It was just in the 60’s that Colombia began to explore its potential as a flower supplier for the world. But long before this happened, almost 200 years before, its flowers were already considered something extraordinary.
It was 1782 and the country was part of a Spanish colony called the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Jose Celestino Mutis, a Spanish priest who was also a botanist and mathematician, was eager to study and classify the natural wonders of Colombia. With the approval of King Charles III of Spain, Mutis assembled a team of botanists, geographers and painters, and moved to Santafe de Bogota, the same region that today produces Colombia’s most desired flowers.
The team classified the flora of the New Granada following the criteria set by Carl Linnaeus. They would harvest the samples and write detailed descriptions including possible medical or industrial uses. Perhaps, the most beautiful part of the process was the scientific illustration of each species: a perfect representation of the seed, the way its roots expanded, the growth of the stem, the reach of its leaves and the look of its flower in full perfect blossom. A single image that captured all the moments in a plant’s life. An absolute piece of art.
The gift of a flower
In a way, botanists from this period, saw flowers as a significant present. But it was more than picking up a few from the town markets, their gifts would usually last much longer.
Alexander Von Humboldt, considered “the father of the modern universal geography”, (also a naturalist, explorer and scientist) visited Mutis in 1801 and the head of the Botanical Expedition gave him 100 of those precious illustrated specimens of the Americas. Humboldt was so amazed by this work that he returned the gift by dedicating his first volume on botany to Jose Celestino Mutis.
“The father of modern taxonomy”, Carl Linneus, was also Jose Celestino Mutis’ mentor. Before the beginning of the expedition, the priest sent him samples of American plants that Linneus found so astonishing, he decided to honor his pupil through a special gift: by naming a flower after him. And so, Mutisia clematis became the scientific name of a native vine with beautiful red flowers and curved petals.
This was not the only way Mutis was immortalized through his namesake flower. The lead painter of the expedition, Salvador Rizo, celebrated the man responsible for this ambitious project by painting a monogram with the initials JMC as if they were shaped from the vines of Mutisia Clematis. This image remains today as one of the most iconic illustrations from this enterprise.
At least 6.000 new species were studied and classified by these remarkable botanists and painters. Their work is preserved by the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, as a piece of scientific history and as a gift to everyone who knows and loves flowers.
If you want to see the whole collection, you can explore it here.