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In the Field
Botany in the Wild


Let the practical Botanist who wishes like myself to be a pioneer of science, and to increase the knowledge of plants, be fully prepared to meet dangers of all sorts in the wild groves and mountains of America. The mere fatigue of a pedestrian journey is nothing compared to the gloom of solitary forests, where not a human being is met for many miles, and if met he may be mistrusted; when the food and collections must be carried in your pocket or knapsack from day to day; when the fare is not only scanty but sometimes worse; when you must live on corn bread and salt pork, be burnt and steamed by a hot sun at noon, or drenched by rain, even with an umbrella in hand, as I always had.

Mosquitoes and flies will often annoy you or suck your blood if you stop or leave a hurried step. Gnats dance before the eyes and often fall in unless you shut them; insects creep on you and into you ears. Ants crawl on you whenever you rest on the ground, wasps will assail you like furies if you touch their nests. But ticks the worst of all are unavoidable wherever you go among bushes, and stick to you in crowds . . . other obnoxious insects will often beset you, or sorely hurt you. Hateful snakes are met, and if poisonous are very dangerous, some do not warn you off like the Rattlesnakes.

You meet rough or muddy roads to vex you, and blind paths to perplex you, rocks, mountains, and steep ascents. You may often lose your way, and must always have a compass with you as I had. You may be lamed in climbing rocks for plants or break you limbs by a fall. You must cross and wade through brooks, creeks, rivers and swamps. In deep fords or in swift streams you may lose your footing and be drowned. You may be overtaken by a storm, the trees fall around you, the thunder roars and strikes before you. The winds may annoy you, the fire of heaven or of men sets fire the grass or forest, and you may be surrounded by it, unless you fly for your life...

Such are some of the dangers and troubles of a botanical excursion in the mountains and forests of North America. The sedentary botanists or those who travel in carriages or by steamboats, know little of them; those who merely herborize near a city or town, do not appreciate the courage of those who brave such dangers to reap the botanical wealth of the land, nor sufficiently value the collections thus made ...

- Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
New Flora of North America (1836)



Fieldwork, while an extremely important piece of the study of botany, is not always a pleasant task. Botanists put themselves in many difficult situations when going into the field to collect. Often they are faced with dangerous terrain, unpredictable weather, annoying insects, uncomfortable travel conditions, and exposure to diseases, all in the search for a new plant. Fieldwork happens in a broad variety of terrains and a huge spectrum of conditions. Botanists venture into new territories, scale to the top of giant trees, hang on the side of rocky cliffs, or even dive underwater.

Why do they do it?

Botanists take to the field to bring home new varieties of flowering and non-flowering plants for study and to further expand their knowledge of plants. Many of these plants provide new food sources or medicines. All provide insight into the complexity of the living world. As Thomas Jefferson noted: "The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture..." [The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 1900]

Besides the possible agricultural or medicinal value that these finds bring, there is also an element of excitement in being the first to find and identify a new species of plant. Roland Thaxter (1858-1932), Professor of Cryptogamic Botany and Curator of the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard, stated in a diary entry from his 1905 collecting trip to South America, "The heart of Smith, poor man, could not beat in unison with the sensation of a botanist at the moment of his first contact with a wholly strange flora."


A (very) brief history of botany and botanical fieldwork

Botany appears to have had originated as far back as the Stone Age. Early man's interest may have been simply to learn what different herbs and plants could be used as food. This could be seen as an early and basic form of plant classification, grouping them as edible and inedible. Written manuals for the use of herbs in medicine existed as far back as 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and China. While the Egyptians also wrote much on the medicinal uses of plants the study of botany, the earliest written botanical information that we possess today came from the Greeks.

The term "botany" itself probably came from the Greek words botanikos (botanical) and botane (plant or herb). The Greek philosopher Aristotle collected information about plants but it was really his student Theophrastus [371-286 B.C.] who inherited his teacher's library and began to devise more complex systems of plant classification. He is sometimes referred to as the "Father of Botany."

Plants were exchanged and studied in early cultures, but it wasn't until Columbus began his voyages in 1492 that we have record of the interchange of plants between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Columbus left Spain to search for new routes and sources for importing spices from the East. He returned from his voyages with corn and other crop plants including capsicum peppers, orange, lemon, and lime seeds. He also brought products to the countries he visited. He introduced sugar cane to Santo Domingo and cucumbers and other vegetables from Europe to Haiti. This, in effect, doubled the food crop resources available to peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1603 Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578-1625) published instructions on producing dried herbarium specimens in Isagoges in Rem Herbarium. This was a new technique that had come into practice during the previous 50 years. The collecting, exchange, archiving, and study of pressed, dried plants mounted on sheets of paper engendered a quiet revolution in taxonomy, floristics, and systematics. This advance was followed rather quickly by Gaspard Bauhin (1560-1624) who used a clear concept of genus and species in his botanical classification work. In 1623 he published his concept in the book Pinax Theatri Botanici which later influenced Carolus Linnaeus.

Linnaeus, who is often called the Father of Taxonomy, was one of the first botanists to embrace the practice of extensive travel for fieldwork. It is reported that between 1745 and 1792 nineteen of Linnaeus's students went of to distant lands to collect new plant specimens. Half of these students perished. Many died of fever, some were never heard from again and a few went insane.

Fieldwork took another giant step forward when, in 1768, James Cook set aboard the Endeavor on a scientific mission. With him were the young naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Charles Solander (a pupil of Linnaeus) as well as team of artists. In April 1770 the ship arrived in Botany Bay, so named because of the fabulous amount of new plants collected by Banks and Solander.

In the 19th century botanists began to travel to more and more remote locations. They traveled all over Africa, Asia, Antarctica, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America in their search of plants, animals, and minerals for agriculture and for medicine. This increased knowledge has helped us to "master" the living world.


Selected Exploration


Photographs in the Field



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Last updated September 2011
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