José Dionisio Larreátegui
Description Botanique du Chiranthodendron (1805)


Published literature does not provide information about when or where José Dionisio Larreátegui was born, or when or where he died. Such respected sources as Barnhart's Biographical Notes upon Botanists, based on records at the New York Botanical Garden, and Brummitt & Powell's Authors of Plant Names, sponsored by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as current inquiry to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation can state only that he "flourished" from 1795 to 1805, the dates of his scientific monograph in the original Spanish and in French. Virtually nothing has been written about him, and his work has languished in obscurity for most of its life.

But Larreátegui lived and wrote in a period of great scientific activity in Mexico, especially in botany. In 1787 Spain's Carlos III had authorized a major botanical expedition as well as the establishment of a botanical garden and a course of study in the science at the university in Mexico City. There were many kinds of flora and fauna in Mexico unknown to Western science, and even those plants already known needed to be studied, named, and described in the new system of nomenclature and classification developed by Linnaeus earlier in the century. The circle of Spanish botanists who set to work in "New Spain," as Mexico was then called, includedBlossom Martín Sessé y Lacasta (head of the expedition and the botanical garden), José Mariano Mociño, Vicente Cervantes, Juan Diego del Castillo, José Longinos Martínez, and José Maldonado. (The report of the expedition, which continued until 1820, was not published until the 1890s, under the title Flora Mexicana by Sessé and Mociño.)

Larreátegui first appears in the published literature in 1794 as a graduate of the new Botany Course under Cervantes at the Real y Pontífica Universidad de México, where he was a medical student. As part of the graduation exercises, announced in the Gazeta de México, the students read their dissertations in public lectures. Larreátegui is reported to have discussed Castilloa elástica, a plant known for producing latex rubber, continuing a debate among several of the botanists regarding its proper scientific name. This debate eventually reached the Letters to the Editor of the Gazeta during the winter and spring of 1794-1795, with Longinos Martínez and Larreátegui presenting the opposing arguments.

It should be noted that during this period dissertations throughout European academia were normally written by the professors, with students merely explicating and defending the theses. Larreátegui was honored by being selected to defend Cervantes's position regarding this name,Seed Pod and he seems to have held his own in opposition to Longinos Martínez. In the Gazeta (v.7, 1795: 280; quoted and translated by Rickett) Larreátegui wrote that "anyone with only the rudiments of botany will recognize the crass error or better the bad faith of [Longinos]" concerning one of the points being disputed.

In the following June Cervantes further honored Larreátegui, selecting him to deliver a discourse for the opening of the new academic year of the Botany Course, which was normally Cervantes's role. Larreátegui spoke on the Linnean system of naming and describing plants, with a description of the Mexican hand plant given as an example. The talk was published later the same year under the title Descripciones de Plantas, and it is the work for which his name is remembered. It is a short piece of 48 pages and 1 plate, in which the plant - a tree - is described and named Chiranthodendron pentadactylon for the first time.

The generic name - Chiranthodendron - is a combination of Greek words meaning "hand-flower-tree." Larreátegui notes that this was the name used by the Spanish botanists in Sessé's expedition, which studied the tree in 1787. The trivial name pentadactylon means "five-fingered." The tree flowers in winter, when the branches are otherwise bare. It was well-known long before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s; in the Aztec language Nahuatl it is called Macpalxochicuahuitl ("hand-flower-tree"). In Spanish it is called Árbol de las manitas ("tree of the little hands"), flor de manita ("flower of the little hand"), and manita or mano de león ("little hand, or hand, of a lion"); and in English, the hand-flower tree or Mexican hand plant (Hortus Third).

As Larreátegui explains, the tree was known from a single specimen growing since time immemorial in Toluca in the Valley of Mexico. The Indians revered it and used it in medicines for relieving pain and inflammation, according to the Badianus Manuscript, an Aztec herbal now in the Vatican Library, and early Spanish commentaries, notably Hernandez's Quatro Libros de la Naturaleza y Virtutes de las Plantas y Animales...en la Nueva España first published in 1615. Following their beliefs about what would please the gods, the Aztecs picked every flower on the Toluca tree each year to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind, although it is reported that there were a few others cultivated in gardens or presented as royal gifts. The Toluca tree was visited and studied by Sessé and Mociño, Cervantes, and Humboldt and Bonpland on their several botanical expeditions during this period. The species is a large forest tree in the Sterculiaceae (Cacao) family and is now known to be abundant in wet mixed oak-pine and deciduous mountain forests through Mexico and Guatemala.

