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The forgotten palm trees

The English find samples of palm trees that the co-author of the theory of evolution sent from Pará 155 years ago

Perhaps for an extreme attachment to the British style, English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace lived discretely – so discretely that his legacy is still coming to light today, 90 years after his death. Nine samples of six species of palm trees from Pará that Wallace sent in 1848 to the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, England, remained forgotten in plastic bags until being discovered and analyzed, over 150 years later, by the team led by Sandra Knapp, from the Natural History Museum, in London, and by William Baker, from the Royal Botanic Gardens itself. The recovered material evidences Wallace’s interest for botany and bears witness to his first scientific expedition, made to the Amazon Forest. Throughout four years, from 1848 to 1852, he traveled all over the Negro and Uaupés rivers, along with another English naturalist, Henry Walter Bates. In the following years, Wallace went into the forests of Indonesia, on the alert for rare specimens of birds, butterflies, beetles, mammals and fishes. The dusty fragments of the palm trees are some of the few plants collected in these travels through the tropical forests.

Out of the bags came palm tree stalks (stipes) of almost 1 meter in length, long folded leaves, groups of flowers (inflorescences), the tube-shaped structures that involve the young inflorescences (bracts), or just the prickly stems of the leaves (petiole) from species in common use, like the assai palm (Euterpe oleracea) or the macauba palm (Acrocomia aculeata), both of which have edible fruit. As they are incomplete, these samples “would not be suitable for describing a new species”, in the assessment of Sandra Knapp, one of the authors of an article that describes the nine items, published in the Palms magazine and also signed by Baker and Lynn Sanders, from the Natural History Museum. “Wallace was not necessarily looking for rarities, but interested in the way that the inhabitants of the local communities used the palm trees”, Baker points out.

As the English botanists themselves recognize, Wallace sent the palm trees – together with a letter dated August 20, 1848, still at the beginning of the journey – to William Jackson Hooker, then a director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, to be exhibited as samples of the exuberance of the vegetation of the tropics. It was also a gesture of retribution: Hooker had written a letter of introduction for Wallace and Bates in Brazil, with the purpose of opening doors for the two young researchers, with no curriculum and little money.

The unexpected legacy – now in boxes – replaces, at least in part, the material collected by Wallace, almost all of it lost in the shipwreck of the Helen, in which he embarked on July 12, 1848. In the book Peixes do Rio Negro [Fish of the Rio Negro], organized by Monica de Toledo-Piza Ragazzo (Edusp, 2002), with 212 drawings done by Wallace, Sandra Knapp describes what happened on the journey back to England: “After three weeks of sailing over the Atlantic, a fire broke out on board. Wallace went to his cabin, picked up a small metal box containing drawings of palm trees and fish, a few shirts and notebooks, before making his way to the lifeboat. The rest of his collections – actually, the way for him to become a member of the scientific community – was in the hold and was lost for ever”.

Letter to Darwin
Back in England, Wallace wrote a few articles about fish and insects, besides two books, based on the drawings he had saved from the shipwreck: Travels on the Amazon and Negro rivers (launched in Brazil in 1979 by the Itatiaia publishing house, asViagens pelos Rios Amazonas e Negro) and Palm Trees of the Amazon, one of the rarest books on Amazonia, with only 250 copies, which he himself paid for. In this book, the naturalist identifies 14 new species of palm trees and gave names to 12 of them. Four of the names he proposed – for the palm trees in the drawings on this page – are still used, in recognition of his pioneer work. The samples found in the Royal Botanic Gardens reinforce what the drawings and the descriptions in the book indicated: Wallace always saw the plants linked to the uses that the local populations would put them to. This is the case of the piassava palm (Leopoldinia piassaba), whose fibers were used even in those days to make brooms.

Wallace did not use to stay long in London – he once claimed that he preferred the uncertainties of the forests to the perils of scientific debates. But with his drawings and collections, he drew up a view of his own on the origin of the species and became the co-author of the theory of evolution, almost always attributed to his fellow-countryman Charles Darwin. After publishing his book The Origin of the Species, Darwin found himself brought to bay by severe criticisms from other scientists. One of the few letters of consolation that he received guaranteed that the Origin of the Species was just as important for science as Isaac Newton’s Principia was for physics. It was from Wallace.