Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Michaux in N. America

André Michaux, a French botanist and explorer sent to North America in search of new species to replenish the forests of France, was born 270 years ago today. He is credited with many botanical discoveries, and in particular a species of rhododendron which is the genetic parent of many modern hybrids. When revolution back home cut off his support, he turned to the American Philosophical Society (APS) to fund further botanical trips. Some of his journals were lost in a shipwreck when returning to France, but those manuscripts that survived were donated to, and published by, the APS.

Michaux was born at Satory, near Versailles, France, on 7 or 8 November 1846 (biography links, as below, give a different date) and grew up on a royal farm, where his father was manager. He was taken out of school at 14 to learn horticulture, and when his father died, Michaux shared the management of the farm with his brother. He married in late 1769, but his wife died the following year after giving birth to a son. The naturalist Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier, who lived nearby, recommended that Michaux study how to grow foreign plants in France, which he did with experiments on the farm.

Subsequently, Michaux became a student of the naturalist Bernard de Jussieu in the park of the château of Versailles, and, in 1779, he worked at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. That year, he began making botanical expeditions, within France, to England and Spain. In 1782, he was appointed secretary to the French consul in Persia, where he is said to have cured the shah of a dangerous illness. He returned, after two years, with a many new plants that were introduced to France’s botanical gardens.

Louis XVI appointed Michaux royal botanist, and he was sent to North America in 1785, to look for new species of shrubs and trees to rebuild the forests of France -  much of their timber having been felled during the wars with England. He took his son with him, as well as a gardener, and established, first, a nursery near Hackensack, New Jersey, and later a 111-acre garden outside Charleston, South Carolina. He made collecting trips throughout the wilderness frontier areas, often being the first botanist to visit, describing and naming species, and shipping many back to France.

After the collapse of the French monarchy, Michaux managed to secure, in 1793, funding from the American Philosophical Society for his explorations. Some consider his greatest discovery, at least for horticulture, was Rhododendron catawbiense, commonly known as Purple Laurel. He found it in the wild on the peaks of the highest mountains in the Southern Appalachians, and in a few places in the Piedmont. It became one of the genetic parents of many modern rhododendron hybrids.

In 1796, Michaux returned to France, being shipwrecked on the way, and for the next few years focused on the cultivation of his collected plants, and writing two books, Histoire des chênes de l’Amérique (1801) and Flora Boreali-Americana, sistens caracteres plantarum (1803), both of which were edited by his son, François-André, and illustrated by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. In 1800, Michaux sailed with Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australia, but he left the ship in Mauritius, and travelled to Madagascar to study the flora. There he died of a fever in 1802, or possibly in 1803. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, JSTOR, The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, American Philosophical Society or a Michaux-dedicated website.

A few of the manuscript journal pages kept by Michaux in North America survived the 1796 shipwreck. These were eventually donated by François-André Michaux to the American Philosophical Society, and published with an introduction and notes in the society’s Proceedings (vol. 26, no. 129, 1889). This can be read at Internet Archive or JSTOR, but, although the introduction is in English, the text of the journal is in the original French. It was translated and edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites for Early Western Travels 1748-1846 (vol. 3, 1904) - also available at Internet Archive.

Here are three extracts from the journal.

‘Sunday 23rd of August 1795 started from Post Vincennes situated on the Wabash River for the Illinois on the Mississipi. We journeyed six Miles and camped on the bank of a Little River [Embarras]. I had no other company than a Savage and his wife. I had hired the Savage for ten Dollars and promised him two Dollars more to induce him to carry all my baggage on his horse.

The 24th we made about 25 Miles; the Savage was ill and was obliged to stop more than three hours before sunset.

The 25th crossed several Prairies. Observed a new species of Gerardia. Stalk commonly simple, oval leaves opposite one another, sessile, axillary flowers purpurine flowers.

The 26th the Provision of meat was consumed. The Savage stopped very early, finding a favorable spot for hunting. Moreover heavy Rain fell about three o’clock in the afternoon. An hour after camping the Savage came back laden with a Bear cub and with the two hams of another and much older one. We boiled the kettle twice and had enough to satisfy us. We roasted what remained.

The 27th the Savage killed two Stags. We halted very early to dry the Skirts and to eat, for the Savage and his wife ate five meals a day. Moreover, they regaled themselves with the marrow of the bones which they ate raw; for, being unable to carry away the meat, they contented themselves with a piece of the animal’s loins.

The 28th of August 1795. Just as I was eager to see Game the 1st and 2nd day, so was I afraid to see it then owing to the waste of time. I was all the more anxious to proceed that it rained every day. I had already been obliged once to dry at a fire my baggage that had been wet through especially four books of Botany and Mineralogy I had with me, as I had been unwilling to expose them to the hazards of the River and had sent by way of the Mississipi two Trunks containing grey Paper, Powder, Lead, Alum, Boxes for collecting Insects, and all the articles required for making Collections of Plants, Animals, Insects and Minerals.

Sunday 30th of August arrived at the village of Kaskaskia situated two mile from the Mississipi river and half a mile from the Kaskaskia River. It is inhabited by former Frenchmen under the American Government. The number of families is about forty five. It is agreeably situated but the number of inhabitants had decreased; nothing is to be seen but houses in ruins and abandoned because the French of the Illinois country, having always been brought up in and accustomed to the Fur trade with the savages, have become the laziest and most ignorant of all men. They live and the majority of them are clothed in the manner of the Savages. They wear no breeches but pass between their thighs a piece of cloth of about one third of an ell [in length] which is kept in place before and behind above the hips by a belt.’


‘The 7th [December 1795] confirmed once more in my opinion that the Second Bark of Celtis occidentalis (called in the Illinois country Bois connu and toward New Orleans Bois inconnu) is an excellent remedy for curing jaundice; a handful of the roots or leaves of Smilax sarsaparilla is added to it; it is used for about eight days as a decoction.

The 8th of December 1795. The French Creoles call the species of Smilax found in the Illinois country, Squine. Only the thorny species grows there; it loses its leaves in the Autumn. The other species is herbaceous and climbing.

The 9th of December. The root of Fagara as a decoction is a powerful remedy for curing disease of the Spleen. I have no doubt that the root of Zanthoxilum clava-Herculi can be used for obstructions of the liver and Spleen.’


‘The 25th [February 1796] started to return to Carolina and slept 10 Miles away at the house of Colonel Mansko, a declared enemy of the French because, he said, they have killed their King. Although I had not dined I would not accept his supper believing that a Republican should not be under obligations to a fanatical partisan of Royalty. I was greatly mortified that the night and the rain should compel me to remain in his House. But I slept on my Deer skin and paid for the Maize he supplied me with to cross the Wilderness.’

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