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Max Planck Institute for the History of Science



Christen Smith’s diary from the Canary Islands and his importance for the Canarian botany

Per Sunding


In the year 1815 the Norwegian botanist Christen Smith visited the Canary Islands for a period of five and a half month. I have used a different word for this presentation, as the socalled manuscript has the title dagbok, that means diary (or diario). The title of the present account is – in a way – two-divided, since the two parts indicated should be presented independently. I will first deal with his exhaustive diary of the journey, then try to show what his visit came to mean for the exploration of the flora and vegetation of the islands.

Smith was born in 1785 in the town of Drammen near Oslo. At that time, Norway was in union with Denmark, and one therefore often erroneously can see Christen Smith stated to have been Danish.

Christen Smith got his education at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, where he first studied medicin and became a hospital physician in that town. But at the same time he had been and was greatly inspired by natural history and in special by the botanical science. (Already before his studies he had been inspired by eager amateur botanist among his neighbours at home in Norway.)

The Norwegian botanist Martin Vahl, Professor in Botany in Copenhagen, who had been a student under Carl von Linné, inspired and recommended his students to make attempts to explore the flora of southern latitudes. Vahl had himself worked as a botanist in Spain, and surely was one of the reasons why Smith’s journey to the Canary Islands found place!

The successor of Martin Vahl in the Copenhagen professorship, Jens Wilkens Hornemann, likewise was an inspirator and besides became a good friend of Smith.

In 1814 Smith was appointed Professor in ”Botany and Land Economy” at the new university in Oslo (then: Christiania). Short time before that, at the death of his father, Smith inherited an amount of money which made him economically independent and made him able to perform a botanical voyage abroad, with the intentions to study nature in other parts of the world and to meet foreign and famous scientists. His first destination during this voyage was to be England. During the stay in England in 1814 he met, mong several other British and foreign scientists, the ten years older German geologist Leopold von Buch. The two naturalists shared many interests and desided to make a joint expedition to the Canary Islands, and in April 1815 sailed out in the ship ”William and Mary” from Portmouth in England. After a two weeks stay in Madeira, they reached Tenerife on the 5th of May and anchored in Puerto Orotava (or Puerto de la Cruz). They had their residence in Orotava for more than a month, before they moved on to stay in La Laguna and Santa Cruz; from all places having long and fatiguing excursions all over the island.

During their stay in the Canaries, Smith and von Buch did not only study botany and geology of the islands, but all aspects of natural sciences, - examining altitudes of mountains, temperatures in springs, and so on, - in that respect acting as most naturalists at that time did. But the flora was clearly Smith’s main objective. Whereas the Nordic flora possesses few, if any, endemic plants, the rich flora and the high percentage of endemism in the Canaries and Madeira quite clear did fascinate him very much! Leopold von Buch later told about Smith, that ”soon he was astonished about the many curious forms of succulents, soon he run like a wind across the mountain ridges, to explore the ”forests” of Arundo, and soon he run – full of ecstasy – from flower to flower”!

After only two weeks in Tenerife, they made a two days excursion to the top of Teyde, in company with a Mr. Shellow. On two mules were loaded enough food and equipment, so that - according to what Smith writes - it seemed to be enough for two weeks! Leopold von Buch in 1825 in his Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln tells that the pine forests on the north side of Tenerife at that time were almost completely destroyed by man and replaced by Erica. But in the remants of the pine forests on the way to Teyde, Smith became aware that the pine species was an, until then, undescribed species, and Smith named it Pinus canariensis, - perhaps the best known of the Canarian plant species which he described as new to science. Already von Alexander von Humboldt had, however, on basis of what he had heard from the Swiss botanist Octoberin Pyramus de Candolle, stated that the pine maybe was an undescribed species, different from any pine species in the Mediterranean or continental North Africa.

From the Cañadas area Smith enthusiastically writes about ”the curious retama which at a distance appeared like a lilac”, or una lila - ”with stiff branches without leaves, already covered by sweet smelling flowers being visited by bumblebees collecting from the flowers a honey that is much awarded in the cities”.

From the way to the top of the Pico they registered Viola cheiranthifolia. And Smith tells that they all returned from the Teyde excursion to Orotava in triumph with branches of retama in their hats, in the same way as von mboldt told that the goat shepherds of Tenerife used to do!

