Collecting new exotic tree species was serious business

In an age where we can potentially acquire a massive array of tree species simply by going down to the local nursery, or by purchasing seeds, saplings, or standards online, we very much forget how plant collections used to be amassed. Before the age of the internet, and before the age of mass travel, botanic collections were much harder to add to, and the individuals who went all over the world to acquire new (sometimes unidentified specimens) were both incredibly gutsy and knowledgeable (in terms of identifying species, collecting seed, cuttings, or otherwise, and then transporting them back, via ship, to the homeland).

This post will revolve around the Dutch East India Company and Japan’s island of Dejima (a man-made island off of the Nagasaki coast).

A map of how Dejima Island would have looked, from above. Note its only connection is a bridge from Nagasaki. Nobody except the Dutch and Chinese could reside upon this island. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

First we must understand that, from 1641, only the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to trade with Japan, and must do so via this island (as the Nagasaki harbour was the only port foreign vessels could dock at). Once per year (though eventually becoming once every four years), as a ‘diplomatic mission’, foreign individuals from China and The Netherlands (who must be native to those countries) could travel from Nagasaki to Tokyo – at these opportunities, plant collectors could work their magic.

So this brings me to the individual who we’ll be focussing on this morning: Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold (1796-1866). Philipp, born into a family with a tradition of practicing medicine, adopted this familial trend and worked within Würzburg, Germany. However, he grew bored of working in Würzburg, thus sought work elsewhere, and subsequently was hired by the Dutch East India Company as a surgeon. By 1823, he was sent to Dejima Island (having originally been sent to work on Java), though immediately ran into a problem. Because only Dutch nationals could live on Dejima Island, and given Philipp’s very strong Bavarian accent, he was soon threatened with expulsion from the island – until his colleagues persuaded the Japanese that his heavy Bavarian accent was in fact just because he lived in a remote area of The Netherlands up in the hills…!

Perhaps in light of this, or maybe for other reasons, Philipp did not accept payment for his work as a surgeon on Dejima Island. He instead accepted only gifts. This, in addition to his very good ability to perform cataract surgery, lead to him becoming highly respected by the Japanese. In light of this, Philipp had a request granted to have a skilled draughtsman work alongside him, so he could have assistance in recording plant and animals specimens from Japan whilst travelling with the ‘diplomatic mission’ from Nagasaki to Tokyo (which, by this time, took place only once every four years). Philipp also married a Japanese woman who he likely had met on the island, and when their daughter was born the Japanese allowed him to live on the Nagasaki hillside with his family

In 1826, Philipp travelled with his draughtsman on the ‘diplomatic mission’ to Tokyo. It was a huge success – many species of plant were identified. However when in Tokyo, he did accept, as a gift, a map of Japan – a serious offence at the time. This lead to his imprisonment for over a year in 1828, when it was eventually discovered by the Japanese. Upon release in 1830, he was pardoned, though also banished from Japan. Philipp therefore returned, with his wife and daughter, to The Netherlands, though at the same time managed to smuggle out some exotic plants he acquired upon his travels (which are listed below). He would not return to Japan again for almost 30 years.

Returning with Philipp were the following plant species: Acer palmatum, Catalpa ovata, Chamaecyparis pisifera, Fraxinus sieboldiana, Hamamelis japonica ‘Arborea’, Ilex latifolia, Ligustrum japonicum, Malus sieboldii, Pinus densiflora, Thujopsis dolabrata, Trachycarpus fortunei, and Tsuga sieboldii. Perhaps, the Acer palmatum is the most interesting one of this list.

Source: Davies, M. (2015) A Dendrologist’s Handbook. UK: The Dendrologist.

Collecting new exotic tree species was serious business

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