The World Botanist Who Left His Mark In WNC - TribPapers

The World Botanist Who Left His Mark In WNC

André Michaux Marker. Photo by Clint Parker.

Black Mountain – Another historical sign from Black Mountain this week celebrates the French-born botanist André Michaux as the subject of the marker. The marker reads: “French botanist, a pioneer in studying the flora of western North Carolina, visited Black Mountains, August 1794.”

In the annals of botanical history, few names evoke the spirit of exploration and discovery quite like that of André Michaux. Michaux left an indelible mark on the world of science through his adventurous expeditions, groundbreaking discoveries, and tireless dedication to cataloging the world’s flora.

According to a history sketch at the state’s historical marker website, Michaux, “a botanist, explorer, and author, was born at Satory, near Versailles, France, on March 7, 1746, the son of a landlord of a royal estate. In 1769, after the death of his first wife, Cecil Claye, Michaux chose to devote his life to botanical study.”

“A student of French naturalist Bernard de Juisseau, Michaux spent 1779-1781 studying in England, as well as in the Auvergne Mountains in France and the Pyrenees in Spain,” says the marker’s sketch online. “In 1782 he received a commission by the French government to obtain a herbarium in Persia. He received formal training in botany and horticulture before embarking on his first botanical expedition to Persia in 1782. This journey laid the foundation for Michaux’s illustrious career as a botanical explorer.”

In the years that followed, Michaux undertook numerous expeditions to various corners of the globe, including North America, Asia, and the Caribbean. His travels were not without peril, as Michaux faced rugged terrain, harsh climates, and encounters with indigenous peoples. Yet, undeterred by adversity, he pressed on, driven by a singular passion for botanical discovery.

One of Michaux’s most notable expeditions was his journey to North America, where he explored the wilderness of the eastern United States, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. During his travels, Michaux collected thousands of plant specimens, many of which were previously unknown to science. His discoveries included iconic species such as the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and the umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala), which he introduced to Europe.

Michaux’s legacy extends beyond his contributions to botany and horticulture. He was also a skilled artist and writer, documenting his expeditions through detailed illustrations and vivid descriptions of the natural world. His seminal work, “History of the Forest Trees of North America,” remains a classic of botanical literature, revered for its scientific accuracy and poetic prose.

Louis XVI then sent Michaux to North America to study trees and establish their grade for shipbuilding. He worked with his son to set up a nursery in New Jersey. For the next year, he worked collecting specimens in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland for nearly a year before moving his collection to Charleston, South Carolina.

In late 1787 Michaux made the first of five trips into the Appalachian Mountain range in search of plants and herbs. Following the route previously taken by William Bartram, Michaux entered North Carolina crossing the Georgia border and working his way along the French Broad River. He returned the following year, entering near Charlotte and following the Catawba River into Burke County, eventually crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains. For the next several years, Michaux visited Florida, the Bahamas, and Hudson Bay.

In 1793, the French government sent him to Kentucky and Tennessee, and he returned to North Carolina in 1794 and 1795. On the latter trips, he passed through Lincoln and Burke Counties and moved along the Appalachian range, visiting Roan Mountain, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains, Grandfather Mountain, and Linville Gorge. According to his journal, having reached the summit of Grandfather Mountain, he sang out the French hymn “La Marseillaise” and exclaimed, “Long live America, and long live the French Republic!” His many travels through the North Carolina mountains resulted in spectacular finds, one of which, the rare Carolina Lily, Lilium Michauxii, was named North Carolina’s official state wildflower in 2003.

In August 1796 he left Charleston for France with an enormous collection of plants. Shipwrecked off Holland, Michaux saved most of his plants, but his journal of his North Carolina expedition was largely lost. In October 1800, he volunteered as a naturalist for an expedition headed to Australia, but he left the group on the island of Mauritania in the Indian Ocean. He remained there for six months, thoroughly enthralled by the plant and animal species. Michaux then moved his operations to Madagascar. In the fall of 1802, he became sick with a fever and died in November at the age of 56.