany in 18th century Russia, Ottoman horticulture, and Mongolian medicine.  Putting all these pieces and many others together created for me a much richer view of plants in that time period.  Unfortunately, I did not see the exhibition at Dumbarton, but I have spent a good deal of time with the digital exhibit and have been dipping into it as I’m writing this post.  It is a luxury to be able to visit a presentation that was created over eight years ago.  Many digital exhibits of that “era” are no more than dead links now.  It is a credit to Dumbarton that its valuable materials are still online.  It is a sophisticated presentation, but easy to navigate.  And if the exhibition were staged today, I am sure there would be online seminars as well, like the ones held in conjunction with the Margaret Mee exhibit (see last post).  I’ll end by saying that there is NO substitute for a visit to Dumbarton to see the museum and garden.  There is also no substitute for looking at items from its library and archives.  However, many of its treasures have been digitized and there is a guide to the collection.


Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Tessier, F. (2020). Modèles botanique, des modèles scientifique entre art et science. ISTE OpenScience, 1–19.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York: Knopf.

Collecting and Paper


George Forrest specimen of Abelia forrestii, Royal Botanical Garden Edinburg

We are so surrounded with paper today:  printouts, books, packaging, etc., etc., that we tend to pay little attention to it.  We can buy a ream of paper for a few dollars, and we throw a great deal of it into the recycling bin.  But paper is an amazing material, and nowhere is it more essential than in plant collecting.  Without paper, collecting grinds to a halt as it did for James Drummond, an early settler and plant collector in Western Australia.  His paper supply usually came from Britain via Cape Town, South Africa, so shipments were spotty at best.  He needed a great deal of paper because each year he made up ten sets of plant specimens, each with 500 species.  In 1845, he had used up his paper stocks and had to end collecting until supplies arrived.  He used newspapers in the field, when he could get them, but then needed plain paper for preparing specimens for shipment, plus more paper for packaging (Erickson, 1969).

When Joseph Banks left on his voyage around the world with Captain James Cook, he brought huge stacks of printers’ rejects, unbound copies of books that hadn’t made it into distribution.  Some of his specimens are still set between the pages of a copy of Notes on the Twelve Books of Paradise LostJohn Torrey wrote to Asa Gray saying he had high hopes because a collector who was going out west because he had brought two tons of paper with him (McKelvey, 1955).  This highlights the issue of paper weight and how to haul around large amounts of its, especially when traveling by horseback, perhaps with mules.  There are limits to how much can be carried at one time, so the rest has to be stored, and it has to be stored along with already collected materials, in a dry place to prevent water and fungal damage.

One of the best treatments I’ve read of the use of paper for the various aspects of plant collection is Erik Mueggler’s (2011) The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet.  He writes of the 20th-century plant collectors George Forrest and Joseph Rock, who worked in the borderlands between China, Tibet, and Burma, in other words, close to the origins of paper.  In the introduction, Mueggler writes that the process was all about paper.  As he explains:  “This book is about the way some wandering botanists put the earth onto or between sheets of paper: collecting, writing, and photographing.  How are paper landscapes made?  How does this making create, mobilize, and transform social relations?” (p. 16).

Mueggler’s story begins in 1906 when Forrest arrives in Yunnan in southwest China and ends in 1950 when Rock left China.  Between these years two generations of local men did the work of exploring western China for alpine flora for Western gardens and scientific institutions.  Mueggler makes it clear that there was shared expertise here and highlights that the bulk of the difficult travelling and transporting was done by locals, though Forrest sometimes travelled with his collectors and Rock often did.  While the Chinese played a vital role, the enterprise could not have been possible without the Westerners who provided the financing and tools to support the endeavor.  They also had the Western botanical expertise to translate the Chinese knowledge and experience into a form that could be communicated to the larger botanical community.

Each time Forrest’s collector Zhao Chengzhang “walked out the city gate, one of his mules carried a full load of paper, textured and absorbent, made of a dwarf bamboo that grew in thickets on the lower mountainsides.  When he reentered the city after weeks or months of rough travel, he led a string of mules carrying stacks of paper neatly bundled and pressed between boards.  Folded into each sheet was a plant specimen.  Over the next few days he would unfold each rough sheet, rearrange the specimen in accord with his exacting sense of space and proportion, and refold it into smooth writing paper” (p. 1).

