Descriptions des Plantes de l’Amérique.

Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale, 1673.

First edition, first issue with the incorrect date MDCCXIII on the title page (but the correct date on the colophon). This is a fine copy in an untouched contemporary binding. Plumier was the first ‘modern’ botanist to describe the flora of the Caribbean at a time when natural history underwent significant qualitative changes as a result of European expansion and transatlantic contacts. He made three separate expeditions to the Caribbean, in 1689, 1693, and 1695. On the first of these he accompanied physician Joseph Surian; on the last two he travelled alone as botaniste du roi. He discovered, drew, and described hundreds of new species, and left behind over 6,000 detailed drawings of West Indian plants. Many of Plumier’s generic names were adopted by Linnaeus and are still in use today, among them Fuchsia, Caesalpinia, and Magnolia. The present work, based on his second trip, was his first botanical publication. Included are many plates showing ferns and clematis. “Le Père Plumier, a monk in the order of St. Francesco di Paula, was an important botanical traveller. Tournefort and he became friends and they herborized together throughout the Midi. After that, Plumier’s travels included the Antilles and several long voyages to other islands in the West Indies and to America, where he discovered, drew, and described hundreds of new plants, many of which are shown in his own books, though much of his work had to remain unpublished until Boerhaave and Jean Burmann were able to edit part of his papers, and publish them as the Plantarum Americanarum Fascisculi X in 1755-60” (Hunt). “Plumier was one of the first naturalists interested in the Antilles. He is known for his excellent descriptions and drawings of a great number of species. Although Plumier's herbarium was lost in a shipwreck, his drawings and Surian's herbarium on which Plumier collaborated are extant. Plumeria, an American tree or shrub of the family Apocynaceae, was named in honour of Plumier” (DSB). The present volume is one of three early publications of the French Academy of Sciences, grouped together as Dibner 84. “Printed at the royal press in small editions, they were intended as gifts for the King and Academy. In size, binding [some copies − e.g., Haskell Norman’s − are bound in contemporary calf with the arms of Louis XIV blocked in gilt on the covers] and beauty of the plates, they are among the most sumptuous books in science” (Dibner). Only three copies listed on ABPC/RBH in the last quarter-century (one second issue, the other two not specified). The two other copies currently being offered in the trade are both second issue.

Plumier (1646-1704) received his holy orders at the Franciscan order of the Minims when he was 16. He studied mathematics, physics and scientific instruments in Toulouse, where he also became skilled as a draftsman, painter and wood turner. Plumier received formal training in the science of botany at the French monastery of Trinità dei Monti in Rome, first under the guidance of Father Philipp Sergeant and later by Franciscus de Onuphriis and the Cistercian botanist, Paolo Boccone. On returning to France, Plumier studied with the famous French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708). He accompanied Tournefort on botanical expeditions and he later went on to explore the coasts of Provence and Languedoc.

In 1689, the Marseille Intendant of the Galleys, the French government gave Josephe Donat Surian, a physician, the task of finding a botanist to accompany him to the French Antilles (Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti) in 1689 and 1690. Surian choose Charles Plumier, both an excellent botanist and engraver. On the journey Surian focused on the medicinal properties of the plants while Plumier documented and classified the physical aspects of the plants. During this journey they became shipwrecked, and Plumier lost his herbarium containing all his seeds, pressed flowers, and dissected portions of animals. Fortunately, however, Plumier had sent his drawings, together with Surian’s herbarium, to France on another ship. At the end of the eighteen-months’ journey, the two men quarrelled and Plumier published his results alone on his return to France, as the present work. Plumier later named a genus Suriana in honor of Surian, who died in 1691.

Based on the success of this first expedition, Plumier was appointed botaniste du roi by Louis XIV in 1693, and given the support for a second voyage to the French Antilles, on which he spent six months gathering over 924 new species of plants leading to the discovery of 100 new genera. From his observations in Martinique, Plumier proved that the cochineal, used to create an intense scarlet dye used in the European textile trade, should be classified as an insect. On his third voyage, in 1695, Plumier visited Guadeloupe and the foothills of Santo Domingo, as well as Martinique. It was here that he discovered the Fuchsia as well as many ferns. These findings were published in his Nova plantarum Americanarum genera (1703-1704). In 1704, when about to start on his fourth journey, Plumier was taken ill with pleurisy and he died at the age of 58 at Puerto de Santa Maria near Cadiz, Spain.

At his death Plumier left a work in French and Latin ready to be printed entitled Traité des fougères de l'Amérique (1705), which contained 172 plates, as well as thirty-one manuscript volumes containing notes and descriptions, and about 6,000 drawings, 4,000 of which were of plants, while the remainder reproduced American animals of nearly all classes, especially birds and fishes. The botanist Herman Boerhaave had 508 of these drawings copied at Paris; these were published later in a hommage by Burmann, Professor of Botany at Amsterdam, under the title: Plantarum americanarum, quas olim Carolus Plumerius botanicorum princeps detexit, fasc. I-X (Amsterdam, 1755–1760), containing 262 plates.

Plumier’s ambition was to replace the confusing multitude of names given to New World plants with a universal taxonomically based nomenclature. His modernity and scientific ethos manifest themselves in his neutral way of organizing the plants according to a taxonomic system and his use of a Latin nomenclature, often naming plants after well-known botanists: Fuchsia triphylla flore coccinea after the German botanist and physician Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566); Begonia after the commander of the Port of Marseille, called Begon; Magniolia grandiflora, after Pierre Magnol (1637 - 1715), director of the Botanical garden of Montpellier, and creator of the botanical concept of ‘family’; Lobelia, after the botanist Mathias Obel (or Lobel, 1538 - 1616). Plumier never named a plant after himself, but the genus Plumeria, which belongs to the family Apocynaceae and is indigenous in about forty species to Central America, was named by Tournefort and Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), the Father of Botany, to honour Charles Plumier’s contribution to the subject.

In 1701, Plumier published his L’Art du Tourner, the first work to explain in detail the technology of turning (as with the modern lathe). It was translated into Russian by Peter the Great.

Dibner, Heralds of Science 84; European Americana 693/137; Hunt 389; JCB p. 275; Nissen BBI 1544; Pritzel 7213; Sabin 63455.



Folio (422 x 268 mm), pp. [viii], 94, [10, the last blank], with 108 leaves of engraved plates after drawings by Plumier, large engraved title vignette, engraved headpiece and initial. Contemporay calf, 20th century ex-libris to front pastedown, 17th or 18th century engraved ex-libris pasted to verso of title. A very large and fine copy.

Item #4306

Price: $25,000.00

See all items in Chemistry, Medicine, Biology
See all items by