Botanists in South Carolina: Henry Ravenel


3 Limnobium spongia copy

Specimen of Limnobium spongia from the Ravenel Herbarium at the A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Henry Ravenel was born in 1814 in an area outside Charleston that had been settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century.  They had fled religious persecutions by Catholics in France.  Many had first gone to Protestant England and then sought greater freedom and economic advantage in the British Colonies.  The Ravenels were plantation owners and had the money to send their son to a nearby academy and then to South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina, Columbia, where he received his degree and where his herbarium resides.  While he was always interested in plants and went botanizing with those similarly inclined on nearby plantations, he did not go into medicine, as did others of that time with a botanical bent.  Instead he took up plantation life, inheriting land from his father.

Ravenel also pursued his study of botany, collecting specimens, seeking information from such experts as Asa Gray, Edward Tuckerman, and George Engelmann, and eventually becoming particularly interested in cryptogams.  When William Henry Harvey, the British botanist, was in Charleston on a lecture tour in 1849, he met Ravenel and was impressed by his knowledge.  Writing to William Jackson Hooker afterwards, Harvey bemoaned the fact that Ravenel was moving away from studying vascular plants and focusing on fungi.  Ravenel and Moses Ashley Curtis, a North Carolina clergyman/botanist decided to collect specimens for a fungal exsiccati.  Curtis eventually bowed out of the project, but continued to provide assistance, and Ravenel eventually published five volumes of Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati between 1852 and 1860.  He also contributed to Fungi Americani Exsiccati (1872-1880) along with the British mycologist M. C. Cooke.

In 1853, Ravenel made a major change, selling his plantation and moving his family to a farm in Aiken, South Carolina, just east of the border with Georgia, near Augusta (Haywood, 1987).  He hoped the change to a drier and somewhat cooler area would improve his failing health.  Perhaps he also hoped that the land would be healthier too, because as early as 1843 he had banded together with other low country farmers to form an agricultural society to investigate ways of improving the diminishing fertility of their plantations.  His new property, Hampton Hill, provided him with a good income from the peach trees and grape vines he planted that were tended by about 80 slaves.  Then the Civil War changed everything.

One reason there is so much known about Ravenel’s life is that, besides the evidence of his broad correspondence with John Torrey, Asa Gray, and others, he kept a diary from 1859 until his death in 1887.  An edited version was published by Arney Childs (1947), a history professor at the University of South Carolina.  It is a fascinating book for someone like myself who is trying to learn Southern and botanical history at the same time.  Ravenel began with several entries on family and visiting relatives for Christmas, and on December 31, 1859 he decided “to record a few words upon political affairs. . . .  The future is now wrapped in uncertainty” (p. 4).

After war was declared Ravenel put nearly all his money into Confederate war bonds, something that was common among Southerners with means.  They saw it as a way to ensure the victory of their cause.  Since the bonds proved worthless, the ultimate outcome for Ravenel and many others was no financial reserve to fall back on after the war.  Fruits like peaches and grapes became luxury items in the South and were difficult to ship to Northern markets.  Ravenel sought several times to sell his land, but repeatedly turned down offers that were far below what the land had been worth before the war.  Eventually he did sell it for less than half what he had been offered right after the war.

He turned to botany as a way to earn some money, arranging to collect for others and also to write for agricultural and botanical publications.  He sold his botany books, many of them precious like 12 volumes of de Candolles’s Prodromus that netted $40.  He also eventually sold his microscope and the remaining issues of his exsiccati that he had.  He was pleased that his northern correspondents got in touch as soon as communication became possible, and he asked Gray for advice on starting a nursery.  When he put the same question to Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan, he received seeds and cuttings as a gift, and later a $50 “loan” that Meehan made clear didn’t have to repaid.  Ravenel’s friend from his youth, Dr. Francis Peyre Porcher, who is the subject of the next post, tried to find employment for him in Charleston but there just wasn’t anything to be had.  This is when Ravenel wrote in his diary that he regretted not having had enough resolve to go into medicine.

Through all this he continued to collect, but after his death his widow had a hard time selling his herbarium for what she considered its worth.  She ended up splitting it, with the cryptogams going to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, London).  A Ravenel relative bought the vascular plant collection and gave it to Converse College in Spartanburg, SC.  Eventually, the college transferred it on permanent loan to the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, where it has been carefully curated and digitized.  The herbarium also collaborated with other university departments in the digital humanities project, Henry Ravenel: Plants and Planter, producing a website where Ravenel’s correspondence, journals, and specimens are all available and searchable.