It’s noteworthy that Zhao spoke no English, and Forrest no Chinese.  They used a sign language and sketches to communicate, to turn the collectors’ finds into specimens and accompanying documentation.  At this point in the process, Forrest worked on the plants with Zhao as they pooled their expertise and Forrest took notes and wrote up plant descriptions.  In between expeditions, of which there were seven, Forrest would return to Edinburgh to work on his collections and direct efforts to naturalize some of the more promising horticultural finds.  He also consulted the RBGE herbarium, to sharpen his expertise in preparation for returning to China.  Mueggler makes it clear that all of Forrest’s work was closely tied literally to the hands and minds that collected the plant.  These men knew where to look for rare species and came to understand what the western collectors were looking for.  There was a mutuality that Mueggler argues was linked through the paper used in collecting and documenting the plants.

Much of the paper couldn’t be sourced locally and had to be imported from Rangoon.  The tags with Forrest’s name and specimen number came from Edinburgh.  Eventually, the plants would be rewrapped in paper and crates and sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.  Forrest also used paper for photography, repeatedly asking for more to be sent.  Rock took his photography so seriously that he hauled glass plates around with him as well as a camera to accommodate them.  So collecting wasn’t all about paper, but Mueggler’s book is a good reminder of a product that we take for granted, not just in plant collecting but in daily life generally.


Erickson, R. (1969). The Drummonds of Hawthornden. Osborne Park, Aus: Lamb Paterson.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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.

War and Herbaria

Hakea ruscifolia collected by Jacques Labillardière in Australia; herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

While COVID-19 is the major news topic now, the subject of war seems to come up frequently, at least in terms of comparisons of the present situation with the 1918 flu and its relationship to World War I, or comparing the present death toll to that of the Vietnam War and other conflicts.  So this seems like a good time to look at a question I’ve been collecting information on for some time:  what are the links between herbaria and war?  In Plants and Human Conflict, Eran Pichersky (2019) argues that “plants are the foundation of our existence and the ultimate cause of our wars” (p. 12).  That seems a rather bold statement, but he goes on to investigate conflicts for the control not only of land on which to grow crops, but also of needed water resources.  He notes that three of the four necessities of modern mechanized warfare—grain, steel, oil, and rubber—are plant-derived. 

But where do herbaria come into this picture?  Think of all the specimens collected on expeditions of conquest such as the Dutch taking over the Molucca Islands (now the Maluku Islands) from the Portuguese so they could corner the market on nutmeg and cloves (Nabhan, 2014); 19th-century US government expeditions into Native American lands and attendant conflicts to pave the way for agriculture in the West (McKelvey, 1955); British conquest of India and turning the country into a source for tea, timber, textiles, and other commodities (MacGregor, 2018).  The British botanist William Jackson Hooker even wrote a guide to plant collecting for a manual on science published by the Admiralty (Nesbitt and Carine, 2016).

And then there are herbaria as spoils of war.  An important collection, one that was pivotal to Carl Linnaeus’s work, is the 23-volume herbarium of Danish botanist Joachim Burser (1583-1639).  Containing some Danish, but mostly Central European species, it is arranged according to Caspar Bauhin’s taxonomy and is the oldest collection at the Museum of Evolution Herbarium in Uppsala.  It ended up in a Swedish herbarium and thus accessible to Linnaeus because, after Burser’s death, it was seized as spoils of war when King Charles X of Sweden vanquished Denmark (Stearn, 1957).  In another case, the Swiss botanist Albrecht von Haller’s 60-volume herbarium was bought by the Austrian Emperor and given to the library at Pavia in Italy.  When Napoleon invaded the area, he took the collection back to Paris, where it remains at the herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History (MacGregor, 2007).  Later, when Napoleon led an army into Egypt, he brought a group of natural history collectors with him.  Though his military foray ultimately failed, the same Parisian natural history museum reaped rich collections, including the specimens of Alire Raffeneau Delile who studied plants on the mission and then described them back in Paris (Thinard, 2016). 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were multiple conflicts between the French and British, both major naval powers anxious to gain control of North America and to explore the world as a whole in search of new sources of wealth.  When they were at war, travel and communication between the two countries were often cut off, a problem for scientists who were more interested in the latest research than in politics.  Hans Sloane and his former teacher in Paris, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort did not see any reason to sever connections during hostilities, though it was sometimes difficult to get letters through; they relied on diplomats from neutral nations to pass on messages.  Gavin de Beer’s (1952) article on how such relationships were maintained between France and Britain focuses on the fellows of the Royal Society who would exchange journals with their French friends when regular mail was halted. 

