While in England several years ago, I was invited to a reception at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. As a marine scientist, I was way out of my element. But there in the middle of the garden was a statue, much eroded by London’s acid rain, of Sir Hans Sloane, who had founded the Chelsea more than 300 years ago. I did know about him.
Dr. Sloane, who was president of the Royal College of Physicians and a contemporary of Isaac Newton, had intended that apothecaries (physicians and pharmacists of that time) would use Chelsea as a teaching garden. Chelsea had a water gate entrance, some distance upriver from London proper, through which physicians and pharmacists would be rowed up from the city in “wherries” — water taxis of that day — to see the many supposedly medicinal plants brought back by English voyagers. It was important that they not confuse one plant with another and, in so doing, poison a good-paying customer!
Sir Hans was also a patron in his time. He and many others sponsored botanists and zoologists to range the world in search of plants, animals and other specimens to fill the apothecary’s pharmacopoeia and “cabinets of curiosities” for wealthy Englishmen that would some day become part of today’s museums.
Sloane’s large collection, beautifully bound in leather folios, eventually found its way to the Sloane Herbarium at the British Natural History Museum. Today, one can open these musty and crackled pages of Chesapeake history redolent with the camphor and sandalwood used for preservation in centuries past.
In addition to Sloane, there were other patrons: apothecary James Petiver who, by 1697, had a collection of 6,000 specimens; Samuel Doody, also an apothecary and later curator, “master gardener” [or Horti Praefectus] of the Chelsea Physic Garden; Leonard Plukenet; and the eminent John Ray, who worked with the famous Carolus [Carl] Linnaeus on a classification system to name all these new specimens. There eventually evolved the Linnaean or binomial system of Genus and species we follow today, including descriptive names in Latin, then the lingua franca of science, assigned to each. All of these men sponsored and vied for specimens from collectors sent to rove about the New World.
Some of the rovers have themselves have earned places in the Chesapeake’s history as their work has helped to preserve glimpses into the canopy, forest floor, marshes and rivers of a Chesapeake now gone almost 300 years.
Edward Lhwyd was keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Museum staff today would sympathize with poor Lhwyd who got only £10 a year and relied on his “Unkle” and brothers to “allow him some help, otherwise he cannot subsist!”
Lhwyd had a young assistant, Hugh Jones, who was willing to go to America as one of these collectors, if they’d pay his way. He was quickly ordained an Anglican priest to give him a living and sent to the Chesapeake in 1697. In turn, he sent back case upon case of specimens, seeds and live plants, many of which failed to survive the journey.
Hugh Jones’ collections slowed after a couple of years, much to his patron’s consternation. In the face of uncertain life and isolation in Colonial Maryland, his Anglican parishioners had such crying spiritual needs that Jones, a minister of convenience, truly took to heart his role as cleric. He also became ill and his letters after 1699 become heartrending to read. He died of tuberculosis and was buried beneath his chapel at Christ-church on the Patuxent.
His plant collections, along with those of his fellows, live on in the Sloane Herbarium and the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, that Jones collected is still red on its ancient page after three centuries. You can still see live cardinal flowers each summer in the cypress swamp at Battle Creek, just a few miles’ walk from today’s Christchurch, where Jones still reposes.
Scores of pressed botanical specimens, however, have been preserved in Sloane’s bound volumes. There is an orchid from the rocky serpentine soils north and west of Baltimore and plantains, small herbaceous plants of the forest floor, some of which are “extirpated” (locally extinct) in today’s disturbed woodlands. There are walnut, sycamore, sassafras, American chestnut [once a major canopy species, but nearly extinct from imported disease] and an example of Nicotina, the spindly native American tobacco.
David Krieg was a physician sent on a ship in the annual tobacco fleet to collect specimens for Petiver. As summer approached, Krieg wrote that the ship was sent up the Tred Avon River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to avoid “the worm.” The “worm” in Chesapeake waters is actually a mollusk, Bankia gouldi, which lives in a calcium-lined tunnel that it bores termite-like inside a ship’s wooden planks. They do not survive long in fresh or very weak brackish water, and Krieg’s ship, vulnerable in a time before anti-fouling bottom paints, was protected.
[The seriousness of that threat was demonstrated by the “Dove” which, together with the “Ark,” brought Maryland’s colonists to the New World in 1634. While awaiting a return cargo that autumn, she became embroiled in a legal controversy and lay moored — too far downstream for too long a time — in the warm, salty Chesapeake. She became worm-shot before she could put to sea; so worm shot that she was unsafe and never heard from.]
Krieg, in his explorations, collected and pressed a sprig of widgeon grass, Ruppia maritima, and sent the botanical specimen to Petiver in England; it is one of only three specimens of Chesapeake submerged aquatic vegetation in the Sloane Herbarium.
The name of William Vernon, is on many of the specimens in the Sloane. He was a close contemporary of Hugh Jones and Dr. Krieg, although there’s no indication that any of them ever met.
Dr. James Reveal, at University of Maryland, College Park, and colleagues George Frick, C. Rose Broome and Melvin Brown researched the Sloane collections more than a decade ago and discovered much about the Chesapeake’s forest and understory. They believe these industrious colonial collectors preserved about a quarter of all the plants then resident in the Chesapeake’s original flora. These plants are there today for the serious student to study.
For further reading, look in a university’s science library for Vol. 7 of Huntia, 1987, published by the Car-negie Mellon University, Allen Press, Lawrence, KS.