John Macoun

Canada's Leading Botanist

On this day in 1920, John Macoun, one of Canada's leading botanists, passed away. He was 90 years old.

Here's a little story he shared about Macoun's early life, growing up in Ireland:

"We had a garden well fenced in. She encouraged us to spend our idle time in it... I seemed to prefer taking an old knife and going out to the fields and digging up flowers and bringing them in and making a flower garden of my own. I only remember primroses and the wild hyacinth.
Another characteristic was the power of seeing. I could find more strawberries and more birds' nests ... than any other boy."

After arriving in Canada, Macoun had started out as a farmer. In 1856, he became a school teacher, partly to nourish his nearly

"obsessive" interest in botany, but also to find a more balanced life. Macoun wrote that before teaching,
"I had never had more than one holiday in the year, and that was Christmas Day. [My brother] Frederick and I might take a day's fishing in the summer, but an eight-mile walk and scrambling along the river was not very restful."

Within five years, Macoun had begun regular correspondence with prominent botanists like Asa Gray and Sir William Hooker.
In Macoun's autobiography, there are many touching passages about his love of botany. Here's a little glimpse into how he cultivated his understanding of plants:

"I would take a common species of roadside or garden plant of which I knew the name and then immediately endeavor to work out its correct name from the classification.
The Mullein was the species that I took first. I found it more difficult than I had thought on account of its long and short stamens, but I soon came to understand the arrangement of the stamens and pistils so well that most plants could be classified by their form alone."

Once, Macoun was approached by his future father-in-law, who was a bit skeptical of Macoun's prospects. Macoun wrote,

" Simon Terrill, who was a well-known Quaker in that district, ... found me with a plant in my hand and said : "John, what dost thee ever expect to make out of the study of botany?"
I told him that I did not know but that it gave me a great deal of pleasure."

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John Macoun
John Macoun

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