Talk Report – Aug 2018

Thunberg and Sparrman: Eighteenth Century Botanical Explorers to the Cape
– By Andrea Benn (22 July 2018)

On the evening of 22 July 2018, John Rourke took a group of interested members through a talk he had previously offered at the UCT Summer School on two ‘apostles’ of Carl Linnaeus, the famed Professor of Medicine and Botany at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, in the early 1800s.

Linnaeus himself never travelled outside of Europe and thus relied on his ‘apostles’ to discover thousands of species of plant across the globe. Two of these explorers were Carl Peter Thunberg (1742-1828) and Anders Sparrman  (1748-1820).

Thunberg arrived in the Cape in 1772 and has come to be known as the father of South African botany as well as the pioneer of occidental medicine in Japan. His interest in plants began at the age of ten when he was given a birthday present of stapeliads. He also had a keen interest in the study of Medicine and later became the personal physician to the King of Sweden.

Thunberg describes his visit to South Africa in his second travelogue. His visit lasted for three years and he became fluent in Dutch and delved deeply into the culture of the KhoiKhoi, as well as carrying out the main purpose of his journey to collect specimens for the famed gardens in Leiden.

Thunberg’s journeys into the country were on limited power with just three oxen and a small wagon to undertake what was quite a dangerous journey. His name is now attached to 254 species of both plants and animals, for example Thunbergia alata (the Black Eyed Susan) and Gardinia thunbergii of the Acanthaceae family. After three years here he sailed on to Batavia and Japan.


Thunbergia alata
Black Eyed Susan


Gardinia thunbergii White Gardenia

Anders Sparrman  (1748-1820) was also a Swedish Physician  and naturalist and a younger fellow student of Carl Thunberg at Uppsala University. He arrived at the Cape just four days before Thunberg. They spent a few days together collecting plants and insects in the vicinity of Cape Town.

Thunberg and Sparrman had very different personalities. Thunberg was direct and scientific while Sparrman just drifted along. Sparrman became a tutor to the Kirsten children in Simonstown until he joined Captain Cook on his second voyage of exploration to New Zealand, Polynesia, Easter Island, and the southern tip of South America.

Sparrman described many plants during his two year voyage with Cook but received little recognition for his contributions to the scientific results of the expedition. He returned to the Cape in 1775 and stayed for one year, during which time he sent many specimens of plants and insects to Linnaeus.

On his return to Sweden he brought with him many more specimens, including a quagga foal and a male blue antelope, both now extinct. He is credited with the first descriptions of the African Buffalo and the Cape Ash Ekebergia Capensis. He also made  interesting observations relating to agriculture, the effects of veld burning, the spread of renosterbos, and a decline in soil fertility. The plant genus Sparrmannia was named after him.


Ekebergia Capensis
Cape Ash

Thank you to John Rourke for a most interesting and informative presentation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *