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Louis van Houtte (1810-1876)
Louis van Houtte (1810-1876)
About Judith M Taylor MD

Judith M Taylor MD was born in London, and educated at the University of Oxford. After living and working in New York for many years, she and her husband Irvin S. Taylor MD moved to California in 1994 to enjoy its earthly delights. They found a house in Marin County overlooking the bay. In 2000 they moved into an apartment in San Francisco.

In New York, Dr Taylor practiced and taught neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine until 1978. She then switched to medical administration, first with the Federal government and later for the City of New York. Dr Taylor became Acting Vice President for Medical Affairs for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.

This was followed by becoming medical director for Travelers Health Network in New York, and later the Prudential Insurance Company Dr Taylor had always been deeply interested in medical botany and the history of horticulture and agriculture.

When the Taylors planted two dozen olive trees in their new garden in Marin she became utterly fascinated by their beauty, their history and their enormous importance in feeding the world. Since she could not find a book about the trees, she decided to write her own, The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (Ten Speed Press 2000).

She subsequently wrote Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950, (Xlibris 2003) a history of California gardens, followed by The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden, (in press).

The Taylors have two sons and five grandchildren.  >  Articles  >  Louis van Houtte

Louis van Houtte (1810–1876)

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 in Ghent
from 1839 (from Le Texnier 1911)

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;
in 1844, needed 4 greenhouses for these.

Seed business expanded fast. In 1843, sold 1400 varieties of seed of
ornamental plants and 400 types of vegetable seeed. There were ornamental alliums,
hyacinths etc etc.

Open air:
Phlox, potentillas, lobelias, peonies, carnations, verbena and
delphiniums; many pansies (from England)
Deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs:
Conifers (900 varieties)
Roses (1700 varieties)

Greenhouses (unheated):
Calceolarias, fuchsias, verbenas, cinerarias, petunias, also orange and lemon
trees; numerous cacti, (about 225 varieties); Cape heather (175 varieties
from England: van Houtte introduced this plant to Belgium)

Palm trees and orchids
Ferns (destined to be valuable commercially)

Newspaper report of a royal visit to the nurseries in 1840: "the place was so
vast that one needed a map".

- Judith M Taylor MD


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