Today is the birthday of the Spanish Enlightenment priest and botanist Antonio José Cavanilles ("Cah-vah-nee-yes")
Antonio was a prolific botanist and probably Spain's first expert botanist. He was born in Valencia - Spain's third-largest city. When Antonio struggled to find a job at the university, he moved to France. In Paris, he was influenced by Andre Jussieu ("Juice You")and André Thouin (pronounced "too-ah"). By the time he was 36, he had decided to focus on botany.
Antonio named over a hundred genera. He gave the name Cosmos to the Mexican Aster. Cosmos comes from a Greek word meaning harmonious or orderly.
When Alexander Von Humboldt sent seeds of a beautiful plant to Antonio, he suggested that the plant should be named after Antonio called Cavenillesia. But, Antonio declined the honor named it the Dahlia after the botanist Andrew Dahl, instead. Dahl was Swedish and a student of Carl Linnaeus. Ironically, Dahl never had anything to do with the Dahlia. The plant’s botanical name is Dahlia pinnata ("pin-AYE-tah"). Pinnata refers to the fact that the leaves are divided in a feathery manner.
Now, around the same time, dahlia seeds arrived in Germany, and a botanist there decided to name the plant Georgina after a Russian explorer by the name of Professor Georgie. For decades, Germans refused to call it the Dahlia and stuck with the name Georgina. However, in 1834, London Gardeners Magazine settled the matter once and for all, declaring that the name would be Dahlia and not Georgina. German gardeners capitulated. And, despite being the first to grow the Dahlia, no Dahlia variety has ever been named after Antonio José Cavanilles.
The French Revolution caused him to return to Spain. Antonio was 45 years old when he returned home, and he had already established himself as a respected botanist. At the turn of the century in 1801, Antonio was promoted to be the director of the Royal Botanic Garden. The garden was created by King Fernando VI in 1755 (10 years after Antonio was born.) In 1774, three staggered terraces were added to the botanic garden along with an iron gate that surrounds it. A greenhouse was constructed. Decades later, it would become Antonio's professional home.
During Antonio's lifetime, botanists were beginning to classify plants using Carl Linnaeus's classification method. Not every botanist agreed with this, but Cavanilles was quick to jump on the bandwagon. Under his direction, the Madrid Botanical Garden became the center of botany for Spain and Europe.
Antonio died three years after becoming the director of the garden. His early death prevented Cavanilles from finishing his book on the plants of the garden. It featured descriptions and drawings of the main species at the garden - many were the fruit of the great scientific expeditions of the 18th century.
Four years later, after Antonio Cavanilles died, Napoleon would invade Spain, and the botanical torch would be passed to England and France - Spain's botanical golden age was over. Today the Madrid Botanical Garden is home to over a 100,000 plant species and roughly 1,500 trees.