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The Princess and the Mountain Plants

An 1872 Imperial family expedition to Itatiaia produced a rare book, now recovered

the Agulhas Negras peak in Itatiaia, in an 1870 photo by Alberto Henschel, photograph from the Imperial House

The Princess Isabel Collection – 19th century Photography The Agulhas Negras peak in Itatiaia, in an 1870 photo by Alberto Henschel, photograph from the Imperial HouseThe Princess Isabel Collection – 19th century Photography

It must have been a peculiar expedition—a French botanist, the emperor’s daughter, who was then 22, and certainly plenty of assistants and bearers—unfortunately there are no known pictures. In July 1872, Auguste Glaziou, a botanist and landscape architect who had spent 14 of his 39 years in Brazil, led an expedition of which the most notable member was Princess Isabel, eldest daughter of Dom Pedro II. She was then married to another Frenchman, Luis Felipe de Orléans, the Count d’Eu. They climbed the Itatiaia Massif, in a mountainous region situated between the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro then part of a ranch that was later purchased by the government and converted to Brazil’s first national park in 1937.

Glaziou, surely attentive to the princess’s welfare, had made certain to collect typical plants found on the mountain that he was visiting for the first time; botanist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire had already traveled all over the area about 60 years earlier. Several species proved to be unique to the region, such as a plant from the fern group Polystichum rochaleanum that grows among crevices of rocks at higher altitudes. Since the nobles liked plants, Glaziou put together a sample of plants collected during the expedition and produced a 50-page book whose format closely resembled a sheet of ordinary drawing paper. It had the title Plantes cueillies sur l’Itatiaia au mois de juillet 1872 (Plants collected on Itatiaia in the month of July 1872) printed on the green leather cover. Glaziou composed a dedication, and delivered it to the princess.

Princess Isabel with an infant, in an 1875 photo

The National Library Princess Isabel with an infant, in an 1875 photoThe National Library

The emperor’s daughter must have liked the gift because she kept it when the Republic took over from the monarchy and the royal family took refuge in Paris. Princess Isabel later moved to the city of Eu, in Normandy, where she lived until her death in 1921. Her daughters donated the book to the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris where it languished for many years in the section devoted to historic herbariums, attracting very few readers. In 2013, Sergio Romaniuc Neto, a researcher at the Botanical Institute of São Paulo, was working at the Paris museum on a study of the collection of Brazilian plants assembled by Saint-Hilaire. He learned of the book and as soon as he had obtained all the authorizations, examined and photographed it. “Hardly anyone knew that the collection was there,” he observes. Every page has samples of various plants: most of them are ferns, along with some Rubiaceae, a family of flowering plants that includes the coffee tree, and others. Now, Romaniuc and other botanists are beginning to focus attentively on the plants from the princess’s herbarium, knowing that they may find species that have never been described, or perhaps some that have already disappeared. This is part of a major effort to repatriate information about botanical collections maintained in other countries (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 229).

The mother of Dom Pedro II, Empress Leopoldina, the emperor himself, and his daughters liked botany so much that they maintained collections of plants and supported Glaziou in the construction of gardens and plazas near the nobility’s summer residence in Petrópolis, in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro. Glaziou also handled the ornamentation of the plant exhibitions organized by Princess Isabel during which medals were awarded as prizes for the best plants, selected by a distinguished jury. The emperor, the princess, and her husband would attend the opening of the exhibition. Looking back at such events, a 1967 edition of O Estado de S.Paulo described them this way: “The princess contributed ornamental plants and flowers and she herself placed the specimens in the display cases. The funds to pay for the commemorative medals awarded during those exhibits came from Dom Pedro II’s private account.” The most recent exhibit was held in 1888, one year before the end of the monarchy in Brazil.