A famous case of magnanimity and fairness in herbarium history involves the botanist Jacques Labillardière who joined a 1791 French naval mission to learn the fate of an earlier expedition that had failed to return from the Pacific, that of Jean-François La Pérouse.  They never did discover what happened to La Pérouse; the evidence of his ship’s wreckage wasn’t found until 1826 on one of the Solomon Islands.  But while stopping in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the East Indies, Labillardière assembled a large collection of over 10,000 specimens, as well as 70 tubs of live plants, and about 600 kinds of seeds.

When the expedition arrived at a Dutch-held port in Java in 1793, the French learned that their king had been executed and that the Netherlands and France were at war.  The officers and naturalists were arrested, but eventually were treated differently depending upon whether they had royalist or republican sympathies (Williams, 2003).  The supporters of the king, including Labillardière, were held, while the republicans were allowed to sail home.   The Dutch seized Labillardière’s collection and sent it on with the French who had been released; their ship was later boarded by the British and the collection confiscated.  

Labillardiére did not return to France until 1796.  By that time, impounded crates of his specimens had arrived in England where the French court was living in exile, welcomed by a sympathetic monarchy.  The collection was handed over to them because Louis XVI had been king at the time the expedition sailed.  The exiles offered to allow Britain’s Queen Charlotte, an amateur botanist with her own herbarium, to select specimens.  However, Labillardière petitioned Joseph Banks, as a fellow botanist and confidante of the British king, to return the specimens in the name of science.  Banks considered science above politics and was attempting to maintain contact with French scientists despite the repeated political duels between the two countries.  Banks returned the collection without even opening it.  This was definitely an act of self-control for a keen collector with his own impressive herbarium (Mulvaney, 2007).  However, as one who had traveled around the world with Captain James Cook and collected thousands of plant specimens, Banks appreciate the toil involved in gathering the plants, preparing specimens, and keeping track of them. 


de Beer, G. R. (1952). The relations between Fellows of the Royal Society and French men of science when France and Britain were at war. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 9(2), 144–199.

MacGregor, A. (2007). Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

MacGregor, A. (2018). Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600-1874. London, UK: Reaktion.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Mulvaney, J. (2007). Labillardière′s Luck. In “The Axe Had Never Sounded” (Vol. 14, pp. 81–86). ANU Press; JSTOR.

Nabhan, G. P. (2014). Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum, 29, 53–70.

Pichersky, E. (2019). Plants and Human Conflict. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1957). Introduction. In Species Plantarum Facsimile (Vol. 1, pp. 1–199). Ray Society.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

Botanists in South Carolina: Thomas Walter


Specimen of Hydrangea arborescens subsp. radiata from the Walter Collection at the Natural History Museum, London Herbarium

In the last post, I described the work of Mark Catesby who traveled to the colonial South backed by patrons who were anxious for him to collect interesting plants, in part to adorn their English gardens.  This trend continued and a later visitor, John Fraser, arrived in Charleston after the American Revolution, in September 1786.  He was hunting for plants for British gardeners, most notably William Forsyth, Master of the King’s Garden in Kensington.  After meeting with the French botanist, André Michaux, who had a nursery near Charleston, Fraser headed north to visit the plantation of Thomas Walter.  An Englishman who settled in South Carolina around 1769, Walter eventually owned 4500 acres on the Santee River.  He occupied himself with business interests in Charleston and running his plantation, which in the South meant owning slaves.  In addition, he studied the botany of the region.  By the time Fraser visited, Walter had completed a flora of the Carolinas that included over 600 species.  Needless to say, he was a great help to Fraser in learning where to find interesting species.

Fraser traveled northwest to Augusta and spent the winter of 1786-87 collecting in northern South Carolina, some of the time accompanied by Michaux and his son.  While Fraser did not note localities for his collections, some are suggested by notes in Michaux’s journals.  In the fall of 1787 Fraser again visited Walter, who helped him identify his collections and write descriptions of new species, nearly 200 of them, that were added to Walter’s manuscript.  Fraser then packed up his 30,000 specimens as well as seeds and cuttings, and headed back to England in January 1788.  Walter entrusted his flora to Fraser, who arranged for its publication as Flora Caroliniana.  Because so many of the plants Fraser had collected were described by Walter and the specimens annotated by him, this collection became known as the Thomas Walter Herbarium.  But in a Taxon article entitled “The Thomas Walter Herbarium Is Not the Herbarium of Thomas Walter,” Daniel Ward (2007) makes it clear that this collection is of Fraser not Walter specimens.  Fraser saw Walter’s collection and received portions of specimens from him, but essentially the herbarium he brought to England was his own and is now at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).