There is no further note of Larreátegui in the published record. After only a year of public prominence in the botanical circle of Mexico City - emerging as a spokesman in matters of Linnean nomenclature and describing a tree new to Western science - he disappears from view. It is conjectured that he established a practice as a physician.

Chiranthodendron Seed Pod

After its publication in Mexico, Larreátegui's monograph found its way to France. It happened that a French naval and colonial administrator, returning to France by way of the United States after a term of service in Guadeloupe, met another Frenchman who had been travelling in Mexico; the latter, a certain "Monsieur Orsel of Lyons," gave to the administrator, Daniel Lescallier, a copy of Larreátegui's Spanish publication along with dried specimens of the leaves, flowers, and seed pods of the tree, all of which Orsel had acquired in his Mexican travels. Lescallier recognized the interest and reputed usefulness of the plant, and, while apologizing for his lack of standing in botanical circles and the "indirect route (and, as the English say, at second hand)" by which he had become involved with the work, he decided "to put [his translation] before the public, such as it is" (translated from the "Avant-propos du traducteur," p.7-8).

Portions of the original Spanish work were included by Vicente Cervantes in an article in the Anales de Ciéncias Naturales (v.6, 1803: 303-314), in which Cervantes proposed a different name for the species. A further translation summarizing the work from the French edition into German appeared in Schrader's Neues Journal für die Botanik (v.2, 1807: 104-109). At the very end of the nineteenth century Larreátegui's work was reprinted in the Nueva Recopilación de Monografías Mexicanas y Tesis Inaugurales de Materia Medica of the Anales del Instituto Medico Nacional (Mexico [City], 1894: v.1, 5-25 (app.)).

The book

José Dionisio Larreátegui. Description Botanique du Chiranthodendron [Botanical description of Chiranthodendron]. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, An XIII=1805. QK211.L33 F1805 Bot. RB

Pagination: 28 pp., 2 pls. (stipple engravings, hand-colored). 27 cm.

Collation: [A]-C4D2; 2 lvs. pls.

[A1] [1] - [2] Half-title
[A2] [3] - [4] Title page
[A3,4] [5] - 8 "Avant-propos du traducteur" [Translator's foreword]
B[1] - D[2] 9 - 28 Text
--- Pl.1ere, 2e Plates [bound in between p.26 and 27]

The work is a translation into French by Daniel Lescallier from Larreátegui's Descripciones de Plantas [Descriptions of plants] (Mexico City, 1795. 48 pp., 1 pl.).

Picture of Cover

Lescallier considered the plate that accompanied the original Spanish publication to be poorly engraved, and since he had dried specimens of the leaves, flowers, and seed pods of the tree, he commissioned 2 new engravings by "an expert illustrator and a distinguished engraver, who were suggested to [him] by the professors of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle" in Paris (translated from the "Avant-propos du traducteur," p.8). It is not known who these artists were. The plates in SIL's copy (although severely trimmed) do not appear to have been signed in the usual places. Existing bibliographic records make no mention of the artists, and the work is not analyzed in Nissen's Botanische Buchillustration.

The French translation of 1805, in which the author's name becomes Joseph-Denis Larréategui, is more common than the original Spanish publication. The SIL copy is one of about 15 reported in libraries in the United States. As far as can be determined from the published records, SIL's is the only one with a correction slip pasted over the imprint on the verso of the half-title page. The slip notes that the work is being issued "A Paris, rue de Thionville, N° 116, Chez Firmin Didot...." Stafleu & Cowan's authoritative Taxonomic Literature (2nd edition) cite this as a later issue seen in a single copy in the library of the National Herbarium (then in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History). The book is now in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

This copy was in a modern pamphlet case, without original wrappers or cover. The pamphlet case has been removed, the book re-sewn, and the present paper case and end-leaves added by Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Conservator, in the Book Conservation Laboratory, Preservation Services Department, SIL. The case is made with Tim Barrett's "Renaissance paper" of 100% linen in the limp-vellum style, and the end-papers are Barcham Green's Edinburgh paper.


On Larreátegui and his times

On the plant

On the book

Leslie K. Overstreet
Curator of Natural History Rare Books
Special Collections Department
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
June 1999