Sunday July 22 1836. After two months of ‘calms and squalls, bright skies, brilliant sunsets, sharks, whales, flying fishes and phosphorescent waves’, the Liverpool-registered barque Memnon nears Rio de Janeiro. On board, eye glued to the ship’s telescope for his first glimpse of the Sugarloaf mountain, is 27-year-old Scottish surgeon and botanist George Gardner. All he knows of Brazil comes from the glowing descriptions he has read in the works of Humboldt and others, but he does not intend to use them as his guide. He plans to search out and collect rare plants, fossils and other natural history specimens in parts of the country ‘ of which no account has yet been presented to the world’.
Gardner was well qualified for his ambitious project. He had grown up among exotic tropical plants. As a boy he had helped his father, gardener to the Earl of Eglinton, whose gardens were described as a ‘luxuriant paradise’ and ‘region of enchantment’ and whose magnificent hot-houses were filled with tropical fruits and flowers. Finding Gloxinia speciosa flowering on rocks by the shore beneath a mountain called Lord Hood’s Nose, he remarks that it is ‘now so common in the hot-houses of England.’
Gardner’s first impressions of Rio were anything but agreeable. He found ‘the streets narrow and dirty, badly lighted and worse paved’. After a brief stay in an Italian hotel he made his headquarters in a boarding house run by an old Englishwoman a short distance outside the city. From here he roamed in every direction, to mountains covered in untouched forests and the swamps north of the city. He scoured the sea shores and islands in the bay, keeping meticulous records of the plants he found, many of which had never been described before. For more than a year he gathered specimens and information, including the medical uses to which many of them were put.
By boat and mule to Freschall
On Christmas Day 1837, having carefully packed up these first collections and arranged for their transport in a London-bound ship, Gardner set out to explor e the spectacular spires of the Sierra dos Orgãos. ‘The name,’ he wrote, ‘which the Portuguese have bestowed on them from a fancied resemblance which the peaks, which rise gradually the one above the other, bear to the pipes of an organ.’ Gardner had been invited to stay with an Englishman, George Marsh, who had a fazenda, or plantation, twelve miles into the mountains.
Gardner left Rio by boat at midday, but the weather was mild and the three-and-a-half-hour sail across Guanabara Bay, chased along by sea breezes, was such a pleasant experience that he wished it could last longer. At the Piedade jetty a train of mules sent by Marsh was waiting to take Gardner and his collector’s baggage the rest of the way to Freschall, the Marsh fazenda.
The damp plain between Piedade and the first stop, Mage, was covered with low trees and bushes, among which Gardner dutifully noted examples of the Melastomacea, Malvaceae, and Myriaceae, and ‘great abundance’ of Selinum [Schinus] terebinthifolium (Raddi).
Naturally he made frequent stops to collect specimens. In the hedges near Mage he recorded Cissus erosa (whose discovery Kew Gardens attributes to Gardner on this day in 1837), Bignonias (Brazilian trumpet vine), and Paullinias (the Guarana vine, of which three species are credited to him).
In moist places were many plants of Dichorisandra thyrsiﬂora in beautiful ﬂower. The sandy stretches were dotted with the cactus Fourcroga [Furcraea] gigantea (Vent.) some throwing up ﬂowering stems to heights of twenty and thirty feet.
Marsh’s fazenda lay at a height of 3,100 feet above sea level. The road was very bad, more like the bed of a mountain torrent. The path was so steep that Gardner worried that the mules would not be able to cope, but they plodded patiently on, and soon his whole attention was given to the dense forest through which they were climbing.
The magniﬁcence of these forests cannot be imagined by one who has not seen them and penetrated into their recesses. Those remnants of the virgin forest which still remain in the vicinity of the capital, although they appear grand to the eye of the newly-arrived European, become insigniﬁcant when compared with the mass of giant vegetation that clothes the sides of the Organ Mountains. Many of the trees are of immense size, their trunks and branches covered with myriads of parasites, consisting of Orchideae, Bromeliaceae, Ferns, Peperomirae, &c. I have since ascertained that a great proportion of the largest of these trees are species of Ficus, Myrtus, Laurus, Melastomaceae, and Leguminosae.
Next: IN THE SIERRA DOS ORGAOS
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