The Plant Gatherer
Ferdinand Lindheimer collected thousands of flora samples to become the father of Texas botany.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune opens with a quote from a fictional historian who introduces the novel’s main character through a sense of place, with the idea that the protagonist’s “place” was decidedly not the location of his birth.
To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib … take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place … Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.
Ferdinand Lindheimer was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and studied at universities in Wiesbaden, Jena and Bonn. He was past 30 when he immigrated to North America. Even so, Texas is unquestionably his place. Lindheimer is known as the father of Texas botany.
In accounts of Lindheimer’s life and work during the 19th century, several pictures emerge:
• The itinerant botanist: a blue-eyed man with a bushy black beard who roamed coastal plains and upland river valleys in the 1830s and ’40s, gathering specimens of wild plants. Geologist Ferdinand von Roemer, who got to know Lindheimer later in life, described his expeditions this way: “He bought a two-wheeled covered cart and a horse, loaded it with paper necessary to pack his plants, and a supply of the most necessary articles of food, such as flour, coffee and salt. Thereupon, he sallied forth into the wilderness armed with a gun and no other companions but his two hunting dogs.”
• The settler who built a home, raised a family and planted a botanical garden on a high bank of the Comal River in the German-Texan community of New Braunfels. His fachwerk house is still there, operated as a museum by the New Braunfels Conservation Society. A team of master gardeners maintains the grounds.
• The first editor of the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung, the state’s longest-running German-language newspaper. Lindheimer held that job from 1852 to 1872. The Zeitung continued into the 1950s, when it merged with the New Braunfels Herald.
Lindheimer came to America in 1834, when German settlements were springing up in various parts of the United States and Mexico. It took him two years to find his way to Texas. He spent a few months in a farm community near Belleville, Ill., rode a Mississippi River boat to New Orleans, took a schooner to Veracruz, Mexico, and spent a year working on a banana plantation near Xalapa.
When Texas declared independence from Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna mobilized an army to crush the revolution. Lindheimer decided to fight for Texas. Heading north, he was shipwrecked near Mobile, Ala., and missed most of the action. Still, he signed up and served 19 months in the army of the new republic. During his stint, and after his discharge in 1837, he spent his free hours exploring the flowers, trees and grasses of his new home.
He wasn’t the first — or last — to be captivated by the landscape. A half-dozen field botanists visited Texas between 1820 and 1880, but Lindheimer was the first to settle in and stay. Botany was a blooming field in other quarters, too. Indigenous populations may have known a lot about local vegetation and its uses, but scientists of European descent were just starting to get interested. To them, the American frontier was a cornucopia of undiscovered, unclassified and possibly useful plants.
George Engelmann, an old friend from Frankfurt, was practicing medicine in St. Louis and doing botanical research on the side. Lindheimer visited Engelmann in the winter of 1839–40 and brought samples of Texas plants that he had collected and preserved. Through Engelmann, his work came to the attention of professor Asa Gray, founder of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University and original author of Gray’s Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States.
Over the next decade, Lindheimer collected thousands of specimens for Engelmann, Gray and a growing list of colleagues who were building herbaria at other sites.
It wasn’t quick work. For each specimen collected, he logged the date, location and habitat. Plants had to be pressed and dried with multiple changes of blotting paper, then mounted and shipped upriver. Lindheimer earned $8 for each hundred specimens submitted. He sometimes sent seeds or root cuttings as well, so that Gray could try propagating the plants at Harvard.
Using his own store of knowledge and whatever reference materials he could get his hands on, Lindheimer could place most plants in the appropriate family and make a good guess at the genus. Official classification was left to the scholars who received his specimens.
“Herewith I am sending you 180 species of plants, most of which I collected in the spring of 1840,” he wrote to Engelmann in January 1842. “Send me the names soon so that I don’t have to keep creating nicknames such as I have been using as an aid, especially for the grasses; for instance narrow ear, panicle ear, long ear, twin ear…”
The text of that letter is presented, with others, in A Life Among the Texas Flora (Texas A&M University Press, 1991). The letters were found among Engelmann’s papers in St. Louis and translated from the German by Minetta Altgelt Goyne. In her introduction to the book, Goyne notes that Lindheimer wrote in ornate German script, dotted here and there with sketches of plant parts. Unwilling to waste paper, he would fill a sheet from top to bottom, then write sideways in the margins. Some letters would continue on the inside flap of the envelope.
White travelers in those days were likely to encounter bands of American Indians, not always with happy results. Laura Deming, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Lindheimer, has heard this family legend: “He came upon a chief and a war party. He had a staring competition with the chief, and won. So they let him live.”
The story may be mythical, but Lindheimer is known to have been friendly with Santana, a war chief in the Penateka band of Comanche. Since Lindheimer was always collecting plants, Santana may have considered him a medicine man. The botanist occasionally traveled with Comanche groups, which gave him safe passage into areas where most whites wouldn’t go.
In 1845, Engelmann and Gray published an account of Lindheimer’s 1843 and 1844 collections in the Boston Journal of Natural History. Their paper documented 318 different plants found in Houston, Galveston and the lower valleys of the Brazos and Colorado rivers. It included descriptions of 30 proposed new species, some tagged with the epithet
“lindheimeri” in honor of the man who discovered them.
At Port Lavaca in 1844, Lindheimer joined the wagon train of Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who was leading a new group of German immigrants to Central Texas. Lindheimer knew the routes and was on good terms with American Indians, which made him a valuable guide. When the colonists reached their destination and founded the community of New Braunfels, the prince rewarded Lindheimer with the plot of land that would be his home for the rest of his life.
Ferdinand Lindheimer's house in New Braunfels.
He married Eleanor Reinarz in 1846, and the couple raised two sons and two daughters. Lindheimer’s friend Santana stopped by one day when the elder son, Max Eugen, was about 2 years old. The Comanche watched the blond, blue-eyed toddler playing in the garden. On his next visit, he brought two mules and a Mexican girl to offer in exchange for the boy.
“Thank the good Lord he didn’t trade!” says Laura Deming, who is descended from Max Eugen.
Ferdinand Roemer reported that Eleonora Lindheimer helped to dry and mount the plants her husband collected from the spring-fed river valleys and Edwards Plateau. This went on until 1852, when the community elected Lindheimer as editor of the Zeitung. For the next 20 years, the weekly newspaper took most of his time. Historian Theodore Gish reports that it never missed an issue — not even during the Civil War, when New Braunfels couldn’t get shipments of newsprint. Lindheimer printed on butcher paper, wrapping paper and leftover paper from his plant-preserving supplies.
As a resident of the Lone Star State, Lindheimer served under three of the six flags over Texas: the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States of America.
In 2001, Deming and her aunt, Kay Mrazek of Corpus Christi, were among the descendants who attended Lindheimer’s 200th birthday celebration. New Braunfels dedicated a downtown mural that portrays the story of his life. Donald H. Pfister, the current Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, came all the way from Harvard to make a speech. The Smithsonian Institution sent more than 1,000 of Lindheimer’s original herbarium specimens for a six-week exhibit at the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels, “so we could all look at those many, many-years-old smashed flowers,” as great-great-granddaughter Mrazek put it.
Living specimens of the 30-odd plants that bear his name can be found in fields, forests and wetlands, and there are always a few growing in the gardens at the Lindheimer Haus.
“He was an explorer, a pioneer of Texas,” says Mrazek. “He didn’t let anybody stop him from whatever he was doing at the time — and he did a lot.”