This provenance has some significance because many of the plants are type specimens for species first described by Walter, particularly for the ones that were collected by Fraser.  Ward’s article was written as he was preparing a book on Walter (2017) and involved in a project he called the “Walter Typification Project,” similar in its aims to the much larger Linnaeus Typification Project which spanned several decades and resulted in the publication of Order Out of Chaos (Jarvis, 2007).  Ward was very careful in his work.  Since the herbarium at NHM is not Walter’s, he assumes that these specimens weren’t used in writing species descriptions, so there are no holotypes in the collection.  However, where there is clear evidence that Walter saw and used Fraser’s material, then these are considered lectotypes.  For Walter names that do not have types, Ward chose recent collections as neotypes.

It is significant that Walter’s Flora Caroliniana was the first book on North American plants to use Linnaean nomenclature and to arrange species according to the Linnaean sexual system of classes.  It is obvious from the species descriptions in the Flora that Walter was well versed in Linnaeus’s work.  He owned copies not only of Species Plantarum, but also Systema Naturae and Genera Plantarum.  Ward thinks that the only plant that Walter included without having seen it, is the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, described by the British botanist John Ellis in 1768 from specimens sent him by John Bartram.

Walter died soon after the Flora was published at a relatively young 49 after being in ill health for some time.  One of his granddaughters became the mother of another prominent South Carolina botanist, Francis Peyre Porcher, who will be the subject of a future post.  William Fraser began a nursery business in England and specialized in North American plants.  He and his son traveled several times to the United States and also to Cuba and Russia.  They started a nursery in Charleston in 1791 and continued to ship plants from there back to England for 20 years.  It was Fraser’s son who gave his father’s herbarium to the Royal Horticultural Society, and when the Society got into financial trouble in the 1850s, the collection was sold to what was to become the NHM.

As with so much of the South’s past, there is little physical evidence of Walter’s life along the Santee.  Near his home, he had created one of the first botanical gardens in North America, shortly after those of John Bartram and his cousin Humphry Marshall in Pennsylvania.  This disappeared soon after his death, as eventually did his home and herbarium.  However, 25 years after his death two of his daughters had a marble slab, still extant, laid near the house site in his memory.  The dedication noted:  “To a mind liberally endowed by nature and refined by a liberal education he added taste for the study of Natural History and in the department of Botany, Science is much indebted to his labours” (Rembert, 1980, p. 12).


Jarvis, C. E. (2007). Order Out of Chaos: Linnaean Plant Names and Their Types. Linnaean Society.

Rembert, Jr, D. H. (1985). William Pitcairn, MD (!712-1791)—A biographical sketch. Archives of Natural History, 12(2), 219–229.

Ward, D. B. (2007). The Thomas Walter Herbarium is not the herbarium of Thomas Walter. Taxon, 56(3), 917–926.

Ward, D. B. (2017). Thomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Works of a Pioneer American Botanist. New York Botanical Garden.

Botanists in South Carolina: Mark Catesby

1 Catesby

Plate 67 from the second volume of Catesby’s Natural History: Annona glabra

After a lifetime in New York, I moved to Aiken, South Carolina nearly three years ago, lured by family and a chance to retire into a different environment.  I’ve discovered a great deal in my time here, including the enchantments of shrimp and grits.  I’ve also tried to learn something of the botany of the state, thanks to my friends at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia, Herrick Brown, the curator, and John Nelson, the curator emeritus.  I’ve absorbed some botanical history and been lucky enough to have a small role in the new Mark Catesby Centre, part of the USC University Libraries.  This is a great time for the Centre to launch since 2022 marks the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in South Carolina on his second trip to North America, the one on which he did much of his observation, drawing, and specimen collecting for his two-volume The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, a tour-de-force of science and art.

The Centre’s director, David Elliott, has had a long attachment to Catesby, having created the Catesby Trust, which has now morphed into the Centre.  Elliott led a week-long tour/conference on Catesby in 2012 and with Charles Nelson coedited The Curious Mister Catesby (2015), a book based on many of the presentations given that week.  I was on that trip and will never forget:  seeing the Smithsonian’s Catesby volumes in Washington, DC, listening to experts in Richmond discuss the background to Catesby’s work, attending a candle-light reception in Charleston, and seeing a host of waterfowl on a boat tour off Kiawah Island.  When I think of this amazing week, the images that come to mind are of Catesby’s etchings, the flora and fauna of the South Carolina coast, historical architecture, and amazing presentations.  The Curious Mister Catesby captures all these and helps to keep them fresh in my mind.  Catesby, of course, saw a very different South Carolina, though even then Charleston was a hub of commerce.  Plantations were already well established, sending rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco to England and receiving manufactured goods and African slaves.  All this has permanently marked South Carolina and thanks to books like South Carolina: A History (Edgar, 1998), Down by the Riverside (Joyner, 1984), and In the Shadow of Slavery (Carney & Rosomoff, 2009), I am developing a better sense of the complexities of the South.

