Florida’s Early Naturalists: Dr. John Kunkel Small

The Tropical Garden, Spring 2015

By Georgia Tasker

Racing against canal builders and developers, the color-blind botanist recorded Florida’s natural environment and worked to preserve it.

Five men in a small boat called the Barbee headed to Cape Sable on the southwest tip of the Everglades in the spring of 1916. They waited out a fearsome storm halfway to the Cape, but once they found Cuthbert Lake, “we were introduced to a strange new world,” wrote Dr. John Kunkel Small. “Not only orchids and bromeliads, but large cactus plants as well grew everywhere on the trunks of both dead and living trees.”

Because the channels in the area were “tortuous” and impeded by snags, he wrote “we had to either lie down in the boats in order to save our heads or to get out and pull the boats over the snags. … After securing as many palms and orchids as we could carry in our small boats through the creeks and lakes, we started on the way back to the Barbee.”

Small, taxonomist and curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s museum and herbarium, recorded these details in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, as he always recorded plant explorations in South Florida. His work here spanned three decades. Considered to be in the pantheon of eminent South Florida botanists, Small did not drive a car and depended on others for transportation. More challenging for him was his sight: he was color-blind.

Botanist Edgar Wherry noted Small’s color-blindness in a 1957 reminiscence written for the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society. When the two were on a trip to Louisiana, “We would pass colonies of bright red Clinopodiums (now Calamintha coccinea, showy basil) … and to him they looked gray so that he would not see them until some morphologic feature became evident.” In reading Small’s travel accounts, there is no indication of difficulty with color, but it may be that his driver or colleagues described colors for him. That is what Wherry wrote that he did for the Louisiana iris, a flower which Small loved and which he is reported to have saved from extinction: As swamps were being drained, he collected and distributed iris seeds.

During his lifetime, Small, who brought his wife Elizabeth and their four children to Florida for collecting trips, amassed an impressive 60,000 plants. His doctoral thesis was the “Flora of the Southeastern United States,” published in 1903, and revised in 1913 and 1933. From 1927 to 1931, he worked with Thomas Edison in a search for rubber-producing plants.