Sparrow and Finch Gardening The forgotten German botanist who brought 200,000 Australian plants

The forgotten German botanist who brought 200,000 Australian plants

Despite his unusually long sojourn collecting in Western Australia, Preiss has been largely forgotten – unlike his contemporary, the naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848), well known for his work in northern and eastern Australia and his ill-fated 1848 expedition to cross the continent; and the globally active science visionary Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose birth anniversaries were celebrated in Germany and Australia in 2013 and 2019 respectively.

A dryandra or banksia as it would have been collected. Anca Gabriela Zosin/Unsplash

Prices did not hold any important positions in exploration, science, or public office. He left behind only a few letters archived and the impressions of strangers. We are left to speculate on the gaps between the fragments we know of Preiss and the people he encountered in the various worlds.

In the 19th century, the natural sciences of Germany and Britain shared many similarities: there were royal connections, cultural ties and migrations to Australia, as well as complementary interests.

Germany has more dispersed networks of scientists, including universities, herbaria, and botanical gardens, who are focused on classifying, documenting, and classifying the diversity of flora, fauna, and using preserved, dried, and even some live specimens.

In the time of Preiss, Germany did not have colonies to collect on. Instead, it gathered on other people’s turf. The structures of privilege, violence and privilege supported this seemingly innocent practice in British coloniese.

Prices annoyed his hosts, even though there was no law prohibiting German naturalists from collecting in British colonial areas. He stayed so long and collected so much and then transported the majority of it to Germany instead of London.

A botanizing craze

Prices was born in the village of Herzberg am Harz in the Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony. Dieter Karl Wolfe, a council archivist whom I met in 2018 when I went to the village to find out more about Preiss and his family’s early life, explained that there was very little information about it.

Prices was the oldest surviving son out of 12 children. His father was also a vinegar maker, landowner, and master saddler. Gustav Friedrich Preiss, his cousin (1825-1888), was the family’s success. He printed the local newspaper Kreiss Zeitung in 1848 and became village mayor. Portraits of him with his wife are in the archive.

In the early 1900s, another relative who was more international-minded helped to start the town’s Esperanto society. There were monuments to Ludwik Zamenhof, the Polish Esperanto founder (1859-1917), but nothing to honor Preiss, their local botanist.

Wolfe, in speculating why Preiss chose to botanize in distant lands and Leichhardt took up the hobby of botanising as a gifted young man with limited means, praised Germany’s advanced educational system.

It was the goal of a humanistic educational system to provide children with the necessary foundations for learning and intelligence so that they could build on their knowledge and expertise as adults. The curriculum included languages and science.

Prices likely followed the same educational path as Leichhardt, boarding school, and gymnasium before university. Preiss had a university education and a German DPhil. It was more of a research-based degree than the formal doctorate qualification we have today.

Botanist Johann Christoph Lehmann. Wikimedia Commons

The “promoter”, who probably sent Preiss to Western Australia Colony, was Professor Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1892-1860), Director of Hamburg’s Botanic Garden.

The botanizing craze gripped both amateurs and scholars and created new opportunities for serious research, teaching, and collecting. New equipment was introduced, such as the vasculum, a botanical tin for collecting specimens in the field, drying papers to prepare specimens, Wardian case (to ensure safe transport back to Europe), and glasshouses for growing living plants.

Read more: How the Wardian case revolutionized the plant trade – and Australian gardens.

In the 1830s, the botanical world was abuzz with news of Western Australia’s unique floral diversity. Transport of plants to London was still in its early days in 1836 when Lehmann first recognized the chance for expansion through the 25-year-old Preiss.

A sample of asteraceae collected by Prices. Catalogue des herbiers de Geneve (CHG). Conservatoire & Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Geneve.

Prices remembered being told to collect all the natural history products – minerals, fossils, flora, and fauna – in order to “collect and organize the products for Science.”

Lehmann, along with his wealthy friend Wilhelm von Winthem, a private collector, entomologist, and collector with extensive collections, raised funds through venture capital, whereby the von Winthem company sold shares and publicized them to private citizens, as well as collecting institutions.

Investors would select items from the collection of Preiss that equaled their share value.

Rich wilderness

When he arrived in Perth, late in 1838, in a dusty town huddled among vast expanses, Prices found a small, parochial community.

Local collectors, who were part of the London botanical elite, guarded with jealousy their position. The colonists had been disillusioned and exhausted by false promises about rich farming land.

I can imagine Price as being lonely and without friends.

The Town Plan of Perth, 1838. Wikimedia commons

Prices would have found the local landscape strange, as it had been humanized over millennia by Nyungar curation. But to colonists, this was a wilderness.

The deep knowledge of Nyungars (Martijn), a people who have lived in the area for thousands of years, has been enhanced by the work of botanical scientist Steve Hopper.

The richness of the land attracted Prices.

Preiss began collecting immediately. He had more money than local British collectors and was not bound by domestic duties or civic obligations. He had no land rights either.

His extensive collections implicated him in a process of destruction and dispossession involving multiple species. Indigenous Nyungars were already in crisis when colonists destroyed the ancient adaptations to land and replaced them with their hasty farming and species.

In the 20th century, the destruction increased, with 90% of the area being cleared for wheat farming. This encounter between Old World and New World ecologies changed the landscapes with their exceptional floral riches in less than 200 years into a climate change canary.

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