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Home  >  The Explorers  >  The French Missionary-Botanists  >  Père Delavay

Père Jean Marie Delavay (1834 - 1895)

As a missionary for Missions Etrangères de Paris (Foreign Missions of Paris) his first post was to Hui-chou, east of Canton, in 1867. He spent years exploring the surrounding regions and traveled as far afield as north-west Yunnan. He returned briefly to France in 1881 where he met with Père Armand David and was persuaded to collect for Adrien Franchet at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.

Franchet had no way of knowing what an incredible plant explorer Delavay would prove to be, as he had only dabbled it botany in the past. When Delavay returned to China in 1882 he based his explorations around Tapintze in the mountains of north-west Yunnan - one of the most botanically rich areas in the world.

Delavay traveled alone. Like Armand David before him, but unlike so many of the plant hunters and explorers who would follow in his steps, Delavay did not employ dozens of porters and packers to carry his equipment and collections. Alone on foot he traversed the mountain ranges seeking alpine species he hoped would be adaptable to western gardens. Also like Armand David, Delavay was very methodical, searching an area with the greatest attention to detail as he went. No plant was too small or insignificant for his notice, and no variation in flower or leaf was too small to be ignored. This dedication resulted in one of the largest collections ever made, constituting a staggering 200,000 specimens representing over 4000 species of mainly alpine flora, of which 1500 were new discoveries.

Of his many discoveries, only a very few were successfully introduced into cultivation. This was largely due to the fact that he collected small quantities of each species found, returning material enough to start only a few specimens at a time. Not until the wholesale collections of Frank N. Meyer, George Forrest and E. H. Wilson would many of his discoveries be truly introduced. Some of the plants he discovered and introduced are Deutzia dicolor, Deutzia purpurascens, Aster delavayi, Rhododendron ciliicalyx, Rhododendron irroratum, Rhododendron racemosum, Primula forbesii, Primula poissonii, Osmanthus delavayi and lncarvillea delavayi.

Adrien Franchet praised Delavay's collections, and his meticulous notes on every aspect of the materials collected, as among the finest he had ever seen. He published Plantae Delavayanae (1889-90) forever securing Pere Jean Marie Delavay's position in botanical history.

Père Delavay continued his amazing investigation of the flora of north-western Yunnan until 1888 when he contracted bubonic plague. He survived the initial onslaught of the disease, but never fully recovered. This did not stop his explorations, however, eventually he traveled to Hong Kong to recuperate, collecting plants all the way. By 1891 it was clear that a more drastic cure was needed, so Delavay returned to France in hopes of gaining a full recovery.

Unable to stay away, he returned to China in 1893 and continued his collections, adding another 1550 plants to his already impressive total, but in 1895 he finally succumbed to his illness, and died in Yunnan province.

The French Missionaries

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