From The Library: Two More Botanical Treasures

This article follows on from the talk I gave back in March 2018 and then the descriptions of further books on Botanic Illustrations that were emailed out to proprietors on 4th March and 14th June.

Today’s books have also been written by 17th century men. The first is by a Dutch Professor of Botany and the second by a devout French Catholic Monk in the extremely strict Order of Minims.

Jan Commelin (1629 – 1692), started work as a botanist, the son of historian Isaac Commelin; his brother Caspar was a bookseller and newspaper publisher. Jan became a professor of botany in the “Golden Age” of the Dutch Republic when they were the wealthiest and most prosperous country in Europe. Amongst the trade managed by their Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) were many exotic plants coming from the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon and across East Asia to Japan. As an alderman of Amsterdam, he led the arrangement of a new medical garden, Hortus Medicus, which later became a botanic Hortus Botanicus and is still there to be enjoyed today. He also cultivated exotic plants on his farm ‘Zuyderhout’ near Haarlem. Commelin amassed a fortune by selling herbs and drugs to apothecaries and hospitals in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities.

He did a great deal of the work compiling Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede’s  “Hortus Malabaricus” (Garden of Malabar) #, and “Nederlandse Flora” in 1683 as well as contributing commentaries to the second and third volumes.

Jan Commelin by Gerard Hoet,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He also prepared for publication “Horti Medici Amstelodamensis Rariorum” which appeared in 1697 and dealt mainly with plants from the East and West Indies, and was illustrated mainly by Jan Moninckx and his daughter Maria Moninckx. We have this book as well as “The botany of the Commelins”, which is a taxonomical, nomenclatural and historical account of the plants depicted in the Moninckx Atlas and in the four books by Jan and Caspar Commelin on the plants in the Hortus Medicus Amstelodamensis.

There is a genus Commelina (named after him) which has approximately 170 species commonly called Asiatic day-flowers, due to the short lives of their flowers.                   

Aloe Africana

# The Athenaeum used to have a copy of  “Hortus Malabaricus”, but it has mysteriously disappeared.

Charles Plumier (1646 – 1704) was born in Marseille, the son of Jean Plumier, a wood turner. In 1662, at the age of 16, he entered the Order of Minims, a Catholic monastic order founded in Italy. This Order was generally considered to be the most austere of the orders, medieval in its rules and ideals. In addition to the traditional vows (poverty, chastity, and obedience), a Minim had to commit to a life of perpetual Lent, on a daily basis eating no meat and no meat products, milk, cheese, or eggs, dietary restrictions, which almost ended his life when he became shipwrecked many years later.

Plumier’s early years were devoted to the study of the physical sciences, to mathematics, and to drawing; he developed a keen interest in the construction of scientific instruments and learned to use the lathe. Shortly after his consecration in 1663, and at his own request, he was sent to the Minim Convent in Toulouse to study mathematics under Father Emanuel Maignan (1601-1676), the “great Minim mathematician and expert turner”.

Sometime thereafter, probably following the death of Father Maignan in 1676, Plumier went to pursue his studies to Rome, where he was introduced to botany by Father Philippe Sergeant and Francisco de Onuphriis. Influenced greatly by their instruction, he took on the study of botany with great enthusiasm. Plumier completed this botany training with Italian naturalist Paolo Boccone (1633-1704). These studies were cut short by his chronic illness, apparently brought on by too much work. He returned to France “where the salubrious air and the tranquillity gave him back his original vigour.” It was during this period that he met the famous French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), who will become a professor of botany at the Jardin du Roi, and Pierre-Joseph Garidel (1658-1737) who was then professor of botany at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Tournefort and Garidel invited Plumier to go with them during their plant collection expeditions in Provence.

This experience led him to seek permission to undertake an extensive botanical excursion along the coasts of Languedoc and Provence, in the French Alps, and on the islands of Hyères. Here he gathered a great quantity of plants and made sketches of most of them, with the intention of publishing a standard work on the plants of the region.

Word of Plumier’s botanical expertise, as well as his extraordinary talents as an illustrator and engraver, began to spread. Michel Bégon (1638-1710), then superintendent of ships at Marseilles and a former governor of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), was ordered by King Louis XIV to find a naturalist willing to visit the French possessions in the Antilles for the purpose of collecting objects of natural history. The position was offered to Joseph-Donat Surian (died 1691), physician and apothecary at Marseilles, who, in turn, asked Plumier to accompany him as his assistant.

Bégon received Royal consent to conduct a full botanical survey of the Antilles. Plumier honoured him with the name Begonia.

The dates of Plumer’s three botanising voyages were: 1687, 1689 and 1694. His orders were to “work to discover the properties of plants, seeds, oils, gums, and essences and to draw birds, fishes, and other animals”. He went to Haiti and Martinique, where he illustrated and prepared elaborate descriptions of plants and animals. While accomplishing an enormous amount of work, the time spent on the islands was apparently not without controversy, through great discord between Plumier and Surian. They returned to France after about 20 months work, loaded with seeds, leaves, roots, salts, oils, and other trifles, and a quantity of complaints against each other! It appears that the Minim (Plumier) “had more reason on his side than the physician, or that he was more listened to, since the latter was dismissed and the Minim was sent back to the islands to do more work”. Plumier however, was appointed royal botanist by Louis XIV.

The first voyage was written up by Plumier as “Description des Plantes d’Amérique” and proved very successful. The material gathered in the two subsequent voyages was prodigious. Besides the “Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera” it filled the volumes of his  “Traité des fougères de l’Amérique” (1703) and several shorter pieces for the Journal des Savants and the Memoires de Trévoux.

Unknown Author
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Our book is this “Ferns of America” which is illustrated with 172 full-page engravings of ferns, written in Latin and French. It is said to be a very scarce book and is one of the most beautiful botanical books, by one of the era’s most important botanical explorers. It was compiled by the author the year before his death from pleurisy  in 1704, during his fourth voyage. The first 50 plates originally appeared in 1693 in his first treatise.

At his death Plumier left 31 manuscript volumes containing notes and descriptions, and about 6,000 drawings, 4,000 of which were of plants, while the remainder reproduced American animals of nearly all classes, especially birds and fishes.

The genus Plumeria was named in his honour by Tournefort and Linnaeus. These are flowering plants most of which are deciduous shrubs or small trees from the Caribbean region. The Frangipani is one of these.

Stephen Lyus, July 2021

Two engravings of the fern Trichomanes crenulis.