An excursion through the Cañadas to the south of Tenerife – in fact they had their night stay here in Adeje! – gave them the impression that they had come to the real Africa, both from the hot climate and the character of the vegetation and everything. Among the things Smith writes about from this area is a plant that he had of course seen several times before, but not so impressing as there in the south: the cardon, Euphorbia canariensis. And he described it as ”unusual high and dominating, with the top of the branches covered by fruits like wigs”. They, however, got a better impression of fertility and luxuriant vegetation the next day, when they visited the Barranco del Infierno just behind the town of Adeje, - a place Smith compared to a paradise in spite of its infierno-name!

Talking about succulents: From the lava fields in Garachico he described a Sempervivum species for which he, in his notes, proposed the name Sempervivum barbatum. Professor Hornemann in Copenhagen, who later published this species based on Smith’s notes and herbarium specimens, however changed the name to Sempervivum spathulatum.

Walking from Garachico along the coast towards San Juan de la Rambla they, by the way, found the fruits of Canarina canariensis being very tastefull!

The roofs in La Laguna were covered by a succulent plant, and Leopold von Buch compared this sight with that of the ”hanging gardens” of Babylon and explained this aspect with frequent occurrence of fog in La Laguna. Smith recognized even this plant as a species new to science and gave it the name Sempervivum urbicum (now: Aeonium urbicum).

Among several other new succulents, he also gave name to Sempervivum aureum, later known as Greenovia aurea, and to Sempervivum punctatum, which we today better know as Aichryson punctatum. From the La Laguna area he also described Silene lagunensis. Even the common Macaronesian shrub Salix canariensis has for ever its name fixed to Christen Smith’s name.

From their starting point in La Laguna Smith and von Buch had several excursions in the Anaga peninsula and write enthusiasticly about the rich and luxuriant forest vegetation in the Monte de las Mercedes. And the varying character of the landscape at Taganana made Smith express as his opinion that nowhere on the island was it possible to see so much of Tenerife in one place as just there!

From Santa Cruz in Tenerife, they went by a vessel to Gran Canaria, where Smith - in addition to measuring the altitude of Pozo de las Nieves, the highest point in Gran Canaria, - described several plants not earlier known to science, for instance Hypericum coadunatum and the tiny Satureja (Micromeria) lanata. On the way to the Pozo, in cliffs at Roque de Saucillo, near Valsequillo, he found and described the beautiful and tiny succulent Sempervivum caespitosum, endemic to Gran Canaria, later, however, shown to be conspecific to Sempervivum simsii or Aeonium simsii. As in Tenerife, they were fascinated of the somewhat different landscape they found in Gran Canaria, - more like Africa, Smith several times notes. Both the botanist and the geologist also admired the regular and unbroken crater of Caldera de Bandama. In the same way as they did in Tenerife, they explored and travelled - mostly on feet – through most of the Gran Canaria, often on rather fatiguing walks. For instance they made a six days excursion from Las Palmas all around Gran Canaria, and especially had a tiresome stretch through the rugged and wayless southwest of that island. Smith tells that they returned back from that tour rather footsore and without soles on their shoes.

Back in Tenerife they made a second accent to the Teyde, this time with starting point in La Laguna, passing La Esperanza and all along the ridge to the Pico. At the return from that tour 5 days later down to Orotava, they also came back almost without shoes, which Smith tells made the Orotava people express Mire los cavalleros sin zapatos!.

From that second Teyde tour Smith collected and described Centaurea teydis and Centaurea cynaroides (now: Stemmacantha cynaroides) from the Cañadas area.

During this second stay in Tenerife they did as botanists often do at autumn time: they collected seeds, ment for the botanical gardens at home. Smith had the responsibility for the new botanical garden in Oslo and quite clear collected much for that garden. Until for only three years ago the Oslo garden possessed a large canary palm, Phoenix canariensis, that had originated from seeds collected in the wild in Tenerife in 1815 by Smith!

From Tenerife Smith and von Buch went to La Palma, again climbing the highest mountains and making valuable explorations in botany and geology. On the 1. October they both had an one day tour from Santa Cruz to the highest peaks of the cumbre and back to Santa Cruz on the same day, which the people in the town could not believe had been possible. Von Buch found the view down into the caldera from the cumbre so impressing that he was of the opinion that nowhere else in the world could show anything similar! From the cumbre they noted several dead or half dead Juniperus cedrus trees. Among the plants Smith described as new from La Palma, one could mention his Senecio palmensis.

