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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00013

Jean Louis Berlandier papers

Scope and Content

The Berlandier papers consist of several journals and autobiographical accounts; a large, illustrated volume on plants of Mexico; several small botanical manuscripts, including two from Berlandier's time in Geneva; a list of Berlandier's plants prepared by Moïse Etienne Moricand and Alphonse de Candolle; and a manuscript about Berlandier's plants prepared by Asa Gray.


  • 1825-1855


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide one form of valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


1 collection (2 boxes [item 13 is missing])


Jean Louis Berlandier was born into a poor family near Fort-de-l'Ecluse, France around 1805. At a young age he was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Geneva and studied Latin and Greek in his spare time. He so impressed Augustin Pyramus de Candolle that the botanist invited Berlandier to attend his classes and accompany him on excursions. While studying with de Candolle, Berlandier also took the opportunity to learn about drawing and painting from de Candolle’s illustrator, Jean-Christophe Heyland.

Around 1824 de Candolle arranged for Berlandier to go to Mexico as botanist for the Boundary Commission established by the Mexican government to survey the border between Mexico and the United States. Berlandier arrived in Mexico at the end of 1826 and after several months’ delay the survey departed in November 1827. Berlandier collected in Mexico and Texas for the next two years and ultimately sent around 55,000 dried plants, seeds, insects, and other small animals back to Geneva. De Candolle was extremely critical of the specimens, which he considered incomplete and poorly prepared.

Rather than defend himself against de Candolle’s criticism, Berlandier chose to remain in Mexico. He established himself as a pharmacist and doctor in Matamoros and continued to study Mexican plants. He married a Mexican woman with whom he had several children. Berlandier drowned in the summer of 1851 while crossing the San Fernando River.


Geiser SW. 1948. Naturalists of the frontier, 2nd ed. Dallas (TX): University Press.

Lawson RM. 2012. Frontier naturalist: Jean Louis Berlandier and the exploration of Northern Mexico and Texas. Albuquerque (NM): University of New Mexico Press.

Series Description

The collection is arranged in three series:

Series I: Journals. There are three packets of journal materials dealing with the years 1830-1831. There is a fair amount of overlap in their contents. A fourth packet contains a brief, possibly incomplete, account of an excursion to Fronton de Sa Isabel in 1845 and an account of Berlandier's arrest and forced trip to Mexico City in 1849, while he was serving as alcalde (mayor) of Matamoros. The materials appear to have been prepared with publication in mind. It is not clear what portion of these journals are Berlandier’s own work. Arrangement may have been imposed by Sereno Watson.

What appears to be a draft of a letter from Berlandier to Charles Mirbel at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris, dated December 20, 1838 was inserted in one of the 1830-1831 journals. This is of particular interest because this letter is mentioned by Alphonse de Candolle in a footnote to his father’s memoirs (p. 337). De Candolle emphasizes the long delay between this letter and Berlandier's original work in Mexico and suggests that Berlandier had pretended to be dead out of shame. The draft indicates that actually Berlandier had heard from Mirbel in 1833 and had written to him three times since without receiving a response.

Series II: Botanical Manuscripts.

The botanical manuscripts fall into two groups: those written by Berlandier and those written by others about his plants. Manuscripts by Berlandier were bound into four volumes in somewhat haphazard arrangement. This was likely done at the Gray Herbarium during Asa Gray's lifetime, as the bindings use paper from American periodicals and bookplates in the bound volumes designate them as gifts of Asa Gray. One of the four volumes has since been disbound. The major sections of botanical notes are: about 750 pages containing descriptions of new plants, arranged alphabetically by family; about 250 pages of notes on plants and their uses, arranged alphabetically by family; and about 240 pages of descriptions of "Gramineas de los contornos de Mexique." There are also 113 pages of illustrations, largely botanical, by Lino Sánchez y Tapia and Berlandier; a manuscript of "Memoire sur la famille des Grossulariees" and a manuscript of "Du mode de reproduction par fecondation de quelques vegetaux de la famille des Campanulaiees," both written in Geneva; and several articles pertaining to Mexican plants: "Nombres botanicos correspondientes a las denomiraciones Mexicanas que Abate Clairgeno empone a los vegetales" (referred to as the Cervantes mss), "Des plantes usuelles chez les Indiens du Mexique," and Boissons spiritueuses retirees du Regne vegetal."

Series III: Plant List.

This series contains a list of Berlandier’s plants prepared by M.E. Moricand and Alphonse de Candolle, a manuscript by Asa Gray listing and describing plants in Berlandier's collection, and a list by Ivan Murray Johnston of plants described by Berlandier in "Memorias de las Comision de Limites…" There is also a letter from C.W. Short containing excerpts from a lost de Candolle letter.


Berlandier’s papers and collections were purchased by Darius N. Couch in 1853. Couch gave the bulk of the documents to the Smithsonian Institution and offered the remainder for purchase, however, the Smithsonian lacked sufficient funds. Spencer Fullerton Baird, Curator at the Smithsonian, contacted Asa Gray to ask if the Gray Herbarium would be interested. Kentucky botanist, Charles Wilkin Short, agreed to provide the $400 for the collection and on July 6, 1854, Baird sent 75 cubic feet of botanical specimens and a package of manuscripts and drawings to Gray.

Existence and Location of Copies

Item 9 has been microfilmed. Harvard order number: 78-1191.

Related Materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria: Field notes and plant identification records, approximately 1804-2000; Asa Gray correspondence files, 1832-1892.

Processed by

Lynn McWhood, 1983 January.

Berlandier, Jean Louis, -1851. Jean Louis Berlandier papers, 1825-1855: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

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