Childs, A. R. (Ed.). (1947). The Private Journal of Henry William Ravenel 1859-1887). University of South Carolina Press.

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. University of Alabama Press.

Note:  I want to thank John Nelson and Herrick Brown of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia for introducing me to the world of Henry Ravenel, teaching me so much about him, and helping me to decipher his handwriting.

History and Herbaria: Other Digital Projects



Botanica Caroliniana Website

As promised in the previous post, here are several projects combining herbarium collections and history. The Bergerbibliothek in Bern, Switzerland has an impressive website for its collection of Felix Platter material. Platter (1536-1614) was a noted physician and botanist who had an extensive herbarium now available on this site. What is even more striking is the collection of illustrations he amassed, including some of the original watercolors done by Hans Weiditz for Otto Brunfels’s groundbreaking herbal of 1530. These drawings were painted on both sides of a page, and Platter wanted to file them according to species, which meant that he or one of his assistants cut out each drawing in an attempt to have good representations of both species that could be filed separately. These were then pasted to individual sheets of paper. Now all of this is available online, giving a good sense of Weiditz’s artistry, if in a somewhat odd format. This questionable treatment does indicate how important Platter considered illustrations in the study of plants at this time, and it’s this valuing that allowed these masterpieces to be preserved. In the many volumes of the Platter herbarium there are also woodcuts and other illustrations. Now all these are searchable, and the specimens and illustrations of a species can be seen at the same time. This was a massive effort and a beautiful result because the Bergerbibliothek’s Platter site also has information on the provenance of the collection and the restoration project to stabilize the volumes.

As you might suspect, I am partial to Renaissance collections and grateful to those European institutions such as the libraries in Erlangen and Bern that have made them freely available. At the Jagiellon Library in Krakow, the Libri Picturati, a collection of botanical illustrations related to Carolus Clusius, has also been published in book form (de Koning et al, 2008), but it’s not yet available electionically. As more of these treasures receive attention, it would be wonderful to have a portal that made them all searchable at the same time, so a user could see how a particular species is treated by a variety of different artists, along with related specimens (A portal like this exists for European cabinets of curiosities). In some cases, as with the Jamaican plants in the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the NHM, the illustrations made by Everhardus Kickius for Sloane’s volumes (1707, 1725) on Jamaica are very similar to the specimens. This is easy to see because the specimen and watercolor are set right next to each other on opposite pages of the bound volumes of his herbarium. The Sloane Herbarium site is searchable, if you know a genus or species you want to see. This type of portal is designed more for biologists than for historians and brings up the issue of how design can limit or discourage access to a site.

Another important project is Botanica Caroliniana, a collaboration between Furman and Clemson Universities. Several historical collections related to the Carolinas have been put online. The first was the Catesby collection of specimens in the Sloane Herbarium at the NHM in London. Each specimen is presented opposite the page in Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas that depicts the species, with the accompanying text also displayed. This is a great example of what digitization makes possible: the juxtaposition of images and text from a rare book with specimens from a priceless herbarium. History, botany, art and literature are all involved, and the project was done by institutions of the region of origin of many of the specimens, so it speaks to environmental conservation and respect for the nature of the area.

Another project from South Carolina called Plants and Planter deals with the work of the botanist Henry Ravenel (1814-1887). It presents Ravenel’s specimens and journals, along with journal transcripts. Several institutions— South Carolina University Library, A. C. Moore Herbarium, Clemson University, Converse College, and the University of North Carolina Wilson Library—contributed materials, bringing them together in a searchable format. Some of the specimens on this website were scanned as part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) project. This is a massive NSF-funded effort to digitize biological specimens at non-federally sponsored institutions and suggests that these efforts have more than scientific value. Ravenel collected before, during, and after the Civil War, so historically his work is significant. He eventually focused on fungi, and particularly after the war he made large collections that he sold as a way to improve his economic condition. He is considered one of the most significant students of fungi in the 19th century (Haygood, 1987).

There are other collections that could benefit from this type of presentation. Asa Gray’s papers at Harvard have been digitized, and some of them transcribed. Many of the specimens he used in his work have also been digitized at Harvard. However, it would be a massive undertaking, involving very different databases, to create a portal where specimens could be called up with the corresponding text, even though the two collections are physically close together. It’s obvious from the examples of Sloane and Gray, that physical and electronic proximity are very different things. But that doesn’t mean that this is not an ideal to aim for. In the meantime, it’s a comfort to know that smaller projects, like those for Catesby and Ravenel exist.

Crase, D. (2004). Both: A Portrait in Two Parts. New York, NY: Pantheon.

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