Lyman Bradford Smith

The Biking Botanist

 Today is the birthday of the Harvard and Smithsonian botanist, taxonomist and plant collector Lyman Bradford Smith who was born on this day in 1904.

Although his mother homeschooled him, it was his mother's Aunt Cora that nurtured his love of horticulture. He went to college and pursued botany at Harvard, where he found another passion: wrestling. Smith continued wrestling into his 60's. When he started his Ph.D., he attempted to focus on grasses. But that work required the use of a microscope, and Smith didn't have good eyesight. It was the botanist Ivan Murray Johnston who encouraged Smith to choose Bromeliaceae because they didn't require so much microscope time.
When he married his wife in 1929, their honeymoon was a tour of European herbaria.
After his honeymoon, Smith worked at the Asa Gray herbarium at Harvard. All through the Depression, Smith rode his bike to and from the Gray; 14 miles round trip.
Smith began focusing on four Brazilian plant families Bromeliaceae, Begoniaceae, Velloziaceae, and Xyridaceae early in his career. Despite discouragement from older academics who felt the topic of North American Bromeliaceae was too broad for a new taxonomist, Smith proceeded anyway. His work ethic surpassed most of his peers. He was known for saying, "Press it, and I'll identify it." Smith was a publishing master. He wrote extensively on his signature genera. Much of what is known about bromeliads is thanks to Lyman Bradford Smith. It is his lasting legacy. Today, twenty-one bromeliads are named in Smith's honor.
1947 brought significant changes to the Smith family after an offer from the Smithsonian to be the curator of South American Plants. It was an offer that was too good to refuse - better pay, the chance to travel, and more stability. Yet, Lyman brought the same work ethic and habits to the Smithsonian - riding his bike to the Smithsonian Castle every day until his seventies.
When Lyman arrived at the Smithsonian, he hired Alice Tangerini to be an illustrator - it's a position she still holds.

This post was featured on
The Daily Gardener podcast:

helping gardeners find their roots,
one story at a time
Lyman Bradford Smith
Lyman Bradford Smith


  1. Don Hall on May 8, 2023 at 11:58 pm

    Hello. My name is Don Hall. I was looking through the Internet the other day for some bromeliad pups to start at my home when I saw Dr. Smith’s picture In a sidebar. Talk about a blast from the past. I am in no way an academic or scientist, but I was acquainted with Dr. Smith and his family many years ago when his family was a neighbor to mine and his youngest son, Steve, was one of my close friends.
    For the most part, we didn’t see much of Dr. Smith because he worked 364.5 days a year, taking off Christmas morning for a brief celebration with Smitty before heading down to the old ‘Red Castle’ Smithsonian Arts and Industries building on the south side of the Mall. This would have been in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Fitting into his biographical narrative, Dr. Smith did try to engage Stevie and myself in wrestling at a local YMCA, I believe. Unfortunately, neither of us had the warrior spirit, and soon Dr. Smith was back to bromeliads.
    Also in line with his history, Dr. Smith did ride his bicycle to work each day the weather allowed. It was probably a 10-mile pedal down Connecticut Ave. in D.C. rush hour traffic – both ways. Starting from Kensington, in Montgomery County to the north, Dr. Smith cycled along the Rock Creek Parkway, at one point under the Kensington Junior High School. At a house next to the school lived an immense white Great Pyrenees dog named Sire. Sire was prone to stealing students’ bag lunches carelessly left at the edge of the blacktop before school opened up in the morning. Sire also didn’t like Dr. Smith. For about a quarter-mile by Sire’s place, they conducted a running battle from time to time, with the dog chasing Dr. Smith and the botanist lobbing rocks at the dog from the basket on his bicycle. One day, Dr. Smith related, he had had enough of the dog and actually chased Sire back into his yard, where the scientist’s final rock went through the glass front door of the house. A temporary truce was negotiated while the details of the damaged door were worked out. Then it was back to business as usual, although Dr. Smith said he never got near Sire’s home again.
    On rainy days, or when Dr. Smith didn’t want to fight traffic, his wife Ruth would drive down to the Castle and pick him up in their Dodge station wagon. Often Smitty and I went along for the ride. To announce her arrival at his workplace, Ruth would begin laying on the horn as she motored along a crossroad on the Mall, yelling repeatedly out the window “Yoo Hoo, Lyman” as we approached the building. This with the Capitol building on the left and the Washington Monument on the right. I never knew if Dr. Smith could actually hear her, but we could, and hunched down in the back so as not to be seen.
    A few years later I did translations for Dr. Smith in preparation for a book he was publishing, and I also spent a few weeks over a Christmas vacation making illustrations for the same book at his office in the new Natural History Museum recently opened on the north side of the Mall. So I did have a casual introduction to bromeliads, plus occasional slideshows of Dr. Smith’s field collection trips to Brazil. Dr. Smith on a burro in the Brazilian jungle was hard to reconcile with the reserved, studious scientist we knew at home. Then one Christmas vacation I was invited to go along with Dr. Smith, Ruth and Smitty to Florida, where he spent 10 days in the greenhouses of amateur bromeliad propagators hoping to have a new species or subspecies recognized by the world renown taxonomist.
    Dr. Smith liked word games as we drove along the two-lane blacktop of the deep South and had a desert-dry sese of humor. Through the years I have tried raising bromeliads at home. But I live in Wyoming where the climate is dry and cold. I guess I’ll give it one more shot.
    I remember Alice Tangerini as well. She is about my age, a cute dark-haired girl with artistic talent at an early age who lived a few blocks from Smitty and me.
    Thank you, Don

    • The Daily Gardener on October 4, 2023 at 8:26 pm

      Hi there, Don.
      Well your comment is a true treasure! Anytime someone can add a personal touch to the standard academic biographies that so often shade the impressions of botanists – well, that’s really something special.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment so thoroughly and with such gems of insight. It was also a thrill to see you knew Alice Tangerini. What another marvelous connection.

Leave a Comment