Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Hernández

2 Cactus

Cactus in Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed two early commentators on Latin American natural history, Gonzalo de Oviedo and José de Acosta.  While they were careful observers, spent much time in the New World, and wrote extensively on its flora, there is no evidence that they collected plant specimens.  Oviedo traveled from 1514-1546 and published in 1526 with an expanded edition in 1535.  The earliest extant herbarium is from 1532, the work of a student of the Italian Luca Ghini (see earlier post), who probably originated the practice of pressing plants.  In other words, Oviedo’s observations were made so early that it’s unlikely he even knew of the technique, especially because there was far more communication by the Italians with French, German, and English naturalists, than with the Spanish.  However, by the time King Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) his personal physician to the New World in 1570, things had changed.  The technique was no longer a novelty, so it’s not surprising that Hernández was said to have collected specimens of upwards of 3000 plants, many of medicinal importance.

Hernández arrived in Mexico in 1571 and toured the country and other areas of Central America until 1577 when he returned to Spain because of ill health.  He had worked with a team including a geographer, artists, botanists, and indigenous medical practitioners who had the expertise to lead him to interesting and useful plants.  While it is not always the case that native knowledge was acknowledged by explorers, it was almost always drawn upon because the new comers knew nothing of an area’s geography nor of the culture of its people.  In addition, the plants were so different in this “new” world, that even expert European botanists were perplexed by the flora they encountered, to say nothing of attempting to figure out their medicinal uses.  Hernández was more than willing to seek local expertise and to credit it.  He noted the native language, Nahuatl, names for each species and also had three indigenous artists document the plants.

When Hernández returned to Spain with this material, the King was thrilled, but thought that Hernández wasn’t up to making order out of it, so he gave the task to his new physician, the Italian Nardo Antonio Recchi.  Thus began a complex and lengthy process that ultimately led to the publication of only a part of Hernández’s hoard.  Recchi did not see the Nahuatl names and indigenous information as useful to Europeans.  Instead, he chose to focus on material that was somewhat similar to plants found in Europe.  Later research suggests that he used only about 600 of Hernández’s 3000 specimens.  This approach, not surprisingly, caused conflict with Hernández, and Recchi returned to Italy in 1583 claiming health concerns and settling in Naples.  He brought with him a copy of his manuscript and 600 illustrations produced from Hernández’s drawings, yet he never published the work.  After Recchi died in 1594, the manuscript passed to his nephew who hadn’t the means to publish it, yet there was still interest.  Naples had an active botanical community including Fabio Colonna and Giovanni della Porta who were anxious to learn about plants of the New World, though finally it was a Roman who made a move.

Federico Cesi was 19 years old when he banded together with three friends to form the Accademia dei Lincei or Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603, the name coming from the lynx’s keen eye, suggesting that the group saw observation as key to scientific inquiry (Freedberg, 2002).  Though they were not all naturalists—Galileo later joined the group—they were committed to the importance of visual evidence in the study of nature.  As early as 1604, the Lincei, as the group was called, set their sights on obtaining the Hernández/Recchi manuscript.  At last, Cesi went to Naples in 1610 not only to locate it but to encourage Neapolitan naturalists including Colonna and della Porta to establish a branch of the Lincei in their city.  While there, Cesi arranged to obtain the images and text from Recchi’s nephew.  But Cesi died before completing the work, which the Lincei finally finished publishing in 1651 (see figure above).  Each entry did begin with the Nahuatl name of the species, making it at the time the largest botanical glossary of non-European names.  This publication, though it represented a limited portion of Hernández’s original material, became particularly important after much of the Hernández documents, including his herbarium, was destroyed in a fire in the King of Spain’s Escorial Palace in 1671.  This explains why there are no specimens linked to Hernández’s writings.

There are still other threads to this story.  In 1626 Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of the Lincei, visited Spain with Cardinal Barbarini and following Cesi’s instructions, examined Hernández’s drawings.  While there, Barbarini obtained the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, an Aztec herbal, and the Lincei had it copied (the original is in the National Library of Anthropology in Mexico and the copy in the Royal Library, Winsor).  They tried to correlate it with the Hernández material, but couldn’t; the cultural gap was too wide (Gimmel, 2008).  Also, as Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes in her book on Latin American exploration, there was an edition of the Hernández/Recchi Latin manuscript published in Mexico City in 1539.  It was a Spanish translation by Francisco Ximénez, who added some of his own commentaries on the plants.  There were 478 entries describing the species’ traits and medicinal uses.  There were no illustrations, but Mexicans found the book helpful because the plants were familiar to them and this was a handy reference.  On the other hand, Europeans complained that even with illustrations, the Lincei edition was of little medical use because most of the plants described were unavailable in Europe.


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

Freedberg, D. (2002). The Eye of the Lynx. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gimmel, M. (2008). Reading Medicine in the Codex de las Cruz Badiano. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(2), 169–192.