Bureaucracy: Nova genera et species plantarum

Bonpland, Aimé, Alexander . Humboldt, Karl S. Kunth, and Alexander . Humboldt. Nova Genera Et Species Plantarum. Lutetiae Parisiorum: Sumtibus Librairie Graeco-Latino-Germanicae, 1815. Print.


Nova Genera et Species Plantarum (New Varieties and Species of Plants) contains an extensive collection of descriptions and illustrations of 4,500 plant species. Published in Paris by botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth, the book is one of seven volumes documenting the botanical collections that Alexander Humboldt and Amié Bonpland completed on their 1799-1804 travels through Spanish America (what is now Mexico and South America). The series, entitled Voyage aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait en 1799 – 1804, was published between 1815 and 1825; it is composed of massive volumes that identify, describe, and illustrate New World plants.  The large size of the book is due to the scale of the drawings, which were drawn to show exact detail. Like many natural histories, Nova Genera was sold as loose broadside sheets; individuals were responsible for arranging for their own copies to be bound, an arrangement that sometimes resulted in mispagination. For example, the illustration shown here (Tab. 168) was bound after Tab. 169.

Humboldt was a German explorer who worked as a mining consultant before convincing the Spanish government to fund his expedition to Spanish America. His travels became part of an effort by Spain to modernize its colonial social and political structures, which for many years had been in revolt. State officials also hoped to locate new mineralogical resources (Pratt 112).  Humboldt and Bonpland confirmed the existence of the Orinoco River, and they traveled to Havana and to Mexico, where they spent months researching in libraries, archives, and botanic gardens not previously open to non-Spanish men of science.  Upon returning to Europe, Humboldt promoted the travels and the men’s findings by curating a botanical exhibition at the Jardin des Plantes, France’s primary botanical garden in Paris; he also began the work of publishing what would become thirty volumes about the expedition.

Humboldt and Bonpland employed the system of binomial classification advocated by Carl Linnaeus in his 1735 Systema Naturae to identify unfamiliar plants, and their extension of the Linnaean system to South America can be seen as an attempt to unify the globe under one botanical classificatory system (Pratt).  Botanists still cite the work of Humboldt and Bonpland as a model for classificatory systems (Lack).  However, in the nineteenth century, such global projects were often complicated by competing models.  For example, around the time that Nova Genera was published, another set of publishers produced descriptions of many of the same plants but gave them different names, thus creating confusion as naturalists attempted to identify and classify plants (Stearn).  These profusions of names indicate the instability of classificatory systems in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  If classification worked to stabilize the identity of objects such as plants, the existence of multiple, competing classificatory systems undercut those aims.

Find Nova genera in the UNT Libraries Catalog.