The Book of Palms: 1400 miles through the Amazon

Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868), was a professor of Botany at the University of Munich and director of the Royal Botanic Garden. Somewhere between 1823 and 1853, von Martius published his groundbreaking book, “Historianaturalis palmarum: opus tripartitum” (Natural History of Palms: a work in three volumes). This encyclopedic treasure contained the sum of human knowledge on the topic at the time. The book also consists of 240 beautiful chromolithographic illustrations, including landscape views of palm habitats and botanical dissections.

His book was based on his expedition to Brazil and Peru, in which he was accompanied by zoologist, Johann Baptist von Spix. The trip was sponsored by King Maximilian I of Bavaria, in order to investigate the natural history and native tribes. The research took them three years, from 1817 to 1820 and they traveled over 2.250 km (1.400 miles) throughout the Amazon basin, which is the richest in species palm region in the world. Most of their time was spent collecting and sketching specimens. When they returned, both men were awarded knighthoods and lifetime pensions.

In his work, von Martius outlined the modern classification of palm, produced the first maps of palm biogeography, described all the palms of Brazil, and collated the sum of all known genera of the palm family. Next, to writing about his own collection of specimens and notes, von Martius also wrote about the findings of others. One of the things that make his folio unusual is the inclusion of cross-sectioned diagrams, conveying the architecture of these mighty palms, which central Europeans would have found hard to imagine accurately. Other than that it is the colored landscapes showing various palms, often standing alone in simple and elegant beauty, that make this book remarkable. Historianaturalis palmarum: opus tripartitum is a true landmark in botanic illustration and taxonomy.

Chiraine Rosina

Chiraine is stylist and contributing editor of Plant Light Book

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