Friday, July 21, 2017

André Michaux (1746-1802), a French botanist most noted for his study of North American flora.

André Michaux (1746-1802)

André Michaux's (1746-1802), a French botanist and explorer, is most noted for his study of North American flora. André Michaux was appointed by Louis XVI as Royal botanist and sent to the United States in 1785 to make the first organized investigation of plants that could be of value in French building and carpentry, medicine and agriculture. He traveled with his son François André Michaux (1770–1855) through Canada and the United States. In 1786, Michaux attempted to establish a horticultural garden of 30 acres in Bergen's Wood on the Hudson Palisades near Hackensack, New Jersey. The garden, overseen by Pierre-Paul Saunier from the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, who had emigrated with Michaux, failed because of the unexpected New Jersey harsh winters. For a period of time he traveled the western mountains of North Carolina including climbing Grandfather Mountain, Roan Mountain, the Black Mountains and the peaks of Table Rock and Hawksbill. Michaux first called the Black Mountains by their current name. In 1787, Michaux established and maintained for a decade a botanical garden of 111 acres near Charleston, South Carolina, from which he made many expeditions to various parts of North America. Michaux described and named many North American species during this time. Between 1785-1791 he shipped ninety cases of plants and many seeds to France. At the same time he introduced many species to America from various parts of the world, including Camellia, tea-olive, and crepe myrtle.  In addition Michaux collected specimens in England, Spain, France, and even, Persia. His work was part of a larger European effort to gather knowledge about the natural world. 
SC Michaux Garden. Courtesy of the Charleston County Register of Mesne and Conveyance.  Michaux's contributions included Histoire des chênes de l'Amérique (1801; "The Oaks of North America") and Flora Boreali-Americana (1803; "The Flora of North America") which continued to be botanical references well into the 19C. His son, François André Michaux, also became an authoritative botanist. His work set the stage for several following botanists including his son, Franciois Michaux and Constantine Rafinesque. André Michaux was born in 1746, near Versailles, France. Trained to take over as superintendent of a wealthy landowner’s estate, he abandoned this career after the death of his newlywed bride, and turned his attention to botany. He quickly made a name for himself in botanical circles in France and became a plant collector for the royal gardens in Paris. 

After the collapse of the French monarchy, André Michaux, who was a royal botanist, lost his source of income. He actively lobbied the American Philosophical Society to support his next exploration. His efforts paid off and, in early 1793, Thomas Jefferson asked him to undertake an expedition of westward exploration, similar to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Corps of Discovery, conducted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark a decade later. At the time of the planned Michaux expedition, Lewis was an 18-year-old protégé of Jefferson who asked to be included in the expedition, and was turned down by Jefferson.


Before Michaux set out, however, he volunteered to assist the French Minister to America, Edmond-Charles Genet. Genet was engaging in war-like acts against English and Spanish naval interests, aggravating relations between America, England and Spain. George Rogers Clark offered to organize and lead a militia to take over Louisiana territory from the Spanish. Michaux's mission was to evaluate Clark's plan and coordinate between Clark's actions and Genet's. Michaux went to Kentucky, but, without adequate funds, Clark was unable to raise the militia and the plan eventually folded. It is not true, as sometimes reported, that Thomas Jefferson ordered Michaux to leave the United States after he learned of his involvement with Genet. Though Jefferson did not support Genet's actions, he was aware of Genet's instructions for Michaux and even provided Michaux with letters of introduction to the Governor of Kentucky.

Nearly 300 plant species in Kentucky were 1st described by Michaux. His book 1803 Flora Boreali-Americana, published posthumously, was the 1st flora of North America based entirely on the author’s own botanical studies. His name is commemorated as an epithet for several species, including Croton michauxii (now Croton linearis), Hedyotis michauxii (now Houstonia serpyllifolia), Quercus michauxii and Saxifraga michauxii.  André Michaux returned to France in 1796, with his many plant collections, which are still preserved in the Michaux Herbarium in Paris. Over the next 4 years he worked on his book, but it was yet to be published, when he set sail for the South Seas on another botanical expedition. 
On his return to France in 1796 he was shipwrecked, however most of his specimens survived. His 2 American gardens declined. Saunier, his salary unpaid, cultivated potatoes & hay & paid his taxes on the New Jersey property, which is now still remembered as "The Frenchman's Garden," part of Machpelah Cemetery in North Bergen.

In 1800, on his visit to the United States, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, concerned about the abandoned botanical gardens, wrote to the Institut de France, who sent over Michaux's son François André Michaux to sell the properties. He sold the garden near Charleston, but the concern expressed by Du Pont & his brother Eleuthère Irénée du Pont preserved the New Jersey garden in Saunier's care & continued to support it. Saunier continued to send seeds to France for the rest of his life, & is credited with introducing into gardens the chinquapin (Castanea pumila) & the smoking bean tree (Catalpa bignonioides).

André Michaux's Charleston garden was actually a nursery for plants, that he was collecting from around the region. Established about 10 miles north of St. Michael’s, in the Goose Creek area, he returned to France.In 1796, his son, Francois, returned to Michaux's Garden in Charleston in 1801, and wrote, "I found in this garden a superb collection of trees and plants that had survived almost total neglect for nearly the space of 4 years."


In 1800, the elder Michaux sailed with Nicolas Baudin's expedition to Australia, but left the ship in Mauritius. He then went to Madagascar to investigate the flora of that island, & was supposed to have died there of a tropical fever. While Michaux is often said to have died in 1802 or 1803, Aaron Burr recorded meeting Michaux in Paris on September 17, 1810. According to Burr he went "to Michaux's, the botanist, who was many years in the United States, & has written a valuable little book of his travels. He is now publishing his account of our trees, which will be extremely interesting. It demonstrates that we (not the whole continent, but the United States alone) have three times the number of useful trees that Europe can boast..."

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