HISTORY: Botanists Andre Michaux and Francois-Andre Michaux

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S.C. Encyclopedia  |  André Michaux was born on March 7, 1746, at Satory, France, son of the farmer André Michaux and Marie-Charlotte Barbet. Interested in plants from an early age, Michaux in 1785 was commissioned as royal botanist with the mission of finding useful plants for France in America. Originally landing in New York, he arrived in Charleston on September 21, 1786. The city became his base of operations as he ranged over North America as far south as Florida and as far north as Hudson Bay.

The Carolina mountains were among his favorite areas for botanizing. South Carolina plants first described or collected by Michaux include the Oconee bell, the big leaf magnolia, native cane, blue-eyed grass, and the Carolina willow. In all, Michaux was the authority for 188 species native to the Carolinas. In 1790 Michaux was trapped in Charleston by the French Revolution and the freezing of his funding. However, he bore no grudge against the French Republic, becoming a strong supporter of the revolution.

A member of the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, Michaux also worked to acclimate foreign plants, mostly Asian, in America. Notable examples include the camellia, the mimosa from Persia, the gingko tree from China, and the crape myrtle from India. Michaux’s 111-acre botanical garden near Charleston became a popular visiting spot for city residents. Returning to France in 1796, Michaux wrote the first systematic botanical description of eastern North America, Flora Boreali-Americana (1803). Based on Michaux’s personal observations, it includes descriptions of many South Carolina plants. Michaux died on Madagascar in November 1802 while accompanying a French expedition to the South Seas.

François-André Michaux was born on August 16, 1770, the son of André Michaux and Cécile Claye. As a young man, François accompanied his father on many of his early explorations. As an adult, he returned to Charleston, arriving on October 9, 1801, in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. He caught the disease but survived. While in Charleston, Michaux arranged the liquidation of his father’s botanical garden, sending plants and seeds back to France and transferring the land and remaining plants to the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, of which he, like his father, was a member.

A book about his American travels, Travels to the West of the Allegheny Mountains (1804), contains observations on South Carolina. After returning to France, Michaux visited Charleston again while engaged in a project from 1806 to 1808 to find North American trees with useful lumber that could be acclimated in France. After his return to France, Michaux was a principal supplier of scientific books and journals to America until the 1820s, when failing health forced him out of Paris. Charlestonians who received scientific works from Michaux included the Pinckney family, the Library Society of Charleston, the South Carolina Medical Society, and the botanist Stephen Elliott. Michaux died on October 23, 1855, at his home in Vaureal, France, and was buried on its grounds.

— Excerpted from an entry by William E. Burns.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 

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