Even though he was hampered in collecting during the Civil War, his commitment to botanical study was such that by 1881 his summary of specimens indicated some 11,000 species. Although he wanted his life's work to remain intact after his death, his widow sold parts of the herbarium to the British Museum and to Converse College. The last intact portion of Ravenel's herbarium is what is now at the University of South Carolina. With 6,200 individual plant specimens, it remains of great research significance in understanding Ravenel's work and the taxonomic study of fungi. Of equal importance is that because Ravenel bridged a transition in botany from informed gentlemen-amateurs to professional scientists engaged in local, national, and international discourses on biological practice, his journals and correspondence also offer rich potential to explore the historical evolution of science.
The Civil War brought financial ruin to Ravenel. He had moved to the dryer climate of Aiken, South Carolina, in 1853 for health reasons. The agricultural economy on which he depended was devastated. Now able to focus again on his collecting, he also had to turn much of his attention to various attempts to earn a living for his family. He operated a nursery and seed business, as well as published a newspaper, and wrote for agricultural journals. He wrote not only for scientific publications, but also for a more general readership in the Southern Agriculturist & Horticulturist, the Southern Cultivator, the Southern Farmer & Market Gardener, The Rural Carolinian, and Farmer and Planter. He continued as a pioneer in promoting agricultural innovation and crop diversification as well as plant hybridization for nursery stock. He remained active in community life and as a contributing member of varied organizations, including the Black Oak Agricultural Society, the Elliott Society of Natural History in Charleston, and the Southern Rights Association. One of his significant post-war contributions to botanical and agricultural research involved an investigation into the causes of Texas Cattle Fever sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ravenel had forged a warm relationship with the Commissioner of Agriculture, and in addition to supplying him with 315 fungus specimens collected while in Texas, he also sold him a complete set of his Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati. These collections, then held at the Smithsonian Institution, formed the nucleus of the National Fungus Collection at the Bureau of Plant Industry. Ravenel, as Plants and Planter illuminates, was a complex southern aristocrat engaged in consuming and producing knowledge about issues of the day as well as a pioneering scientist.
Ravenel & Botany
Ravenel received no formal education in Botany. In fact, he intended to study medicine after graduating from South Carolina College in 1832; however his father (himself a physician) advised against it and plied him with a plantation and a slave labor force to work its arable lands. After the close of the Civil War, Ravenel retrospectively regretted his acceptance of "a life of ease" (which was lost in the wake of war) and recognized that had he pursued a career in medicine he would "have had that profession as a means of support." (journal entry July 22, 1866).
With only a glimpse of the 'world of Nature' that he got through his coursework in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy, Ravenel developed a fondness for Botany that arguably was fostered by his proximity to the floristically diverse regions along the upper Santee River. This interested blossomed following a visit from a traveling naturalist recorded as Mr. Olmstead (now known to be Lemuel G. Olmstead), who instructed Ravenel in the art of making specimens. Unfortunately, Ravenel's earliest collections during this time were destroyed when his house at Northampton burned. Undaunted by this setback, he commenced to start anew and soon amassed a respectable collection. Armed with his education in sister sciences (Chemistry and Geology) and knowledge of plants, he began sharing results of experimental agricultural practices with the Black Oak Agricultural Society — a group comprised of neighboring planters (address given in 1842). By 1846 he had commenced the study of Cryptogamic botany (Mosses, Lichens, and Fungi) and he had expanded his network of correspondents to include Rev. John Bachman, Prof. Asa Gray (mostly Phaenerogams — Vascular Plants), Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis, Miles Joseph Berkeley (for Fungi), Edward Tuckerman (for Lichens), and William Starling Sullivant (for Mosses). His connections in this regard and imminent knowledge of the South Carolina flora led him to present a paper at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Charleston in 1850. In this address on the 'Natural Orders of Plants in the vicinity of the Santee Canal,' he enumerated nearly 1,000 species of plants which he had observed and collected. It was at this meeting that he forged a relationship with William Henry Harvey (an Irish phycologist —Algae) who alerted William Jackson Hooker of Ravenel's accomplishments in Botany in the American South. The AAAS meeting did more than augment Ravenel's circle of international correspondents but also strengthened his ties with the Charleston scientific community.
While Botany remained his primary interest, his breadth of knowledge was expanded through correspondence to include Geology / Paleontology (Michael Tuomey, Francis Simmons Holmes), Conchology (Edmund Ravenel — uncle), Meterology (Matthew Fontaine Maury), and agricultural Chemistry (St. Julien Ravenel — cousin). Added to this list of correspondents included Lewis Reeves Gibbes, Joseph Dalton Hooker, William Canby, Stephen Thayer Olney of Rhode Island, S. B. Mead of Illinois, E. Tatnall of Delaware, Alvan Wentworth Chapman of Florida, H. P. Sartwell of New Jersey, George Engelmann of St. Louis, and Teodoro Caruel of Italy. It was in part through this network of correspondents that Ravenel amassed a cosmopolitan collection of some "some 10 to 12 thousand species" (journal entry July 23, 1885), but by far the bulk of his collection was his life's work that he earned 'by the sweat of his own brow' (journal entry July 22, 1866).
