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Biodiversity Blog


The Father of Texas Botany

220px Ferdinand Lindheimer 
 Ferdinand Lindheimer from Goethe im Lichte der Verebungslehre - 1908

Texas botany would not be what it is today if it weren’t for a German immigrant by the name of Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. His name adorns many Texas plants and animals, and he is widely considered the “Father of Texas Botany.”

Lindheimer (1801 – 1879) was a German botanist and political activist, and had to leave Germany after participating in the unsuccessful Frankfurt Putsch insurrection of 1833. This was a failed attempt by students of Bunsen Institute where Lindheimer taught, to attack a police station and start a revolt across the German states. As a result, the government closed the school and charged some of the teachers with sedition.

He fled Germany for America, stopping first in Illinois, and then heading down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He tried to go to Texas, but with the Texas revolution heating up, he was diverted to Mexico, where he worked for over a year. He left Mexico as the hostilities in Texas started and tried to join the Texas revolutionaries, but was ship-wrecked on the coast of Alabama. Undeterred, he tried once again to reach Texas, and finally arrived at San Jacinto the day AFTER the final battle of the Texas Revolution, on April 22, 1836. Since it was late spring in Texas, one might wonder if Lindheimer marveled more at the unlikelihood of the new Republic of Texas, or at the dazzling displays of April wildflowers on the coast of Texas.

Lindheimer was in Texas to stay. He spent the early days of the Texas Republic traveling by horse cart throughout the state, searching for new species of plants and animals. The famous geologist Ferdinand von Roemer described the eccentric Lindheimer's expeditions: "He bought a two-wheeled covered cart and a horse, loaded it with paper necessary to pack his plants, and a supply of the most necessary articles of food, such as flour, coffee and salt. Thereupon, he sallied forth into the wilderness armed with a gun and no other companions but his two hunting dogs.”

There are a few photographs of Lindheimer from late in life, and he must have startled anyone who ran into him on the Texas frontier. He had a large flowing, rather untidy beard. He made friends with the Comanche, and especially with the chief Santana, who considered him a medicine man since he was always collecting plants. He often traveled with the Comanche; his approach to befriend rather than attack them is undoubtedly part of the reason that he was able to travel in regions that no other botanists had visited. He collected far and wide, but he did not name the new species himself. Instead, he sent his specimens to various experts (especially the German-American botanist George Engelmann), who then named many of the species in his honor. This is why so many species of Texas animals and (especially) plants bear his name.

Texas Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus lindheimeri) Photo by David M. Hillis

Lindheimer eventually settled in New Braunfels and became the editor of a German language newspaper New Braunfelser Zeitung, a job that he held until 1872. He died in 1879, but his house, which has been converted into a public museum and botanical garden, still stands today and is run by the New Braunfels Conservation Society.

Many species in central Texas bear Lindheimer's name. Most of these are plants, but the Texas Rat Snake is known as Pantherophis obsoletus lindheimeri in Lindheimer's honor. This beautiful snake is common throughout central Texas, including the University of Texas campus, and it frequently shows up in people's houses. They are good snakes to have around, as they keep rodent populations under control.

Outside of this one snake example, Lindheimer mostly collected plants and most of the species named in his honor are plants, such as the Showy Fanpetals, Sida lindheimeri. This species occurs in sandy areas from the Edwards Plateau to south Texas, and along the Gulf of Mexico just into Louisiana.

Ferdinand Lindheimer contributed many years of his life to discovering plant specimens of Texas at a time when it was more difficult to travel through the state. Despite these herculean efforts, with a state as big as the Lone Star State, we are still discovering new species of plants in Texas today, to continue Lindheimer’s legacy.

 Showy Sandpetals (Sida lindheimeri). Photo by David M. Hillis
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