George Gardner: botanist and traveller in 19th Century Brazil

Detail from the frontispiece of the second edition of Gardner's 'Travels in the Interior of Brazil'George Gardner, a young Scot, was a trained surgeon whose interest in botany was stimulated by attending Sir William Hooker’s botany lectures at the University of Glasgow. Apparently in ill-health, and following strong recommendations by Hooker, Gardner decided to travel and collect in Brazil, but to the north and north east of the country where few naturalists had collected before. Arriving in Brazil in July 1836, Gardner spent almost the next five years making one of the most extensive collections of plants from the country then seen, comprising about 6,000 numbers, in sets of between 15 and 30 duplicates and, according to Gardner, some 60,000 specimens representing approximately 3,000 species. This Herculean task was managed almost single-handedly throughout much of the trip, save some assistance from an Englishman, Mr Edward Walker, who accompanied him from Barra do Jardim in Ceará to the end of his expedition.

Gardner’s expedition was ostensibly to be self-financed by the sale of duplicates, through Pamplin’s of Soho. The going rate was then £2 per 100 specimens. Gardner returned to England in 1841, and worked on his collections until he left for Ceylon to take up his appointment as Superintendent and Chief Gardener of the Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya in 1844. In Ceylon he aimed high, working towards the Flora Zeylanica, and continued to write up his Brazilian collections. In 1846, the results of Gardner’s labours in Brazil were published as Travels in the Interior of Brazil. He died shortly after beginning his final excursion (to the Horton Plains), on 10th March 1849, aged about 37. A short biography by Dr Nicholas Hind summarizes his life. We know of no portrait of Gardner, and the only memorial is the one in the garden at Peradeniya.

A unique manuscript exists in the Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, titled Catalogue of Brazilian Plants, summarizing most of Gardner’s prolific collections save the fungi, lichens, mosses and ferns. This manuscript has been transcribed by Dr Hind in order that the collections as a whole can be more easily accessed. A database will provide current determinations for this impressive set of collections. Also provided is a ‘diary’ (with reference to Travels in the Interior...) of the dates Gardner reached various localities, allowing botanists some understanding of the ‘problems’ in interpreting the mix of localities provided in the Catalogue – Gardner often numbered his collections at the end of a section of his journey, or at the end of a day.

Many new species, and genera, were described from Gardner’s collections, and have been prolifically illustrated in journals of the day – some of which are shown in linked pages. Access to the descriptions and illustrations can be found in a listing of references provided here.