Flora Peruviana

Date: 1800
Owner: Biodiversity Heritage Library
Source Type: Images


These six pages (cover page, dedication, and four plates) are from the published volumes of the Flora Peruviana (1798-1802), the authoritative Enlightenment botanical work on Pacific South American plants. The book was based on observations made during the botanical expedition of the Spaniards Hipolito Ruiz and Jose Pavon and the French botanist Joseph Dombey during their decade-long trip to the viceroyalty of Peru (1778-1788). Dombey proposed the expedition to its sponsor, the Spanish Crown, and the king accepted it on the condition that Dombey be accompanied by two Spanish botanists and provide Spain with a duplicate of every specimen he collected.

In the late eighteenth century, Linnaean botany became a tool of empire for Spain's Bourbon monarchs. Institutions like the Royal Botanical Gardens in Madrid were meant to collect, study, and cultivate plants from around the world that were potentially profitable or in some way useful, especially as medicine. The expedition of Ruiz and Pavon, just one of three major botanical expeditions in late colonial Latin America (the others being to New Granada and New Spain), sent hundreds of specimens back to Spain (including seeds, live plants, and dried samples) and catalogued well over 100 new genera of flora. In fact, over 500 species--mostly from Peru's tropical forests--still bear the names of Ruiz and Pavon.

Botanical knowledge, like most other types of learning, depended on individuals and states, and different people and groups often had very different understandings of a plant. Datura and cinchona are both examples of this phenomena. Datura, seen here on plate CXXVIII, was used by indigenous Andeans as both an herbal cure and a narcotic, but the Spanish team considered it to be so harmful that they destroyed the wild herb in an entire village. On their next visit to the town, however, they noticed that the herb had returned; the Indians apparently valued the plant regardless of what Europeans experts thought about it.

Cinchona, South America's malaria wonder-drug, was (and is) a difficult plant to classify, and various botanists engaged in heated debates about what variety was most effective. Ruiz noted seven distinct species in Peru, but this sparked the ire of Jose Celestino Mutis, leader of the botanical expedition in Nueva Granada, who considered Ruiz's claim to have found better varieties of the plant to be a blow to the dignity of Nueva Granada's cinchona and Mutis' own reputation. The fact that Mutis kept his botanical research and samples in Nueva Granada, however, meant that Ruiz's knowledge pulled more clout in Madrid.

Reference: Steele, Arthur Robert. Flowers for the King: The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavon and the Flora of Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.

CITATION: Ruiz, Hipolito, Jose Pavon. Flora Peruviana, et Chilensis, sive, Descriptiones et icones platarum Peruvianarum, et Chilensium, secundum systema Linnaeanum digestae, cum characteribus plurium generum evulgatorum reformatisauctoribus Hippolyoto Ruiz et Josepho Pavon. Madrid: Typis Gabrielis de Sancha, 1798-1802. Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org.