On his first to North America, Catesby sailed to Virginia in 1712, accompanying his sister who was married to a physician in Williamsburg.  He stayed for 7 years, meeting William Byrd II, who discussed natural history with him and allowed Catesby to use his library.  Catesby did some collecting and drawing, but not in a very organized way.  However, when he returned to England, he developed the idea of publishing a work on the natural history of this fascinating new world.  He seems to have known enough and displayed enough evidence that he convinced the avid natural history collectors of London of his plan’s viability.  Coming from a well-educated but not very affluent British family, he definitely moved in impressive circles.  He knew the great collector Hans Sloane (see earlier post) who amassed the most impressive herbarium of his time (Delbourgo, 2017), as well as James Petiver, perhaps the most zealous collector in the sense of having a worldwide network of ships captains, colonists, merchants, and clergymen gathering specimens (Stearns, 1952).  In terms of assisting Catesby financially and botanically, there was William Sherard at Oxford, who identified many plants for Catesby.

On his second trip to America, Catesby landed in Charleston and traveled through what is known as the low country, along the coasts of North and South Carolina.  He journeyed up the Savannah River, which marks much of the border between South Carolina and Georgia, as far inland as what is now Augusta, which I might add in only a half hour from Aiken.  This was territory with a few colonial outposts and where Catesby and his companions would have encountered indigenous peoples, pine forests, and rolling hills.  This is now my country and I enjoy having some small tie with Catesby, and also with Pennsylvania nurserymen John Bartram and his son William who also visited this area forty years later, followed still later by the French botanist André Michaux.  Catesby eventually visited coastal areas of Florida and then spent almost a year in the Bahama Islands, explaining why there are so many tropical plants, fish, and birds in the Natural History.

In 1726, Catesby returned to England and worked for nearly 20 years producing his magnus opus.  He found it too costly to have his watercolors engraved, so he learned the process, producing what are considered by many to be masterpieces.  He even oversaw the coloring of the engravings in the first edition.  He worked as a nurseryman to provide needed income and as a way to observe some of the species he had first seen in the colonies.  He also received specimens and seeds from John Bartram, sending him and also Carl Linnaeus copies of his books.  This is how a number of his engravings have become lectotypes for 14 species named by Linnaeus (Jarvis, 2015).  There are Catesby specimens today in the Hans Sloane collection at the Natural History Museum, London, and at the Oxford University Herbarium, the home of Sherard’s specimens.  I am happy to note that the USC Libraries have the first and second editions of both Volumes I and II of the Natural History, as well as a copy of Hortus Europae Americanus, containing descriptions of 85 North American trees and shrubs, that Catesby had been working on when he died and was published posthumously.


Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press.

Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Harvard University Press.

Edgar, W. (1998). South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). University of Georgia Press.

Joyner, C. (1984). Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. University of Georgia Press.

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

Note: I am very grateful to David J. Elliott, director of the Mark Catesby Centre in the University Libraries of University of South Carolina, Columbia for inviting me to participate in the Centre’s work.

Humboldt and the Cosmos

4 Church

Heart of the Andes (1859) by Frederic Church, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The subject of this series of posts (1,2,3) Alexander von Humboldt is known for the breadth of his interests and for his writings that illustrate how all parts of the world, and our experience of it, are connected.  In terms of botany, he wrote that in a rainforest:  “We observed with astonishment how many things are connected with the existence of a single plant” (Wulf, 2015, p. 74).  There were the epiphytes living on the trees along with hosts of insects and other invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, etc.  Then there were the climatic, geological, and geographical elements that determined what plants grew where.  In the last post, I discussed Humboldt’s contributions to plant geography.  Here I want to broaden the perspective further and describe his writings linking science to the humanities.  While Humboldt mentioned the aesthetics of landscape and of living organisms in many of his writings, he addressed these themes most explicitly in his five-volume Cosmos (1845-1862) written toward the end of his life.  The first two of these books are the ones still most widely read because they are less scientifically dense than the later works.  The first is an introduction and synopsis, and the second a summary of the history of human beings’ appreciation for the natural world.