Collaborations with colleagues led to unparalleled efforts to catalog and describe specific groups of plants. One such collaborative effort was George Engelmann's 'Herbarium Juncorum Boreali-Americanorum Normale'. Engelmann coordinated a distributed network of North American botanists who collected Juncus from points close to home. Enough material was collected such that duplicate specimens would be distributed among those who contributed to the effort. Many new species were described as a result the complete sets that were sent to collaborators contained type specimens — these may be found in Ravenel's herbarium. A similar project was undertaken by Stephen Thayer Olney for the genus Carex and was entitled 'Carices Boreali-Americanæ'. Again, the products of this project contain many type specimens also present in Ravenel's herbarium. Other type specimens came to Ravenel through circuitous routes and exchanges among colleagues. Certainly there are still some previously undocumented types still lurking within the collection. Regardless of the provenance, the presence of type specimens in Ravenel's collection enhances its scientific merits.
Other noteworthy specimens in Ravenel's herbarium include Juniperus communis which was discovered in Aiken County. This isolated occurrence is far south of its northern range and presumably an ice-age, relict population. Also in Aiken County he rediscovered a small population of the relatively rare Elliottia racemosa. There are also specimens of at least two species which Ravenel was the first person to discover Eryngium ravenelii and Eriocaulon ravenelii (obviously these were named in his honor), the latter of which is considered extirpated in South Carolina. His ability to find rare and unusual species earned him commissions with Charles Sprague Sargent (probably the first US Forester) who in collaboration with the Arnold Arboretum and the American Museum of Natural History was developing an exhibit on native trees. Many of the specimens that Ravenel collected as part of this effort are numbered and the corresponding lists may be found in his journals and correspondence to Sargent. One species that Sargent was particularly interested in was Franklinia alatamah which apparently had not be observed in nature since the beginning of the 19th-century. Despite his best efforts, Ravenel could not locate the tree but neither has anyone else. His other talents as a Mycologist earned him a commission with the Department of Agriculture which involved a trip to Texas to investigate the causes of 'Milk Sick' or 'Southern Cattle Fever' — the suspect being a fungus infecting the grasses upon which cattle grazed. For this, Ravenel relied on his knowledge of Fungi and Vascular Plants.
Ravenel & Mycology
Ravenel notes that he commenced the study of Cryptogamic botany in 1846. His progress in this discipline was fostered through the correspondence and advice of his colleagues Moses Ashley Curtis, Miles Joseph Berkeley (for Fungi), Edward Tuckerman (for Lichens), and William Starling Sullivant (for Mosses). With encouragement from Curtis in particular, Ravenel soon endeavored to produce his crowning achievement — the publication of Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati (1852-1860). As the most comprehensive work on American Fungi since the work of Lewis David von Schweinitz, completion of this monumental project catapulted Ravenel to the forefront of American Mycology and gained him international acclaim. The work consisted of 5 volumes (or Centuries) each containing 100 specimens of fungi. Painstaking measures to ensure consistency across all copies (potentially there were 36 recipients of at least some of the volumes, but the number of complete sets appears to be 30) involved carefully selecting specimens of similar size and disposition. All specimens and labels were glued by Ravenel's own hands into the bound volumes. This process he would have repeated fifteen-thousand (15,000) times before all copies were complete. While Ravenel sought to disseminate copies as widely as possible (giving many of them away), some of the original recipients now hold multiple copies (see journal entry for March 26, 1868 for a list of recipients). Of particular note is the set that he sent to the Smithsonian Institution which, together with the fungi he collected while commissioned to investigate Southern Cattle Fever in Texas, formed the nucleus of the National Fungus Collection (now in Beltsville, MD).
Soon after he completed the 'Fungi of Carolina', the American Civil war and all of its socio-political implications consumed Ravenel's thoughts. However, he still managed to pursue botanical investigation and saved his herbarium from perceived threats by moving it several times. While facing financial ruin in the aftermath of the war, he soon began a new collaboration with Mordecai Cubitt Cooke in an effort to produce the Fungi Americanae Exsiccati (1878-1882). The work involved contributions from multiple colleagues in North America, but Ravenel is listed as the author along with Cooke. Ravenel's efforts in this project took him beyond South Carolina to Georgia and Florida to make collections for the 8 Centuries (100 specimens each), of which at least 14 copies were sold to subscribers (see journal entry August 26, 1878).
- 1814: Born May 19 in St. John’s Berkeley, SC at Woodville Plantation
- 1816: Mother dies; sent to live with grandparents at Pooshee Plantation
- 1818: Thrown from a horse resulting in a serious injury to his scalp
- 1829: Enters South Carolina College
- 1832: Graduates from SC College
- 1835: Marries first wife Elizabeth G. Snowden
- 1842: Reads paper to Black Oak Agricultural Society on experimental agriculture
- 1844: Meets Lemuel G. Olmstead who teaches him how to make specimens; collection destroyed in fire at Northampton plantation
- 1846: Commences investigation of Cryptogamic botany
- 1852-60: Publishes Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati
- 1853: Moves to Aiken, SC
- 1859: Begins keeping journal
- 1861-65: American Civil War
- 1869: Travels to Washington, DC on March 19 and on to Houston and Galveston, TX before returning to Aiken, SC on May 11
- 1877: Travels to Georgia and Florida in November and December to collect specimens
- 1878-82: Publishes Fungi Americani Exsiccati with M. C. Cooke
- 1881: Continues search for Franklinia in Georgia
- 1887: Dies July 17 in Aiken, SC, aged 73
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