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A Redwood Collection by Tadeas Haenke

The following text is excerpted from BEN (Botanical Electronic News) # 287, 2002.05.13. BEN is archived at The text was originally prepared by Donald C. Cutter, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of New Mexico, and was abbreviated for BEN by editor Adolf Ceska.

The Czech botanist TADEAS HAENKE was born more than 240 years ago, on December 5, 1761. Tadeas Haenke came to the west coast of North America with the Malaspina expedition in 1791. Often compared to Alexander von Humboldt, Tadeas Haenke made his mark exploring North and (especially) South America, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands.

Many years ago the prominent California botanist and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Willis L. Jepson, made an interesting indirect discovery as the result of a visit by a correspondent to Alhambra in Granada in southern Spain. In the garden of the Generalife stood a single magnificent tree which called attention. Upon his inspection of samples from the tree Jepson had "discovered" the pride of California forestry, the Sequoia sempervirens, usually called the Coast Redwood. There was no doubt about identification, for there in its glory was a mature tree which he knew well. But how had it gotten there? Because of its rough description of 125 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter it was clearly over a century old in 1926. But how had this misplaced giant arrived in Andalusia? When writing concerning its provenance, Jepson credited Haenke: "The Redwood was first collected near Monterey by Thaddeus Haenke of the Malaspina Expedition in 1791, who may be said to be its botanical discoverer." [The Silva of California, p. 138]. Later while at Kew in London Jepson found a record that Haenke had indeed collected the redwood while in California.

The California redwood also caught non-scientific attention in a practical document compiled by Haenke in which he described what he called the Red Cypress [Sequoia sempervirens] in his Report of lumber produced in Monterey and useful for ship building and for houses:

"No. 4. Red cypress, has a fibrous, thick bark about four inches thick, furrowed up and down and somewhat crosswise with up to three inch intervals. It is very rough and of a dark, somewhat reddish color. The leaves are 1/2 of an inch long and 1/4 inch wide, and very thick. The boughs are flattened. The trees are straight and very thick without pitch. Those around the presidio get to be some 20 feet in diameter but hollow. The color of the wood is like cedar, with a whitish grain. It has rather large knots, but without pitch. It is very light and they make boards for houses and furniture. It is abundant but is somewhat distant [from Monterey]. It has a small cone with seeds." [MS 126 in Museo Naval, Madrid.]

Since Haenke never returned to Spain or even Europe but died in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1817, the seeds were transported and planted by persons not specifically known. The other expedition botanist, Luis Nee, seems to be a good possibility since in June 1795 he withdrew from the Bureau of Natural History three boxes of dried plants "belonging to himself and Haenke."

In fairly recent times the great redwood in Granada died, but all is not lost. In my own varied historical researches, centered mostly in the Museo Naval in Madrid, I have had occasion to visit several times the great shrine of El Escorial. It is a monument to the ingenuity of King Felipe II who had it constructed in the late 16th century as a retreat, castle, monastery, and residence. At a later date, there was added to it Casita del Principe, nearly a half mile away and around it is well kept garden. Without any intention of discovery, I noted there some large, tall, straight, and somehow familiar trees that are among its most prominent assets. Not trusting my lesser capacity, I obtained without any trouble one of the appropriately small cones and a few leaves. These I sent by air mail to California to verify my opinion that these were indeed Coast Redwoods. By the size of the trees they were contemporaries of that seen years earlier in Granada. When the positive identity was made, I came to the conclusion that here from the same source, and at an appropriate royal site, one of the Haenke's gifts to posterity was thriving, apparently unknown to visitors, curators and guides. I felt that I alone knew their secret that they came from my native state two centuries earlier and that they resulted from Haenke's ingenuity.

Last Modified 2017-12-29