Back in Tenerife Smith described from cliffs near La Laguna among others Polycarpaea carnosa. But the end of their stay in the Canaries approached. The ship bound for England had to go via Lanzarote, to take in cargo there. They used the time well also in that island, mostly for the geology, among others in the Montaña del Fuego area, from the top of which von Buch could count 12 volcanic cones lying on a line. The rough lava fields again destroyed their shoes.

Not much is written about botany in the Lanzarote part of the diary; the reason evidently being that it was to dry at that time of the year. Smith just notes the terrible nakedness in the vegetation all the way, the only sign of life being a few withered Aizoon canariense specimens. What is else said about botany is mostly about barrilla, the soda originating from the plant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, which was the cargo the ship were to bring to England. They finally left the Canaries on the 27. October 1815 for one and half months sea journey back to England.

In the diaries of Smith and von Buch one often finds references to Alexander von Humboldt’s experiences from Tenerife 16 years earlier, and they clearly found them very useful. Also in other relevant botanical litterature they both appear to have been well orientated. For instance both the botanist and the geologist in their notes from the Canaries, several times cite, among several others, Francis Masson, Joseph de Viera y Clavijo, and Octobere Broussonet.

Smith’s handwritten diary gave an account of the travel itself and of the experiences and impressions day for day. Smith’s handwriting in this diary was extremely difficult for others to understand and the diary had to be waiting for 74 years before it was transcribed and published.

But, after all, it is not this diary which make him one of the pioneer botanists in the archipelago. In addition to this travelogue, he made thorough notes and descriptions of the plant species, which, together with his herbarium, became the basis for the further work with the botanical results of his and von Buch’s voyage. Smith’s intentions for the future were to work all this material together to a work on the flora of the archipelago, to be published in London, before he was to return home to Norway. This did unfortunately not become reality: only a short time after his return to England he was asked by Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, to participate in a new expedition, this time to the Cape Verde Islands and Congo, under the leadership of Captain James Tuckey. In this expedition Smith should act as a botanist and geologist. From this last expedition Christen Smith never returned; he died in Congo, only 30 years old.

Thus Smith himself was not able to work up the rich material from the Canary Islands. His herbarium collections from the islands amounted to ca. 600 different species, of which he supposed 48 to be new to science (not all of those were in fact new). They were to become published in a series of works by other scientists, the authors of which all gave full credit to Smith.

First of all, and most important, are the two works of Leopold von Buch, published after Smith’s death: Buch, L. von, 1819: Allgemeine Uebersicht der Flora auf den Canarischen Inseln. – Berlin.
and Buch, L. von, 1825: Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln. – Berlin.
(In the latter he also gave an exhaustive and very sympatic biography of his traveling companion in the Canary Islands.)

Further in five of the volumes of Alphonse De Candolle’s famous Prodromus:

De Candolle, Alphonse, 1824-1846: Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis ..., vols. 1, 3, 4, 6 & 10. – Parisiis [Paris].

De Candolle, A., 1825: Plantes rares du Jardin de Genève, 1. – Genève.
(In the latter of those one finds the description of the Canary Pine, Pinus canariensis.)

Hornemann, J.W., 1819: Supplementum horti botanici hafniensis in usum Tyronum et Botanophilorum, conscripsit. – Hafniae [Copenhagen].

Link, J.H.F., 1822: Enumeratio plantarum horti regii berolinensis .., 2. – Berolino [Berlin].

Nees von Esenbeck, C.G.D., 1820: Plantarum canariensium a Smithio itinere detectarum ... – Horae physicae berolinenses..., pp. 111-116. Bonnae [Bonn].

Otto, J.F.W., 1820: Plantae rariores quae in Horto Regio berolinensi ... – Horae physicae berolinenses ..., pp. 27-38. Bonnae [Bonn].

Webb, P.B. & Berthelot, S., 1842: Phytographia canariensis, 3 (2). – Paris.

