Martius - Father of Palms

A little history lesson for all palm enthusiasts, about one of the most important pioneers in the palm world, who gave his name to Trachycarpus martianus, among others.
Beatrice Ratajczak, Luitpoldstr. 20a, 91052, Erlangen, Germany
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002

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Epic voyage: Martius’ journey 1817-1820.

My hometown of Erlangen is not very interesting for palm enthusiasts, except for the nice botanical garden and the fact that exactly two hundred years ago the famous palm researcher Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius was born here.

His father was a chemist and was engaged as well in botany. Carl Friedrich Philipp was born on the 17th of April 1794. He started to study medicine in 1810 and graduated with distinction in 1814 at the age of twenty. His thesis was a plant catalogue of the botanical garden of Erlangen.

Immediately afterwards he went to Munich where he was admitted as a student to the Academy of Sciences and specialised in botany. Being a co-founder of the new botanical garden in Munich, he identified plants and made study trips as far as Austria. He was well acquainted with the Bavarian King Max Joseph I, who himself was very interested in botany and a frequent visitor to the new botanical garden.

When the Austrian archduchess Leopoldina travelled to South America with her new husband, the later king of Brazil, she was accompanied by an Austrian expedition. Max Joseph sent along a group of Bavarian explorers under the direction of von Martius (as botanist) and Johann Baptist Spix (1781-1826) (as zoologist) who came from a neighbouring town.

In April 1817, they set sail and arrived at Rio de Janeiro in July. Their expedition is charted on the map. From Rio they travelled to Sao Paulo, then to the northeast as far as San Salvador da Bahia (November 1818). They went on an excursion to Ilheus in the south and then to the north as far as San Luis when they sailed across the sea to Para at the mouth of the Amazon (June 1819). The highlight was their trip upstream on the Amazon. Separating temporarily, they explored several tributaries, thereby reaching present day Colombia.

In April 1820 they were back at the mouth of the Amazon and in June they took a ship to Europe. They arrived at Lisbon in August and in December 1820 they were back in Munich again - after three years and eight months.

Their expedition had led them to regions as yet untouched by other explorers and was surely very difficult, especially since there weren't even maps and large quantities of animals, plants and minerals had to be gathered and prepared. Their journey covered about 10,000 km. Considering the area and the results this was the most important expedition to South America at that time, comparable only to the journey of Alexander von Humboldt several years previously. The evaluation of the results took until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Immediately on their return, Spix and von Martius received decorations. In 1826, von Martius was appointed professor and six years later he was promoted director of the botanical garden of Munich. When in 1854 unfavourable decisions were taken, von Martius resigned from both posts. His retirement was not one of idleness however, and he cultivated his contacts with many well-known natural scientists of the day, including Robert Brown and Jussieu, and with other celebrities of that time, such as Goethe and some princes.

After his return from the expedition to Brazil, von Martius was, apart from his career outlined above, engaged in evaluating all the specimens of plants and animals gathered on the trip. Although he had already published scientific works, he became famous by the ones written afterwards. Firstly, he and Spix (who died before the work was completed) wrote a description of the journey (three volumes: 1823, 1828 and 1831). In addition they described in "Nova genera et species" all the plants they had collected, with hundreds of illustrations.

His major work became the "Historia naturalis palmarum" (Natural history of the palms, 18231850, in three volumes), which ensured his place in history. During the journey in Brazil he had studied many of the palm species growing there, and subsequently the palms of the other continents. This was the first complete description treating the "principes regni vegetabilis" (princes of the plant kingdom). Alexander von Humboldt said about him: "As long as palms are named and known, the name of von Martius will be named with glory, too."

His second main scientific work was the systematic description of the complete Brazilian plant world, the "Flora Brasiliensis' after a small book of 1833 about the same subject, he decided to treat the whole in great detail. For that purpose, however, the collaboration of many botanists and the assistance of several sovereigns was necessary. Not only were the plants gathered on the Brazilian expedition used, but also plants and illustrations from all such collections in Europe. It was to take several decades - till after his death, in Munich on the 13th December 1868 - until the last volume was published. He directed the whole project, wrote two monographs and contributed to others as well. The last volume, the fifteenth, was published only in 1906.

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