Del nuevo mundo

The New World! A romantic and thoroughly Europe-centric term for the Americas, coined in the sixteenth century, when up to that time the known world (to the Europeans) was Europe, Africa and Asia. Australia of course was well known to the people living there at the time but not to the Europeans.

This is my final post before I drop into travelling mode, posting a few images and captions as I travel through the Iberian Peninsula... 

Spain and Portugal led the European exploration of the Americas, although of course it was an Italian, Christopher Columbus, who found the Bahamas and hence the edge of the 'new world'.  His trip, though, was funded by the Spanish monarchy.

This is not the place to document the dramatic impact of the Spanish on the people and environment of the New World, so I'll stick with the relatively safe world of plants. The botanical discoveries (from a European perspective) began in 1570, when Philip II (a keen gardener and plant enthusiast himself) sent Francisco Hernández to America as a 'medical examiner'. After seven years Hernández returned with botanical 'samples' and wrote up his discoveries about Mexican medicine and botany in a 16-volume treatise which remained in manuscript until parts of it were published in 1784 and 1790, and other bits in 1959 and 1960. Sadly, in the seventeenth century and start of the eighteenth, interest in botany and botanic gardens faded.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Spanish monarchy sponsored three botanical expeditions to the Latin American part of the New World. The first, in 1777, was to Peru and Chile, served by botanists Hipólito Ruiz, José Pavón and Juan Tafalla. The second, in 1787, took the botanists Martín Sessé, José Mariano Mociño, Juan Castillo and Jaime Senseve further north, from Cuba to California. The big one, though, was the Malaspina expedition in 1789.

This five-year journey led by Alessandro Malaspino and José de Bustamante y Guerra, was devoted, at least initially, to science. It ended a unhappily for its primary leader Alessandro Malaspina, who was jailed on return for conspiring to overthrow the government but the botanical discoveries were substantial, if in some cases delayed. Botanists came and went on the expedition, including the Czech Thaddäus Haenke, the 'Franco-Spanish' Luis Née and the Guatemalan Antonio Pineda.

All of them, and others, collected a vast array of plant material for herbarium (preserved) collections and for the gardens of Spain. As you see from their route, above, they also dropped in at Port Jackson (by then a land somewhere between the Old and New Worlds), in 1793.

Née named and described a dozen or so oaks, including Quercus agrifolia, the California (or Coastal) Live Oak. He also championed plants already known but soon to become very popular. The massive Maguey or Century Plant (Agave americana), described by the father of plant naming, Carl Linnaeus, in 1753, was a favourite. Née said he would 'make it so well known that Spain would not long be without it'. My picture at the top of the blog is Agave americana growing wild now in Gran Canaria, part of the island territories of Spain. You can find plenty of references to agaves in my previous posts, including Agave americana

Malaspino and his crew reported not only what the plants were but also what they were used for. Agua miel (honey water) was extracted from some agaves, and fermented to make pulque (a fairly basic kind of alcoholic drink). In the 1780s about 16.5 million gallons of pulque were produced each year in Mexico.

There were variations to the brew, including some made with palm leaves, peaches, eggs, pineapple and worms. The latter are presumably taking us into the territory of mezcal, which I've also covered before in this blog. And of course these days we also consume the sugar without all the fancy fermenting.

Succulents seemed to be popular, presumably due to their striking form and potential as a garden plants in those parts of Spain with hot, dry summers. (Some plants weren't suitable outside the tropics and 400,000 cinnamon trees transplanted by the Spanish within Central America to establish plantations for supply of this popular spice.)

Pineda said that 'when all the newly discovered plants had been presented, they would augment the inventory of the vegetable kingdom by at least one-third …' He estimated at the time that 7,000 distinct plants (species) had been collected.

Née's final tally was 10,600 flowering plants, plus mosses, algae and fungi making a total of 15,990 dried specimens for the herbarium back in Madrid. Today (or at least in 2011) in Madrid's botanic garden (Real Jardín Botánico) you can now see the fruits (so to speak) of their labours, in collections such as this of American succulents.

Further south, in Malaga, another of the cities I'll be visiting shortly, the local botanic garden (Jardín Botánico-Histórico La Concepción) is proud of its collections from the rainforests of Central America. Of course we in Australia also grow Monstera deliciosa, via Europe, via their expeditions to the New World.


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