Richard Spruce, one of Peru’s greatest botanists

Guest post by explorer Dr. John Hemming

The mighty tropical rain forests of the Amazon are the world’s richest terrestrial ecosystem. And the most diverse of those forests are in Peru, on the eastern slopes of the Andes – because this region gets the most rainfall sweeping up the great river, and because it enjoys greater diversity from altitude. The first great botanist to study this magnificent flora was a young Englishman called Richard Spruce.

Botanist Richard Spruce 

A self-taught Botanist

Spruce was born in rural Yorkshire, the son of a primary-school teacher, but his family could not afford to keep him in school after age fourteen. So he was self-taught, helped by his dad. He early developed a passion for plants, starting with the mosses and tiny liverworts (hepatics) of the Yorkshire moors. Spruce’s collections, published papers, and correspondence caught the attention of Britain’s leading botanists. In 1849 the director of Kew Gardens suggested that he should go out to the Amazon to collect professionally in that richest environment. He would join two young, and equally brilliant, English naturalists who had gone there in the previous year: Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Bates.

Hemming’s New Book: Naturalists in Paradise

I have just published a book, Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon, about these three amazing men. Each of them became one of the greatest scientists in Amazonia during the nineteenth century. They were true explorers – spending between them thirty years non-stop in those forests and rivers, exploring new territory, identifying thousands of species new to science, writing terrific popular and scientific works, making superb collections (still prized by museums), developing important theories, and having Indiana-Jones style adventures. But they were totally modest, unaware of how tough they were or the magnitude of their achievements.

Botany in Peru

Richard Spruce was the only one of these three naturalists who collected in Peru. He went there in 1855 after six years of fruitful but punishing work in forests of Brazil and Venezuela. Spruce spent almost two years of happy botanizing in and around the village Tarapoto in north-eastern Peru. (I have been there, and it is still a sleepy and very remote town, on Andean foothills, at 1800 metres above much lowland rain forests.) Spruce then went with two Peruvian trader friends on a remarkable three-month journey, paddling down and up a series of turbulent rivers, through hostile Indian country, to reach the high Andes in Ecuador.

Collecting Cinchona Trees

After a further two years of groundbreaking botanical collecting in this new environment, Spruce was asked by the British government to try to collect Cinchona trees, whose bark contains the malaria-palliative quinine, so that these could be propagated in India. (This invitation came from Clements Markham, another great friend of Peru.) The meticulous Spruce spent two years getting to know all the species of Cinchona, winning over local bark-collectors and their bosses – who liked the tall, quiet English gentleman – and experimenting with seeds and saplings. Probably no other botanist could have succeeded in this delicate task. The result was plantations of thousands of Cinchona in South Asia, helping countless malaria victims – and also inadvertently inventing the cocktail gin-and-tonic, because British soldiers dislike the bitter quinine ‘tonic’ they were ordered to drink – so it was mixed with their gin ration!

While successfully gathering Cinchona, Spruce was suddenly near-paralysed by a strange affliction. He went to try to recuperate in hot dry deserts near Piura on Peru’s north coast. The result was the first thorough botanical inventory of the fascinating flora of that arid zone.

Richard Spruce’s Achievements

During his fifteen years of constant botanical research in South America, Spruce identified entire families of trees and plants, and hundreds of species new to science – many named by or after him. His herbarium collections are revered in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew outside London. He was a pioneer in the study of hallucinogenic plants (ayahuasca, yage, caapi) used by indigenous shamans; among his many publications was a thousand-page work on palm trees; and his monumental works on mosses and hepatics are still valid in the twenty-first century. Not bad for a poor country boy who left school at fourteen!

Professor Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard University, widely acknowledged as the greatest Amazonian botanist of the twentieth century, told Wade Davis that he had consciously modelled his career on that of Spruce because he admired him so much. Schultes regarded Spruce’s ‘epoch-making studies and collections’ as one of the ‘most extraordinary feats of botanical exploration.’ To him, Richard Spruce was ‘undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of all times’.

Purchase Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon on either Amazon UK or Amazon US (click links to view).


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