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Louis van Houtte
Born in 1810 Belgium, Louis van Houtte was to become one of that nation's greatest plant explorers and nurserymen. A biographical sketch newly translated by Judith M. Taylor, MD, from the 1911 original by François LeTesnier.
submitted by Judith M. Taylor, MD
Adapted from Le Texnier (pseudonym of François LeTesnier ) "Notices sur les Jardiniers celebres et les Amateurs de jardins", Paris 1911 and translated by Judith M. Taylor MD
As a young man Louis van Houtte worked in the ministry of finance in Brussels. He spent all his free time studying plants, both at the botanical garden and at private estates. He was friendly with wealthy men like Parmentier, Parthon de Von, D’Enghien, as well as local gardeners.
In November 1832, Van Houtte founded The Belgian Horticulturist a monthly magazine. At roughly the same time he opened a shop in Brussels to sell seeds and gardening equipment. He continued his study of plants and was especially interested in the tropical plants which had begun to pour into Europe.
A year later, his wife died after only being married a very short time. He was devastated and accepted an offer from Parthon de Von to go to Brazil and collect orchids and cactus. The king of the Belgians wanted orchids and the botanical garden said it would take any new seeds. He handed the magazine over to a colleague and closed the shop.
On January 5, 1834, he sailed for Rio de Janeiro. The weather was so bad he did not reach Rio until May 1834. The ship had stopped for a short time at Mayo, one of the Cape Verde Islands. He explored the island and collected a few specimens.
Once at Rio, he visited the Tijuca mountains, climbed Corcovado and explored Jurujuba on the other side of the bay. He went by himself and could not carry all the plants he found. When he went to the Organ Mountains, he hired a black porter, Domingo, to assist him. Domingo saved his life during one of the journeys, though it is unclear what happened.
Van Houtte stayed in the region for four months, as a guest of Mr March, an English settler. The March hacienda was at 3000 meters. Van Houtte would climb to over 6000 feet on his excursions. (Note : the contradiction in units of measurements is in the original).
He only referred to this period once, in Flore des Serres in 1847. It was the sole reference he made to it in writing though he occasionally talked about it to friends. He commented on the geology, flora and fauna in broad terms, without detail. (Van Houtte published a new volume of Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe annually until his death in 1876. The books were designed and created at his nursery in Ghent.)
After returning to Rio de Janeiro he left again for Minaes-Geraes, staying there for seven months. He was inspired by the continuously changing landscape, travelling from Villa-Rica to Ouro-Preto, from the land of palm trees to pine forests (Araucaria brasiliensis), at 3000 feet.
Subsequently, van Houtte visited Matto-Grosso, De Goyaz, Sao Paulo, and Parana, sometimes botanizing with the English plant collector John Tweedie whom he had met in Banda Orientale.
He spent a total of two years in Brazil and even though he seldom referred to the experience it had made an indelible impression, In 1875, a year before his death, he concluded a study of Araucaria brasilienis with the words" Adieu, Brazil, land of sweet reminiscences."
Van Houtte returned to Belgium at the end of 1836, with many botanical specimens, though they are not itemized in this article. His achievements were so important that he was appointed the director of the Brussels Botanical Garden. He founded the Belgian Royal Horticultural Society, modelled on the one in London.
Louis van Houtte’s collections at his nurseries
Initially started only with camellias, geraniums and azaleas. Rapidly expanded. Within 5 years had huge establishment.
1840 - 400 varieties of azalea
Added rhododendron and dahlias, from England . In 1843, needed 3 greenhouses;
Seed business expanded fast. In 1843, sold 1400 varieties of seed of
Newspaper report of a royal visit to the nurseries in 1840: "the
place was so
- Judith M Taylor MD
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