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Humboldt Book Review

Of all the gardening books published thus far in 2009, a handful stand out from the crowd. The most remarkable title is one about Alexander von Humboldt and his work.

“Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Explorations of the Americas” is by H. Walter Lack. Published by Prestel, this exquisite book comes in a beautifully decorated slipcover. This features 150 color illustrations and botanical plates. The large format does justice to the exquisite botanical prints. This has an attached ribbon for a bookmark.

This volume was released in time for the 150th anniversary of Humboldt’s death. Much of the text is bilingual (English and German). This book is based on a lengthy expedition Humboldt made with Aime Bonpland to Latin America and Cuba. Humboldt paid for the expedition and the publication of the results. This has a chart showing the publication date for each installment between 1805 and 1834 along with a map showing their journeys.

While this book focuses on Humboldt in particular, it also presents the story of his collaboration with Bonpland and Carl Sigismund Kunth over a period of years. The publications were largely due to Kunth’s efforts.

This book is based on exhaustive research by Lack. He quotes extensively from historical documents. The first chapter provides an enlightening biography of Humboldt. At an early age, he expressed an interest in nature. This account follows Humboldt and Bonpland on their expedition with details on how they carried out their research and plant explorations.

This volume includes some of the original journal notes they made during this trip. They used field notebooks and journals to record and document what they saw. Throughout the trip they sent back plant materials and botanical notes to a colleague for publication. This book devotes a chapter to each city or installment that appeared over the years.

Humboldt worked with a number of colleagues during the publication process, and this book devotes attention to each of these sites or collaborations.

The botanical prints show the plants along with sketches of the flowers, flower parts, fruits, seeds, etc. In some cases, these also depict the roots. The headings for each plate give the Latin name, the original plate’s location, and details on who did the engraving and inscribing.

The plates are organized chronologically in the order in which they were originally published. In addition to the plates, this is also illustrated with historical plates and art. Some of this botanical art has never appeared in print before.

There is an index of places and proper names as well as one listing the Latin names of the plants.

Lack is a renowned botanist and author of numerous books on the history of botany and gardening history. He is director at the Botanical Gardens and Botanical Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. He is also a professor at the Free University of Berlin. He has received all sorts of international awards for his work.

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