Though Humboldt wrote Cosmos late in life, his early experiences shaped the views he expressed there.  While a student, he met George Forster who had sailed around the world with Captain James Cook.  Forster had integrated science and aesthetics in his writing, and considered knowing and feeling as parts of a unitary experience of nature.  This approach and Humboldt’s attraction to it is not surprising considering he and Forster were living during the early years of the Romantic movement and its reaction against the emphasis on reason during the Enlightenment.  A little later in his career, while he was working as a mining inspector, Humboldt met Wolfgang Goethe and they became fast friends.  Their first meeting was in the year when Goethe wrote Metamorphosis of Plants (Arber, 1946.)  They visited each other often and at one point Humboldt made a three-month stay at the poet’s home in Jena.  Goethe had created a botanical garden there and had a herbarium.  This fed Humboldt’s interest in plants, and Goethe’s argument that nature must be experienced through feeling also had a profound effect on him.  After his stay in Jena, Humboldt felt that he had “grown new organs,” that he perceived the world in a new way, that “ what speaks to the soul escapes measurement,” which is a meaningful statement for someone who relied so heavily on scientific instruments in his investigation of nature (Wulf, 2015, p. 310).

One element in Humboldt’s linkage of different fields and experiences of nature was his focus on the visual.  While a student, he had received art instruction from a noted graphic artist, Daniel Chodowiecki.  Most of the publications resulting from his voyage to Latin America with Aimé Bonpland were illustrated, often lavishly so.  The botanical artist Pierre Turpin, who worked at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, did most of the illustrations beginning with their first publication, Essay on the Geography of Plants, with figures that included the monumental diagram of the relationship between altitude and plant species distributions (see last post).  The seven volumes describing the species Humboldt and Bonpland collected had over 700 illustrations, many of them hand-colored.  Turpin worked mostly from dried specimens, though the explorers had made many sketches that guided him; only one by Humboldt is still extant (Lack, 2009).  They also made landscape sketches that Turpin turned into illustrations as well.

One of the most significant sections in the second volume of Cosmos deals with landscape.  Humboldt argues that the scientific and aesthetic come together so powerfully that they cannot be separated.  This reflection, among others, inspired many 19th century landscape painters, perhaps most notably Frederic Church, who traveled to the Andes to experience Chimborazo and other peaks first-hand and created a number of paintings.  Particularly striking is the massive Heart of the Andes, which caused a stir when it was shown in New York, with viewers lined up to pay 25 cents to view it (see above).  A very different artist was also inspired by Humboldt.  The zoologist Ernst Haeckel had trained in art, so it’s not surprising that reading Cosmos solidified his view of the importance of art in communicating about science.  While Haeckel is best known for his book of illustrations called Art Forms in Nature, two other images come to mind when I think of him.  One is of the interior of his home that he filled with furniture, lamps, and wall decorations based on jellyfish forms.  The other is his iconic tree of life diagram with a very realistic leafless tree, a human at the top.

I have to admit that I too have been inspired by Humboldt.  When I first became interested in the aesthetics of biology, it was exhilarating to find an author who both validated my viewpoint and deepened it.  The fact that he also had exciting adventures on his Latin American voyage and was interested in plants, didn’t hurt either.  Since that time in the 1980s when I first read some of his work, Humboldt has received more attention, including Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography.  He deserves such scrutiny because he still has a great deal to tell us.  A movement in that direction is the Alexander von Humboldt Portal hosted by the Berlin State Library, a good place to start exploring Humboldt’s papers and information about his life and writings.  And to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth, Nature Ecology & Evolution has collated a series of articles related to his work and Science published an essay on his importance today.  In addition, Wulf has teamed with the artist Lillian Melcher to create a graphic non-fiction book, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.

Humboldt: Essay on the Geography of Plants

3 Biogeography

Plate from Humboldt and Bonpland’s Essay on the Geography of Plants, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

When they returned to Paris after their five year expedition (1799-1804) to Latin America, the first publication Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland produced was Essay on the Geography of Plants (1805).  This book was really Humboldt’s conception, but since Bonpland was a botanist and had contributed his expertise throughout their journey, Humboldt thought it was fitting that Bonpland’s name should be on the essay as well (Humboldt & Bonpland, 2009).  The evidence they accumulated on the trip was central to Humboldt’s argument, and he set about writing a first draft right after their ascent of Mt. Chimborazo, one of the highest mountains in the Andes.  However, many of the ideas Humboldt presented to demonstrate how geography determines the plant life growing in a particular place, were conceived much earlier when he met George Forster who had been on Captain James Cook’s second round-the-world expedition.  Forster had broad knowledge of vegetation in very different environments and opened Humboldt’s eyes to how plant life varied with access to water, with altitude, and with distance from the equator.

