Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Magnolias and French Secet Agents....

Andre Michaux was a French botanist and horticulturist who was first recommended to the U.S. by the French king, Louis XVI.  One reason the French had an interest in his work in the fledgling U.S. and its territories was that its own forests had been depleted by war, particularly by the building of ships.  They hoped Michaux would find new species of quick growing trees that could be grow in France.

That seems an innocent enough reason for the French government to work with the U.S. in Michaux's exploratory missions.  Along came the French Revolution, however, and Andre lost his place in the royalist administration.

He then became involved with a liason of the Revolutionary Government named Genet. Genet, for his part, was engaging in war like acts against the English and the Spanish.  Naturally, this made U.S. relations with France a bit awkward, and it severely strained our ties to England and to Spain.

At one point, Genet was interested in a plot by an American named Clark.  Clark wanted to mount a militia to take the Louisiana territory from Spain.  Genet gave Michaux the mission of evaluating Clark's plot and also serving as a go-between for Clark and himself.     

At the same time, Thomas Jefferson wanted to further the exploration of the North American west, which, in that day, started just on the western border of the original colonies plus a few and extended to the Pacific Ocean.  To that end, he briefly supported the work of the famous French botanist.

Jefferson instructed Michaux to find the shortest and best route to the Pacific.  He also gave him this misson: to "take notice of the country you pass through, it’s general face, soil, river, mountains, it’s productions animal, vegetable, and mineral so far as they may be new to us and may also be useful; the latitude of places…; the names, numbers, and dwellings of the inhabitants, and such particularities as you can learn of them."

On the surface, Michaux was the logical choice for this work.  He was skilled, scientifically minded, and had already conducted explorations in other lands.  He had already worked in the U.S. and had proved himself in his field. Unfortunately, Michaux's double missions as explorer and botanist for Jefferson and secret agent for Genet didn't work well together.   Some accounts say that Jefferson learned of Michaux's spying and ordered him to halt his journey in Kentucky, as well as to leave the U.S.  Others think that Jefferson knew all along of Michaux's activities on behalf of Genet, but let Michaux go on with his exploration anyway.  At any rate, whether due to Jefferson or to poor funding, Michaux did not get any further than Kentucky on that occasion.  Clark's plan failed, as well.  

Though that particular exploration didn't uncover the best route to the Pacific, Kentucky, itself, was a field of study.  After, Micheaux continued to spend considerable time in the U.S. and territories.  throughout his entire time in America, he produced works detailing the flora and fauna he found there, one of which was a book devoted solely to the oaks of the north American continent.  You can buy copies of some of his botanical prints today.

Among Michaux's finds was a rare species of magnolia.  After all, who doesn't love a good southern magnolia?  Michaux noticed this rare type on journeys in the Carolina Piedmont, and later, he  found it in bloom in the wilderness of Tennessee, which is how our Tennessee theme ties in to the story.  He named this tree the Magnolia macrophylla, but some botanists and horticulturists wanted to call it Magnolia michauxii after him.

It is one of the most majestic magnolias, with leaves that are up to two to thee feet long and up to a foot wide.  It's flowers are up to a foot and a half in diameter.

I doubt that this was used to repopulate French forests, but it did become a sensation in France.  The empress Josephine planted it in her garden.    

Not only did Michaux study our native species, he also introduced other plants to the U.S.  Some of these have become southern favorites.  For example, he introduced  the crepe myrtle, and what would Tennessee and the rest of the south be without our gorgeous crepe myrtles?

Micheaux was born in in 1746 at Satory, which is near Versailles in France, and he died in Madagascar in 1802.  Among his famous travels was an expedition to Persia, which is a tale unto itself.  Among other feats, he cured the Shah of a dangerous disease.


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