Tuesday, September 2, 2014

André Michaux

This July, Chris, Patrick, and I traveled to Europe with the generous support of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. We tried to make good use of our time. In London we gave talks at the British Library and the Natural History Museum and met with colleagues at RBG Kew. We spent the weekend in Hamburg, getting to know colleagues at the Botanischer Garten there - a wonderful weekend! Then we hopped over to Paris and spent several days at the Jardin des Plantes, examining the entire Michaux herbarium. I have a whole series of things to blog about that, only awaiting the posting of the images, but I will begin today with just a bit about Michaux.

André Michaux was born in Versailles in 1746. Versailles has extensive and fabulous gardens - if you wanted to learn about plants and gardens, 18th-century Versailles might just have been the perfect place to be born. (Elizabeth Gilbert presents a similar character raised near Kew in one of my favorite books, The Signature of All Things.)

He studied with Bernard de Jussieu, a botanist who created his own system of classification that he employed in the design of the Trianon gardens at Versailles and whose name lingers on University of Paris VI and its accompanying Metro stop.

Michaux got himself appointed government botanist, of all things. After an exciting botanical mission to Persia, the French government sent him to the brand spanking new United States in 1785. His mission? It was the same as all of those guys - find plants that might be useful. In France's case, they particularly wanted some good oaks, having cut down all their own forests and being in need of ships in which to fight the British.

Michaux spent ten years in America. He set up a home base near Charleston, where he planted a botanical garden. He explored up and down the east coast and well into Kentucky and Ohio. (Charlie Williams and Michaux.org have posted timelines of Michaux's activities, as well as more biographical information.) He collected thousands of plant specimens, nearly 3000 of which are in the Herbier Michaux in Paris. His son worked with him some of the time.

If you look at the years Michaux spent in the U.S. - 1785 to 1796 - and think about your history, you will realize that this period spanned one of the most unstable epochs in French history. The French Revolution of 1789 caused some real problems for Michaux, who had received his salary from the crown. Once there was no more crown, there was no more salary. So Michaux, like many scholars and academics, had to scramble for money. He applied for the job that eventually went to Lewis and Clark - almost got it, too. He finally went back to France, failed to collect his back salary, and resigned himself to organizing his herbarium and writing his books, the Flora Boreali-Americana and the Histoire des Chênes de l'Amerique. Both were published after Michaux died in Madagascar in 1800.

Patrick and I have been working on a master list of all the Michaux specimens. Many of these include notes on habitat and other tidbits, in Latin and French. They're organized according to Linnaean taxonomy, which bears no relation to the current APG system. The collection contains hundreds of specimens marked as types. So there's a lot to explore!