José Celestino Mutis

Growing in Cloud Forests

Today is the birthday of the Spanish priest, botanist, and mathematician José Celestino Mutis. Recognized as a distinguished botanist in his home country of Spain, Mutis was the architect of the Royal Botanical Expedition of the N. Kingdom of Granada (what is now Columbia) in 1783. For almost 50 years, Mutis worked to collect and illustrate the plants in Colombian lands. Given that he spent most of his lifetime in Colombia, it's not surprising that Mutis was able to leave a lasting legacy.
He created an impressive library complete with thousands of books on botany and the natural world. He also built a herbarium with over 24,000 species. At the time, only Joseph Banks had a herbarium that rivaled Mutis, and Banks had more resources and more support from the English government. One of the most important aspects of Mutis' work was studying the Cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis), which became an effective cure for yellow fever or malaria. The Cinchona tree grows in the cloud forests of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru. The Bogota Botanical Garden became Mutis' base of operations, and it was the place where the Cinchona was studied. The bark of the cinchona tree contains quinine, which became the basis for a number of medicines that are used to treat malaria. During Mutis's lifetime, it was thought that Cinchona had the potential to cure all diseases. Naturally, the Spanish crown was highly motivated to develop their understanding of the Cinchona, and they encouraged Mutis to continue to collect and study it. In fact, Mutis used his medical knowledge to establish inoculation as a means of preventing smallpox, and he is credited with one of the first smallpox vaccination campaigns in Colombia in 1782. In addition to his medicinal work, Mutis founded the Bogota Astronomical Observatory and supported the work of Carl Linnaeus. He sent thousands of specimens back to Spain, where they remain at the Madrid Botanical Garden. During his time in Columbia, Mutis collected over 24,000 plant specimens. Mutis approached the job of documenting the flora of Granada in a unique way; he accomplished his mission by enlisting others. He skillfully set up a large studio as a space to get the plants captured through art. During his time in Columbia, Mutis worked with over 40 local Creole artists. He recruited them and trained them. He brought them to the studio where they could work all day long in silence. In short, Mutis set up a botanical production machine that was unsurpassed in terms of the output and the level of excellence for the times. At one point, Mutis had up to twenty artisans working all at one time. One artist would work on the plant habit while another would work on specific aspects or features. The Mutis machine created over 6,500 pieces of art - including botanical sketches and watercolors painted with pigments made from local dyes, which heightened their realism. On the top of the Mutis bucket-list was the dream of a Flora of Bogata. Sadly it never happened. Mutis died in Columbia in 1808. He is buried at the University of Rosario in Santa Fe, Argentina, where he taught as a professor. Eight years after his death, the King of Spain ordered all of the output from the Mutis expedition to be shipped back home. All the work created by the Creole artisans and the entire herbarium were packed into 105 shipping crates and sent to Spain where they sat and sat and sat and waited... until 1952 when a handful was used in a large folio series. Then the Mutis collection waited another 60 years until 2010 when they were finally exhibited at Kew. Today, the thousands of pieces that make up the Mutis collection are housed at the Botanical Garden in Madrid, Spain. The pieces are significant - mostly folio size - and since they haven't seen much daylight over the past two centuries, they are in immaculate condition. The old 200 pesos banknote in Colombia bears the portrait of Mutis, and the Bogota Botanical Garden honors the work of Mutis with his name. And, the plant genus Mutisia was created by the son of Carl Linnaeus and is dedicated to José Celestino Mutis along with other flora species, such as Aegiphila mutisi and Duranta mutisii (Verbenaceae), Aetanthus mutisii (Loranthaceae), among others.

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