DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
La Plata Expedition
La Plata Expedition
The La Plata Expedition resulted in one of the earliest botanical collections from the interior of temperate South America. Captain Thomas Jefferson Page led the good will mission to explore the basin of the Río de la Plata, including the Río Paraná and the Río Paraguay. The expedition traversed the rivers aboard the U.S. Navy steamer Water Witch, and stopped every few days to collect specimens and explore. Page and Botanist Edward Palmer gathered numerous plants in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina during the three year journey.
Palmer, a youthful 22-year-old, was appointed to be the main botanist and a hospital steward on the expedition. In addition to collecting herbarium specimens, Palmer gathered seeds and live plants to introduce into the U.S. He kept a journal of his travels, which is now lost. Page, however, frequently notes observations of plants and scenery in his expedition narrative published in 1859.
As the expedition commenced in 1853, traveling along the Río Paraná, Page says that, “Poets would have reveled in it as a scene of paradisiacal beauty… On all sides the vegetation was tropical in its luxuriance, and the air was laden with delicious odors.” Palmer collected the monk orchid Oeceoclades maculate, and continued to collect plants along the river as far north as Corumbá, Brazil. He gathered the monkey ladder vine Bauhinia glabra in Brazil, adding it to the over 150 plants collected during the first year of the expedition.
In 1854, Page and Palmer collected 250 plants, many of which were from Paraguay. Page found the Begonia cucullata and Palmer found the Tahitian bridal veil Gibasis geniculata. The trees of La Plata also had great value to the expedition—not only scientifically, but also practically, as they were needed to fuel the steam ship. The Water Witch made frequent stops to cut down trees, which gave Page and Palmer much needed time to observe botany. Page writes, “An accomplished arborist would find in Paraguay an unlimited field of interest and study.” He says that some of the trees were “giants even in the La Plata forests; others present great floral beauty; some are valued for their fruits, others for their barks.”
Palmer was sick with malaria in 1855, but he managed to make a few trips into the interior of Paraguay to collect plants. This last year of exploration was an all-around rough year for the expedition; the Water Witch was fired upon by Paraguayan shore batteries, forcing them to stop their ascent of the Río Paraná. Despite the hardships, the Smithsonian Annual report of 1856 records that in 1855, Page sent the Smithsonian “four bales of plants from Paraguay.”
In 1943, Rogers McVaugh published a detailed report of the expedition’s contributions to the U.S. National Herbarium, in which over 500 plants collected on the journey remain today. McVaugh says that the collection is not fully representative of the area, writing, “The collectors seem to have confined themselves largely to plants with showy flowers or fruits and those of known economic value.” After the expedition, no scientific report was published, and the herbarium collections are inadequately labeled, as there was little time to describe the plants. Yet, as the La Plata expedition was one of the earliest botanical explorations made in the region, the plant collection represents a significant scientific accomplishment.
Iltis, Hugh. Studies in the Capparaceae XXIV: Edward Palmer in Corumba, Brazil and the first
collection of Capparis coimbrana. Brittonia 57 (April 2005) : 162-166.
McVaugh, Rogers. Botanical Collections of the La Plata Expedition of 1853-1855. Brittonia 5 (September 1943): 64-79.
Page, T. J. La Plata, the Argentine Confederation, and Paraguay. New York: Harper & Bros, 1859.