Humboldt wasn’t very interested in taxonomy, in identifying new species, and among the plant descriptions in the first of their 7 botanical journals that logged the plants they collected, Humboldt wrote nine descriptions and Bonpland 682 (Lack, 2009).  This did not mean that plants weren’t important to Humboldt’s vision of the world, rather he was more interested in how the environment influenced the ability of a particular plant to survive in a particular environment.  He didn’t see plants so much as isolated entities but as part of a larger picture, and there is visual evidence of this in the Essay.  The main portion of the book is an explanation of a large diagram—originally printed 2’x3’—that is a complex blend of image and text (see above).  The center panel depicts two peaks in the Andes, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, both of which Bonpland and Humboldt had climbed.  To the right of them, is a cross-section of the two labeled with the plants found there.

In 1824, Humboldt published a similar diagram where he moved some of the plants to different elevations.  Pierre Moret and his collaborators (2019) have recently revisited these images and compared the plants in the diagrams with the specimens Humboldt and Bonpland collected.  They found that Humboldt’s primary data above the tree line were collected mostly on Mt. Antisana.  Moret’s went to the collection area and found that over 200 years, the tree line has shifted about 215-266 meters.  This is a fascinating study of how old data can illuminate present environmental issues, while at the same time shedding light on how data was used in the past.  There is a great deal more in this image, including subterranean plants that had intrigued Humboldt since his days as a mine inspector in Germany when he studied and wrote about the plants, lichen, and algae he found in the caves and mines where he worked as a mine inspector (Anthony, 2018).

So far, I’ve only discussed the central panel of the Tableau, but there are seventeen other columns, eight to the right and nine to the left of the mountain diagram.  These include elevation, atmospheric pressure, humidity, etc. at various altitudes.  In other words, one chart summarizes a great deal of the data the team collected on their trip.  What is most important to Humboldt is the relationship between elevation and other phenomena.  His major finding is that elevation relates to temperature in influencing what plants grow where:  plants found at a particular elevation, will be found at a lower elevation but at higher latitude, in other words, further north or south of the equator.  In his introduction to a recent edition of the Essay, Stephen Jackson (2009) argues that Humboldt held to the “primacy of plant geography in his overall vision of the world, whereby vegetation is both the most obvious surface manifestation of climate and the determinant of many other natural and human features” (p. 17).  Humboldt is often designated the father of plant geography because of this essay, but he drew on the work of many others who had gone before him.  He is notable because he used his experiences in South America to synthesize a great deal of information and present it in a striking format, drawing on the growing use of diagrams in geological studies (Rudwick, 1976).

At several points in the essay Humboldt noted the environmental damage done by agriculture as forests were replaced by fields that quickly lost their fertility, leaving a degraded and useless landscape that affected local weather patterns.  These observations were taken up and enlarged upon by others in the 19th century who were influenced by his writings.  Henry David Thoreau saw the unity of nature much as Humboldt did, George Perkins Marsh wrote of the toll taken by forest destruction in the United States as did John Muir, and in Humboldt’s native land, Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology to describe the interrelations among species and the nonliving environment.  They all had read Humboldt and were passionate about his impact on them.  The Essay was one such influence; in the next post I’ll discuss another.


Anthony, P. (2018). Mining as the working world of Alexander von Humboldt’s plant geography and vertical cartography. Isis, 109(1), 28–55.

Humboldt, A. von, & Bonpland, A. (2009). Essay on the Geography of Plants (S. T. Jackson, Ed.; S. Romanowski, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, S. (2009). Introduction: Humboldt, ecology, and the cosmos. In S. Jackson (Ed.), & S. Romanowski (Trans.), Essay on the Geography of Plants (pp. 1–46). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.

Moret, P., Muriel, P., Jaramillo, R., & Dangles, O. (2019). Humboldt’s Tableau Physique revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201904585.

Rudwick, M. (1976). The emergence of a visual language for geological science. History of Science, 14, 149–195.

Humboldt and the World of Plants

1 Abronia parviflora

Abronia parviflora collected in Columbia by Humboldt and Bonpland, specimen in the herbarium of Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.

