Richard Spruce

By Laura Briscoe

Jan 31 2019

“Whenever rains, swollen streams, and grumbling Indians combined to overwhelm me with chagrin, I found reason to thank heaven which had enabled me to forget for the moment all my troubled in the contemplation of a simple moss.” 

Richard Spruce was a preeminent Victorian botanist who was one of the first Europeans to thoroughly explore the Amazon and the Andes. During his 15 years there, he collected more than 30,000 plant specimens. He was plagued by poor health and tropical parasites, including malaria. Ironically, he was commissioned by the British India Office to collect seeds and living plants of cinchona to smuggle out of the Andes to form plantations in India to help cure malaria elsewhere. Although he was engaged in this economic mission, his real passion was in collecting tiny plants most people don’t even notice - liverworts (relatives of mosses). He collected these tiny treasures then distributed them in sets upon his return to England. In contrast to his economic endeavors, he described liverworts as:

"...sentient beings which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life, and after death may adorn my herbarium…. It is true that the Hepaticae (liverworts) have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food; but if man cannot torture them to his uses or abuse, they are infinitely useful where God has placed them, as I hope to live to show; and they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in, themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.”


Spruce, R. 1908.  Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (ed. A. R. Wallace). London: Macmillan. Available at BHL