Botanists in South Carolina: Francis Peyre Porcher


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Title page of Francis Peyre Porcher’s Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Francis Peyre Porcher (1824-1895) was born on his grandfather’s plantation in St. John’s Berkeley outside of Charleston in 1824.  His great-grandfather was Thomas Walter, a Charleston businessman, plantation owner, and botanist who wrote Flora Caroliniana (1788), the first flora of a North American region using Linnaean classification (see earlier post).  Porcher’s parents were also interested in botany.  His father, a Charleston physician, died when he was eight years old.  This left his wife to manage their plantation and raise six children, yet she still found time to satisfy her interest in plants.  Porcher often went botanizing with his mother and uncle.  They were sometimes accompanied by Henry Ravenel, a young man from a neighboring plantation who also had an interest in botany (see last post).  He was ten years older than Porcher, and they remained lifelong friends even after Ravenel moved to Aiken in western South Carolina (Haygood, 1987).

Porcher went to South Carolina College and then to South Carolina Medical College, graduating in 1847.  His thesis, “A Medico Botanical Catalogue of the Plants and Ferns of St. John’s Berkeley, S.C.,” was considered so valuable it was published by the College.  Two years later, this became the basis for his Sketch of the Medical Botany of South Carolina (1849); Henry Ravenel had assisted him on this project.  After graduation, Porcher studied in Europe for over two years at leading medical institutions in France and Italy.  Then he returned to Charleston, where he partnered with Dr. Julian John Chisholm in a practice that included treating the slaves of wealthy plantation owners, many of whom Porcher knew through his family’s plantation (Townsend, 1939).

Since slaves were property, owners wanted to keep them in good health, so it paid them to seek expert care when needed.  In 1855, Porcher and Chisholm founded a hospital for treating enslaved people, since there had never been such a facility in Charleston.  Porcher and Chisholm were being less humanitarians than smart businessmen in establishing a separate medical facility, one that could provide services for difficult cases.  Porcher also visited plantation infirmaries, which were effective for many of the health needs of the enslaved and were usually staffed by enslaved women with expertise in herbal medicine.

When the Civil War began Porcher joined the Confederate medical corps serving first in South Carolina and then at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, VA where he was stationed until the area was taken by Union troops.  Then the Confederate Surgeon-General, Samuel P. Moore, granted Porcher leave to complete what became Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests in support of the war effort.  Moore had originally asked Porcher to write the book at the beginning of the war, but as the Confederacy’s situation deteriorated, the book was more urgently needed.  Because of his previous publications on South Carolina plants and his medical experience before and during the war, Porcher had already laid the foundations for this text. Besides his own botanico-medical expertise, Porcher had another key advantage in preparing his manuscript:  his life on plantations and his treatment of slaves gave him access to the knowledge of enslaved healers.

Martia Graham Goodson (1987) begins her article on the medical-botanical contributions of African enslaved women to American medicine:  “That the daughters of Africa were a rich source of medical knowledge was not lost on the professional doctors of the Slave South, whose livelihood came from tending sick slaves” (p. 198).  She uses Francis Porcher as an example, noting his sophisticated medical background, including his European studies.  She argues that his education in materia medica began on the plantation where he grew up and depended on his contact with enslaved women working in plantation infirmaries.  For many entries in Resources Porcher mentions how particular species were used by enslaved healers, though no one is referred to by name.  As Goodson notes:  “’Used extensively’ by ‘the negroes’ is a phrase that permeates Porcher’s descriptions of the medical wealth of the plants of his native state.  In fact, nearly one-third of the plants are described as being ‘used extensively on the plantations’ or ‘used by the negroes’ or ‘used in domestic practice’” (p. 200).

Porcher’s 600-page text was published in 1863.  He often went into great detail describing where and when a particular plant was likely to be found, how it should be harvested, and not only what it could be used for, but how it should be prepared for use.  From the number of plants mentioned as valuable in producing soap, curing diarrhea, and treating fever these were obviously critical needs—and very basic ones.  This book was not just for the military, though it was distributed to all Confederate physicians.  Since the South could no longer rely on the Northern states or foreign trade for the medicines and other goods they needed, everyone had to become self-sufficient and utilize local resources as much as possible.

In a sense, Porcher was attempting to make all Southerners practical botanists who could maximize their use of what was available to them, even if they hadn’t hitherto paid much attention to plants in the past.  The book remained popular and was reprinted after the war, when Porcher returned to his medical practice.  Though life in Charleston was difficult as it was throughout the South, he had a needed expertise, a good reputation in his practice, and social connections that still counted for something, with many of these extending well beyond the South because of his service in the American Medical Association.  He resumed teaching at the Medical College, did research on yellow fever, and died in Charleston in 1895.


Goodson, M. G. (1980). African Slave Contributions to Medicine. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 11(4), 198–203.

Townsend, J. F. (1939). Francis Peyre Porcher, M.D. (1824-1895). Annals of Medical History, 1, 177–188.

Note: I want to thank Herrick Brown and Lauren LaFauci for discussions on Francis Porcher that were very helpful to me.  Also, I am grateful for the assistance I received in assessing the Porcher papers at the South Caroliniana Libary at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Botanists in South Carolina: Henry Ravenel


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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.

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

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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.