A few years ago, Andrea Wulf (2015) published The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  “New World” here can be interpreted two ways:  as the Western Hemisphere that Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland explored during their famous five-year expedition (1799-1804), and as the world through new eyes made possible by Humboldt’s writings that influenced such leaders of environmental and ecological thinking as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.  It is because of this impact that Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), born 250 years ago, deserves attention today.  It seems appropriate to dedicate this series of posts to someone who helped shape the way we look at plants now.  I’ll begin by discussing early influences on his thinking and the general arc of his life’s work.  The following posts will deal more specifically with aspects of his botanical studies.

Humboldt was born into a upper-class family in Berlin.  His father died when he was 10, leaving him and his older brother Wilhelm in the care of their rather aloof mother who aimed to have her sons well-placed in the Prussian establishment.  From an early age Humboldt exhibited other inclinations, especially an interest in natural history, collecting specimens and creating what amounted to a museum of his finds.  To learn more about plants, he took some of his specimens to Carl Ludwig Willdenow, an apothecary who had just published a flora of Berlin.  This meeting led to Willdenow becoming Humboldt’s botany tutor.  While his mother hired Willdenow, this didn’t divert her from her plan, so Humboldt studied finance for a brief time and then went to the University of Gottingen where his brother was also enrolled.  There he met George Forster who years before had travelled with his father on Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation.  Forster became Humboldt’s mentor, and like many among the educated elites of the time, they made a grand tour, visiting the Netherlands, France, and England.  This broadened Humboldt’s horizons, to say nothing of his knowledge of natural history.  In England alone, he met Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith of the Linnean Society, and the Oxford botanist John Sibthorpe.

After this trip, Humboldt studied more seriously, enrolling in the Freiburg School of Mines.  Upon graduation in 1792, he was appointed a mine inspector, a Prussian government position to his mother’s satisfaction.  He threw himself into his work, which was great preparation for his future travels (Anthony, 2018).  Humboldt became familiar with the new ways of illustrating rock formations that were beginning to emerge and with the plants growing in the subterranean world of the mines.  In fact, he wrote Florae Fribergensis in 1793, describing the plants, algae, and fungi he encountered.  As part of his work, he made a tour of mountainous areas in Switzerland and Italy, focusing on geology and botany.  His mother died in 1796, freeing him from having to remain in government service since he and his brother inherited significant wealth.  Within a year, Humboldt prepared to leave Prussia and do some serious exploring of distant lands.  He headed for Paris, where he met Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who was planning a naval expedition and invited Humboldt to join.  Nothing came of this, but in the meantime, he had met Aimé Bonpland, a botanist who had been educated by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and René-Louiche Desfontaines at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Humboldt and Bonpland got along well and both were interested in exploration.  After further efforts to join a French expedition failed, they headed to Spain where they convinced the King to issue them passports to Spanish-held lands in South America and also the Philippines.  Since Humboldt was funding the trip, the King had little to lose and much to gain in terms of new knowledge about his own lands.  Humboldt had amassed an impressive array of the latest equipment for carrying out astronomical, meteorological, and geological measurements.  His gear also included supplies for collecting specimens, but as can be seen by just this brief review, their trip was rather ad hoc and remained so throughout.  The first stop was Tenerife, where they climbed the island’s Mount Teide.  They were thrilled with the experience and tested out their instruments for measuring altitude, atmospheric pressure, etc.

When they landed at Cumaná in what is now Venezuela, they spent over a year exploring including traveling the length of the Casiquiare River that forms a natural canal between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers (Helferich, 2004).  They then sailed to Cuba before returning to South America and climbing in the Andes.  They went on to Lima, up the west coast to Ecuador and by sea to Mexico where they spent a year before sailing back to Cuba and to the United States.  At several points during the voyage they had to recalculate their plans, and they never did get to the Philippines.  By the time they left Mexico, Humboldt was anxious to return to Europe to start writing up his findings and learn the latest news in science because he had been out of touch for so long.  Humboldt and Bonpland settled in Paris since the scientific climate there was most conducive to doing the research necessary to describe their observations and specimens.  After this voyage, Humboldt never returned to the New World, though he did make one major trip later in life through Russia to Siberia to advise the Tsar on his mining interests there.  In the next post, I’ll discuss Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s botanical collections from the Americas and how they were eventually sorted out.


Anthony, P. (2018). Mining as the working world of Alexander von Humboldt’s plant geography and vertical cartography. Isis, 109(1), 28–55.

Helferich, G. (2004). Humboldt’s Cosmos. New York, NY: Penguin.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.