The main part of the herbarium of Smith and the types are in British Museum (Museum of Natural History) in London, with some duplicates elsewhere, - namely in Berlin (though mostly destroyed during the Second World War), in Copenhagen, and in Oslo. In a paper in the journal Botanica Macaronesica on Christen Smith’s plant collections, my collegue Dr. Alfred Hansen writes that Smith indeed was ”one of the pioneeer botanists whose collections of plants from the Canary Islands have been of the greatest importance to our knowledge of the flora of these islands”. Parts of Smith’s collection of bryophytes from the Canary Islands are also kept in the Oslo Herbarium, among them the beautiful Hedwigia smithii described by William Jackson Hooker (unfortunately later shown to be conspecific with Leucodon canariensis). Also many vascular plant species have been given names in honour of this young botanist (probably no other Norwegian botanist so often find his name in the specific epithet). Among well known Canary Islands plants may be mentioned examples like Aeonium smithii from Las Cañadas, a plant which the English botanist John Sims gave this name in 1818 in honour of Smith, whereas Smith’s own (and different) name for the very same plant first was published one year later; further Bystropogon smithii, Dactylis smithii, and Polycarpaea smithii.

Also a new plant genus from Congo, the genus Christiana, detected by Christen Smith, was by Alphonse De Candolle named in honour of its discoverer. (Due to a misinterpretation of his first name as Christian in stead of Christen, the genus got the name Christiana. The obvious generic name Smithia had already been used earlier, probably for James Edward Smith, the founder of the Linnean Society in London).

Christen Smith was also active in the disciplines of phytogeography and vegetation studies, disciplines where he has also done much at home in Scandinavia, and disciplines where he followed in the traces of von Humboldt. The two mentionned works of Leopold von Buch Uebersicht der Flora ... and especially the Physicalische Beschreibung ... (Buch 1819, 1825), which are the main sources to find the results of Smith’s Canary Islands works, first bring a complete and detailed list of all observed native plant species, supplied through notes from the German botanist Link, who also in those two works published several of Smith’s new plant species. Thereafter follows a similar list, but with the species grouped according to their occurrence in the different vegetation zones of the islands. Smith recognized five or six such zones in those of the islands that were high enough to possess the full sequence, thus partly building on von Humboldt’s zonation scheme, and anticipating works later done by, for instance, Berthelot (1835-1842) and Christ (1885). He also at several occasions, in addition to the zonation itself, discussed vegetation differenses between the north and south sides of the islands and the ecological reasons responsible for this differences. The vegetation zones which Smith recognized were, from below:

Region of the African forms (Subtropical)
Region of the European cultivation
(divided in a lower and an upper subregion)
Region of the evergreen dediduous forests
Region of the pine forests
Region of the retama blanca (the cumbre)

(Smith, in contrast to von Humboldt, did not recognize any ”zone of grasses” above the retama zone.)

In addition to occurrence in the different zones were also given detailed information on exact localities for the each species, in that respect differing a lot from what was usual to give at that time.

Finally, he gave a list of all plant species that were endemic to the Canary Islands, that is species which do not occur anywhere else in the world.

In the corresponding surveys of the flora of the Cape Verde Islands, to be published after his untimely death, he even grouped the plants in flora elements, according to their main distribution in the world, and especially emphasizing as important the Canarian flora element in the flora of those islands.

Christen Smith also was a pioneer in the cryptogamic botany and in Scandinavia had been working a lot with the bryophyte and lichen floras. Even in the Canaries he took up such aspects, among others in showing how the moss flora followed the variation in the general vegetation zonation of the islands. That he had an intention of even working with cryptogams while in the Canary Islands, is evident from a note in a letter to Professor Hornemann in Copenhagen a few days before he left for the Canaries, where he wrote (translated from the Norwegian text): ”The vegetation of the Canaries may be very well investigated, but in the cryptogamic way and as to general observations there is certainly still enough to do.”

In the botanical garden in Tafira Alta one finds a series of bronze relieffs, picturing famous pioneers in the Canary Islands’ botany. One of those portraits well deserved shows Christen Smith!

I may end this survey of Christen Smith’s activities – not only in the Canaries, but also in Scandinavia, England and in Africa – by a citation from Leopold von Buch’s Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln, where he - translated from German - wrote noble words about his friend and companion in the field work, - something like this h: ”Smith belonged to a group of distinguished men where one could feel the influence of the spirit from Linné. And among those men should Smith forever be mentioned with honour and glory as a martyr of the science”.


Conferencia impartida en la Universidad de Verano de Adeje. Julio 2003.

Curso: "Las expediciones científicas europeas a las Islas Canarias durante el siglo XVIII"

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