Carl Peter Thunberg

The Father of South African Botany

Today is the anniversary of the death of the father of South African botany, the botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, who died on this day in 1828.

As fellow Swedes, Carl Linnaeus had taught Thunberg, and Linnaeus encouraged him to continue his work by visiting other parts of Europe.
Eventually, Thunberg joined the Dutch East India Company, and he botanized in South Africa for three years. After South Africa, he set his sights on Japan. But, before he went, Thunberg needed to become Dutch.
Averse to the influence of Christianity, the Japanese had closed their country off to all European nations except for Holland - because they valued the medicinal plant knowledge of the Dutch botanists.
So, when Thunberg went to Japan, he hid his Swedish heritage and posed as a Dutchman.
In fact, during the 18th century, Thunberg was Japan's only European visitor, and his Flora Japonica published in 1784 was a revelation to botanists around the world.
During his time in Japan, Thunberg discovered the Easter Lily growing near the city of Nagasaki. He also found Forsythia in Japan, and he named it to honor William Forsyth.
And, during his entire time in Japan, Thunberg was confined to a small artificial island in Nagasaki harbor. So how did he manage to learn so much about the country's flora?
Ever the clever end-rounder, Thunberg came up with a unique strategy to obtain botanical samples.
Thunberg knew that goats are picky plant-eaters. So, while staying on the island, Thunberg asked to have some goats. Then, he asked his Japanese assistants to collect plants to feed the goats.
It was through the guise of feeding the goats that Thunberg was able to collect all kinds of plant specimens. The most impressive examples were a total of five different species of hydrangea that were previously unknown to the West. These hydrangeas included the lace caps – they're the ones that produce the beautiful UFO ring of blooms around the flowerhead of small florets - Japan was very private about them. Can you imagine his excitement?
The entire time Thunberg was away, which amounted to an incredible nine-year journey - from his native Sweden to South Africa and then Japan - Thunberg sent plants and letters to his old teacher and friend, Linnaeus, who wrote that he had never received, "more delight and comfort from any other botanist [than Thunberg]."

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Carl Peter Thunberg
Carl Peter Thunberg

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