Re -publication of

Posted: 14 Nov 2010

The Book of Palms: Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius and his Historia naturalis palmarum. Review by Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, Ham Street, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 7HA.

From the cover notes:

“On 15th December 1868 Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868), professor of Botany at the University of Munich and director of the Royal Botanic Garden, was carried to his grave in a coffin covered with fresh palm leaves. These were a reference to his ground breaking Historia naturalis palmarum: opus tripartitum (Natural History of Palms: a work in three volumes), published between 1823 and 1850. At the time this encyclopaedic treasury contained the sum of human knowledge on the topic, and featured 240 exquisite chromolithographic illustrations including landscape views of palm habitats and botanical dissections.

“This epic folio was based on Martius’ expedition to Brazil and Peru with zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix, sponsored by King Maximilian 1 of Bavaria. From 1817 to 1820 the pair travelled over 2250 kms (1400 miles) throughout the Amazon Basin, the most species rich palm region in the world, collecting and sketching specimens.

In this comprehensive work, Martius outlines the modern classification of palms, produced the first maps of palm biogeography, described all the palms of Brazil, and collated the sum of all known genera of the palm family……Equally remarkable are the colour landscapes showing various palms – often standing alone – which have a simple and elegant beauty. This famous work is an unrivalled landmark in botanic illustration and taxonomy.”

When I first agreed to review this book I was quite unprepared for the monumental nature of the publication. By any standards, it is an enormous book, 12.4 by 17.1 in. (31.4 by 43.5 cm) containing 412 richly illustrated pages, and it weighs nearly 5 kg., enough to test all but the strongest of coffee tables. All text is in English, German and French. It is, of course, what is known as a ‘reprint’, whereby the original work, published nearly 200 years ago, is meticulously reproduced and presented more or less in its original form. The scope is breathtaking, all the palms then known are illustrated in living colour, often in beautiful, hand painted, full page pictures showing the palm in its natural habitat. They represent ‘snapshots from life, with palm trees’. A naked, spear-waving ‘savage’ pursues a jaguar past an Astrocaryum gynacanthum in a jungle clearing A family of natives prepare their meal under a towering Manicaria saccifera. Even, in one such picture, we can see two European gentleman (surely von Martius and von Spix themselves) making the very drawing in which they appear, under a huge Attalea maripa. To modern eyes these plates may look a little fanciful; many of the backgrounds it seems, are from the artist’s imagination or memory. But certainly, nobody could criticize them on artistic grounds and without exception they would look perfectly in place, framed, on the walls of the smartest house.

These pictures are wonderful, but the bulk of the book is made up of illustrations of a more botanical nature with each beautifully executed plate dedicated to a particular species, and showing all of its vegetative characteristics – leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds etc. – in living colour. Though they were painted over 150 years ago, they are perfectly recognizable today, even though the scientific names may have changed, in some cases several times, since then.

All in all, this is a stunning presentation, a work of art in itself and an iconic example of early botanical studies. Even with all our electronic gadgetry and digital cameras, the modern generation of palm book authors, myself very much included, could learn much from Mr.von Martius. This book is a pleasure to own, to leaf through and to admire, and Taschen, the famous German publishing company are to be congratulated for realizing such a monumental work.

Cover of the Martius Book of Palms
Cover of the Martius Book of Palms

A sample of the beautiful artwork inside
A sample of the beautiful artwork inside

News Archive