Thomas G. Harbison

The Survivor Botanist

April 23, 1862
Today is the birthday of the botanist Thomas Grant Harbison.

Thomas was a self-taught botanist. He earned advanced degrees - including a Ph.D. - by correspondence, which was a fairly novel concept in the late 1800s.

In 1886, Thomas and a friend created their own version of Survivor. Following forest and mountain paths through Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, the two men cut themselves off from civilization.

And Thomas and his friend 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.

After Thomas remembered that Caesar's soldiers ate crushed wheat made into mush, the two men did the same. This wheat mush was their primary food, and Thomas would sweeten it with brown sugar and berries.

This survivalist experience was formative for Thomas and helped him develop his famed skill for finding plants in the wild in ways few other men could equal.

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

After leaving in 1903, Thomas was the only Biltmore collector who went on to work purely as a botanist. Thomas 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 Thomas came to Highlands, North Carolina, looking for specimens for Harvard, he found such a treasure of botanical specimens that he eventually made the Highlands his home.

Thomas said that he regarded the Highlands as a botanical paradise of wild plants. Thomas believed 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.

The 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 home located at 2930 Walhalla Road, just outside Highlands, North Carolina. The trees on the property date back to Thomas Harbison and include a grove of hemlock [Tsuga canadensis], white pine [Pinus strobus], and oak [Quercus sp.] trees. And records show that Thomas planted a group of six Florida nutmeg trees on the house's east side.

Today, historians think Thomas got the trees 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 the 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.

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Thomas Grant Harbison - Portrait Colorized
Thomas Grant Harbison - Portrait Colorized

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