Charles Plumier and his Ferns

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate 1. This image also appears in Charles Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique, plate 1.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate I. This image also appears in Charles Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique, plate I.

For the authors who appeared last week, ferns were among the many plants worth discussing. For Charles Plumier, however, a pioneer in the field of natural history, ferns were a central interest.

Born in Marseilles in 1646, Plumier joined the Franciscan Order of Minims as a young man; this was a strict, nearly vegan group (allowing members to eat fish, but no meat or dairy) named for their status as the least, in Latin minimus, of the Franciscan orders. Plumier would be a lifelong member of this order, which allowed him to pursue his curiosity in many fields.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate I

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

After studying math and the turning of wood, Plumier found his great love, natural history, where he could also take advantage of his careful, craftsman’s eye. He rose to become the “Botaniste du Roy” to the king of France, in an age when increasing prestige was attached to that title. Plumier went on three botanical expeditions to the Caribbean, producing nearly 6,000 drawings of plants and animals. Plumier then died in 1704, just before he could start another botanical expedition, this time to Peru.

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Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate XXV.

Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique (1705) may be the earliest printed book dedicated exclusively to ferns. This careful treatise, which came out the year after his death, was unfortunately just the beginning of Plumier’s work, with numerous projected works on plant and animal groups left unfinished and unpublished when he died.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate VI.

Why did Plumier begin his projected series of publications with a volume on ferns? Many botanical works of this period—including Plumier’s Description des plantes (1693), with which his Traité des fougères shared many images and upon which it expanded—placed ferns close to the beginning of their sections on plants. One could speculate that this placement resulted from a sense that ferns were an ancient botanical lineage, displaying an understanding of plant evolution avant la lettre. Plumier may have begun his planned series of books with a treatise on ferns because he found them interesting, because it was conventional to start with ferns before turning to plants that produce fruits and flowers, or for both reasons.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate XI.

Hollsten, Laura. “An Antillean Plant of Beauty, a French Botanist, and a German Name: Naming Plants in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” Estonian Journal of Ecology 61, no. 1 (2012): 37–50. doi:10.3176/eco.2012.1.05.

Mottram, Roy. “Charles Plumier, the King’s Botanist: His Life and Work. With a Facsimile of the Original Cactus Plates and Text from Botanicon Americanum (1689-1697).” Bradleya 20 (2002): 79–120.

Pietsch, Theodore W. “Charles Plumier (1646–1704) and His Drawings of French and American Fishes.” Archives of Natural History 28, no. 1 (February 1, 2001): 1–57. doi:10.3366/anh.2001.28.1.1.

Whitmore, P. J. S. The Order of Minims in Seventeenth-Century France. International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idees 20. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.