Spain’s prodigious efforts to describe and catalogue the floristic wealth of its New World dominions in the last half of the eighteenth century, a part of Charles III’s comprehensive plan to reform the intellectual and social life of the nation, generated more controversy than folio pages. With botany and botanical gardens increasingly becoming a matter of state, Spain yearned to become the world leader in plant exploration. Yet of the three major expeditions that emerged from the Age of Enlightenment only that of Ruiz and Pavón to the Viceroyalty of Peru resulted in substantial publications during the lifetime of the participants, and that only one-fourth of the promised twelve volumes. When it came to digesting the vast quantities of botanical knowledge increasingly offered up by the Indies, the eyes of Spanish authorities were invariably bigger than their stomachs.

Flowers for the King is a detailed documentation and interpretation of the first of these monumental efforts of the Spanish crown to bring Linnean order to, and perhaps economic gain from, the plant world of the American tropics. It is the story of half a century of bureaucratic infighting, scholarly argument, and endless negotiation for publication rights and government subsidies. The imagined prestige of prior publication seems to have been the principal motivating force behind the Crown’s willingness to support so long this ill-starred and costly undertaking. Certainly the potential market for such luxury folios was grossly overestimated. Professor Steele has left no stone unturned in recounting the tortuous history of the Peruvian expedition and the evolution and demise of its subsequent bureaucratic superstructure. A non-historian can only stand in awe of the extraordinary detail of bibliographic documentation, based on manuscript materials from at least thirteen different archives in Europe and South America, but most importantly the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid. Yet the underbrush never becomes so thick as to cause the reader to lose the trail and the end result is a handsome contribution not only to the intellectual history of Spain in the Age of Enlightenment, but also to the history of botany and even of medicine. In particular one must commend his handling of the difficult matter of botanical nomenclature and precedence and his readiness to call on experts in the field where this was indicated.

The initial impetus for the Flora Peruviana came from France. A request from Paris in 1776 that the botanist Joseph Dombey be permitted to conduct a collecting expedition in Peru was accepted by the Spanish Crown with the proviso that two “Spanish professors” should be allowed to accompany him and that he should leave in Spain a duplicate of all of his findings. Juan and Ulloa, under almost the same situation, had accompanied La Condamine to Quito in 1735. The two Spaniards, Hipólito Ruiz and José Antonio Pavón, were young pharmacists of undistinguished backgrounds but ready to learn. They took with them two illustrators. The expedition was in Peru, with a brief sojourn in Chile, for more than ten years. Dombey returned to Europe some four years before the Spaniards. After losing a bitter dispute with Spanish officials over publication rights and the division of bis herbarium specimens, the French botanist lost interest in the enterprise. It remained the Spaniards’ responsibility to see it through the press. One marvels at the Crown’s continuing support of the project in the face of continuing delays and expenditures, and even more at its success in cajoling New World officials and cabildos into contributing their good pesos to its support.

The author treats us to the most painstaking details of the subsequent years of frustration and disappointment, including continuous haggling over salaries and working space, even to the numbers of brooms used each year to sweep the office and the amount of coal burned to heat it, and the continual infighting among the corporal’s guard of plant scientists around the Jardín Botánico in Madrid at the time. Ruiz is revealed as the more aggressive and more competent of the two and his death, in 1816, six years after the French occupation of Madrid, sealed the fate of what was a grandiose but unrealistic undertaking. Pavón, docile and ineffective, continued on the Flora Peruviana project for another fifteen years, in the end resorting to the unscrupulous peddling to British buyers of much of the remainder of the collection. The last folio volume had appeared in 1802. In 1957, 155 years later, a fourth volume was published in Madrid!

Given the widespread eighteenth-century interest in medicinal plants, the central role of cinchona in this tale is not surprising. It is highlighted by the controversy between Ruiz and Pavón and the distinguished José Celestino Mutís in New Granada as to the efficacy and identity of the cinchona growing in different parts of the Andes. The dispute over the classification of the cinchonas was prolonged and bitter with the New Granada product in the end being recognized as comparable to that of Loja and Huánuco. Even today few groups are more confused, some botanists preferring to admit as many as five genera and more than 150 varieties of the febrifuge plant. No wonder that the Spaniards had trouble with this genetically plastic group.

As a background to this study, originally conceived as a doctoral dissertation at Duke University, the author has presented a useful introduction to the history of plant science in Europe prior to the nineteenth century—the sixteenth-century herbals, the collecting expeditions, the establishment of the natural history ‘cabinets’ and botanical gardens, and the advent of the first of the scientific travelers. Natural history was in flower, and we can only regret that its blooms were not more persistent. Strange and unknown plants were not the only objects of concern, but they were perhaps the most fashionable, and their diversity seemed endless. The nineteenth-century outlook encompassed all of nature, but these were collectors and classifiers—satisfying the greatest need of the eighteenth-century science, to learn what, when and where. Future generations could take care of the why and how. Given the admitted economic orientation of such work, it remains striking that so little attention was given to cultivated plants—the varieties of maize, beans, squash, and potatoes, for instance, that in later times have become a principal concern of plant men and ethno-historians. The cultivated plant remained excluded from the botanists’ sphere of interest until very recent times. Yet, paradoxically, it was here that the greatest prospect of national gain lay hidden amongst the chromosomes.

The great botanical expeditions were perhaps the clearest reflection of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The recounting of the human stresses and strains and the associated minutae that made up the little world of Ruiz and Pavón makes more plausible the understanding of the barriers that stood before solid scientific achievement at the time. “A chronicle of arrant despair” the author terms it. The wonder is that so much was accomplished. A good 100 out of 141 new genera announced by the Spanish pair are still recognized today. Over 500 species still bear the names given them by Ruiz and Pavón. With our vastly superior facilities for travel, observation, identification, and measurement we can scarcely be said to be doing much better in our hour.