The Survivor Botanist

#OTD It's the birthday of Thomas Grant Harbison born in 1862.

Harbison was a self-taught botanist; earning advanced degrees including a Ph.D. by correspondence - a fairly novel concept in the late 1800s. In 1886, Harbison and a friend created their own version of Survivor. They followed forest and mountain paths through Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Cutting themselves off from civilization, they allowed themselves only five items for daily living: a wool blanket, a rubber poncho, a tin bucket, a bag of wheat, and a tin of brown sugar. Their only other indulgence was a copy of Alphonso Wood's Manual of Botany to aid their study of plants. Harbison remembered that, in wartime, Caesar's soldiers ate wheat that was crushed and turned into mush. This was their primary source of sustenance - which they would sweeten with the brown sugar and berries picked along the way. It was a formative event for Harbison. This survivalist experience helped him develop his famed skill for finding any particular species in ways few other men could equal.

Harbison was part of a corp of botanists hired by the Biltmore Herbarium - the famous Vanderbilt botanical garden at Asheville, North Carolina. As a plant collector for Biltmore, Harbison traveled throughout the United States - specifically searching for tree and shrub specimens.

After leaving in 1903, Harbison was the only Biltmore collector who went on to work purely as a botanist. He brought attention to over 100 new or little known tree species as a field representative for Charles Sprague Sargent at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. When Harbison came to Highlands, North Carolina looking for specimens for Harvard, he found such a treasure of botanical specimens that he made the Highlands his home. Harbison said that he regarded the Highlands a botanical paradise of wild plants which he attributed to the fact that the area had escaped the great glacier movements that formed much of the world.

Thomas Harbison died in his sleep at the age of 74.

Harvard botany Professor William Chambers Coker said,

"Mr. Harbison was a man of the highest character and of warm, human feeling. In his death the University loses nationally a great botanist, but a delightful companion."

Today, the Thomas Grant Harbison House is a historic house at 2930 Walhalla Road, just outside Highlands, North Carolina. The trees on the property date back to Harbison and include a grove of hemlock [Tsuga canadensis], white pine [Pinus strobus], and oak [Quercus sp.] trees. Harbison is recorded as planting the group of six Florida nutmeg trees on the east side of the house. It is believed Harbison secured them on one of his collecting expeditions for the Arnold Arboretum. A willow named Falix Harbisonii (ii = "ee-eye") and a hawthorn named "Crataegus 'Harbosinii (ii = "ee-eye")" native to the country surrounding Nashville, were named to honor Thomas Harbison.


When I was researching Thomas Harbison, I came across some wonderful newspaper accounts of summer parties held for the staff - including the nurserymen and landscape department - at Biltmore.

Here's one from the 4th of July, 1900:

The athletic sports for the employees of the Biltmore estate yesterday afternoon were greatly enjoyed, though the contestants were under a disadvantage owing to the hot weather.

The result of the events and the prizes were as follows:

100 yards dash Won by T. G. Harbison, $2; 2d, Hal. Lipe, $1.

Tug of war Won by landscape department team, trophy and $1 each man.

Broad jump Won by A. T. Davidson, $3, 2d, T. G. Harbison, $1

Running high Jump Won by J. W. Young, $2; 2d, T. G. Harbison, $1.

That was a total of $5 in winnings for Thomas Harbison.


This post was featured on
The Daily Gardener podcast:

helping gardeners find their roots,
one story at a time
Thomas Grant Harbison
Thomas Grant Harbison