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Chronicler of Appalachia’s plant heritage: Andre Michaux

Turn the pages in Carman’s guidebook on the Wildflowers of Tennessee and one name crops up persistently: Andre Michaux, whose travels here more than two centuries ago were commemorated at the Tipton Haynes Historic Site last Saturday.
He was a Frenchman, distinguished, as Charlie Williams wrote in Tennessee Conservationist in March 2007, as “being the first scientifically trained botanist to visit Tennessee.” From his childhood on a small farm he had developed a passionate interest in all plants, be they large and showy like the umbrella tree or the Catawba rhododendron he would later find in the Appalachian mountains, or small and inconspicuous like the toothwort or round-leaf yellow violet growing on the forest floor.
Michaux was esteemed as a scientist, and befriended by Thomas Jefferson during his expeditions in the south and eastern United States. Commissioned by King Louis XVI, he was to “find and collect large quantities of American trees” that might grow well in France, as that country’s forests had largely been depleted. Michaux fulfilled this mission, shipping to France more than 75,00 tree seeds, seedlings and other plants while also writing complete descriptions for many hundreds of North American plants that were as yet unknown to science.
The wildflower guide is replete with them. Several lobelias and native clover species, mountain bluet and Virginia spring beauty, New York ironweed and mountain angelica, lowly sedums and violets, trillium, orchid and thistle species and many other herbs and shrubs bear his name for first, authoritative description.
“The lst of August,” an entry in the explorer’s journal reads, “herborised and recognized Monarda didyma; Acer rubrum, saccharum; Cercis canadensis” and twenty-some other herbs and trees. In another he “started for the Mountains, namely: Round [Roan] Mountain and Yellow Mountain [and found] all the Convallaria [Lily-of-the-valley] in flower.” Having “crossed Doe River 27 times” he “slept at the house of Colonel Tipton” and “passed by Johnsborough 10 miles from Colonel Tipton’s dwelling” the following day. Near the Noley-Chukey River his horse “strayed away,” forcing him to buy another “for the price of fifty dollars.”
During a week-long stay with Governor Blount he described nearly a hundred new flowers and trees in the “Terrritory of Knoxville and the neighboring country.”
In Nashville, where he stayed on the plantation of “young attorney Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel,” Michaux described the bur oak tree, not yet known to science in 1795.
Among other notable discoveries in Tennessee was the rare yellowwood tree, which became designated as Tennessee’s bicentennial tree in 1991.
Along a trail named for Andre Michaux at Tipton Haynes, more than a dozen of the native wildflowers described by this remarkable scientist-explorer can still be seen.
Quite a few of them, along with bur oak, yellowwood and other trees he discovered in the Appalachian mountains two hundred years ago can also be seen in the Jonesborough butterfly garden and arboretum, at the Pliny Fisk site.