Gardening with Galligan: 19th century Indiana Joneses

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE | Alexander von Humboldt, detail of an 1843 painting by Joseph Stieler.

Alexander von Humboldt, detail of an 1843 painting by Joseph Stieler.

They were eaten by tigers and crocodiles, murdered by unfriendly locals, slept alone in jungles and were often racked by fevers of unknown origin.

The plant hunters of bygone centuries all suffered from the same disease. They called it “botanomania.” They risked their lives in the search for the unknown plant, which was apparently an irresistible attraction.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a survivor of numerous near-death experiences, was born in Berlin in 1769 to a well-to-do family. His father was a major in the Prussian army and his mother was the widow of a baron; it was her money that paid the costs of her son’s explorations. His father died when Alexander was 10. His mother sent him to the University of Frankfurt, but he was not interested in finance; he was interested in plants, and on one vacation, when he was 20 years old, he engaged in his first scientific excursion up the Rhine River. But that was child’s play.

By 1800, he had explored the uncharted territories of Venezuela and Brazil with a French colleague and traveling companion, Pierre Bonpland. They traveled for months, making sketches and taking extensive notes while they gathered specimens and packaged them for return. Their equipment included telescopes, barometers, thermometers, a rain gauge, quadrants and sextants and a galvanometer to measure electric currents. In 1814, Alexander published his journals describing this adventure, “Personal Narrative Of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.”

His joy and excitement in the journey is almost palpable: “What magnificent vegetation! Cocoa-nut palms from 50 to 60 feet in length … Bananas and a host of trees with enormous leaves and sweet-smelling flowers as large as one’s hand, all of which are entirely new. How brilliant the plumage of birds and the colours of the fishes! Even the crabs are sky-blue and gold.”

The challenges that these explorers faced were sobering. They were stalked by wild animals, forded streams filled with crocodiles and had to depend on native guides who were far from reliable and often simply abandoned them. But the lure of the Venezuelan rainforest, which contained over five million botanical specimens, was irresistible; 15 percent of all the plants in the world could be found there. The jungles were vast, the trees thick with liana vines and orchids blanketing their trunks. Alexander commented frequently on the smell emanating from the jungle as a mixture of flowers, fruits and tree wood.

At one point they acquired a large boat and using native guides as pilots, they traveled down the Orinoco River, which flows into the Amazon. The boat carried all their equipment and provisions and as they moved down the river, they began adding animal specimens; he referred to the boat as “a floating zoo.” There were several primates, including small squirrel monkeys and large woolly ones, caged birds including macaws with purple feathers, parrots and toucans. Jaguars drank along the river’s edge. Crocodiles sunbathed on the sand. He described the scene as “like paradise.”

The preservation of their specimens under such conditions was a difficult task. The men spent many hours pressing and drawing the plant specimens they collected on a daily basis. They drew detailed pictures of what they saw. By the time they were ready to return home, both men were covered with bleeding sores from insect bites and recovering from violent fevers; it took a great deal of time until they both fully recovered.

Why did they do it? More about that next week.