Pierre Belon is one of the unsung heroes of France’s past - the Indiana Jones of his time. He was a doctor and an adverturer who hunted the world for medicinal herbs and plants. He became France's first official botanist. His story dates back to the Renaissance and King's Expedition of 1546:
That year, King Francois I sent a mission of cultural ambassadors to Constantinople to secure his alliance with the Grand Sultan of the Turkish Empire. Belon’s role in the King’s mission: to gather healing treasures from the East and learn how to harness their curative powers.
February, 1547: Belon left the mission to explore the plant life of the Greek Islands. He obtained there the first of his many discoveries: a sticky, brown resin used to make perfumes. The Greeks collected the resin by driving goats into the forests overgrown with labdanum bushes. Then, they scraped the resin from the beasts' coats, using a special wooden comb with long, straight teeth. It was difficult work done only in summer, under the murderous heat of the Mediterranean sun. This made the resin rare and, unbeknownst to Belon, quite valuable.
Indeed, Barbary pirates considered the resin more valuable that gold. They laid siege to Belon’s ship, carrying off both his resin and his companions. Left alone in an empty boat, Belon was forced to navigate the sea on his own. He traveled slowly and at night, following the stars and avoiding pirates. Back in Crete, he learned that even the Greeks deemed the labdanum resin so valuable that anyone caught stealing it was condemned to death.
April, 1547: Belon rejoined the King’s mission in Constantinople. There, he attempted to penetrate the city’s network of apothecaries, hoping to learn the ingredients of their healing salves and ointments. They preferred to eliminate the indiscrete inquirer, however, than share their secrets.
Belon fled to Egypt where he found papyrus grass, from which paper could be easily made. In Syria, he discovered fruit orchards never seen in Europe and collected seeds of pear, apricot, apple, almond, and fig. Crossing the desert by camel caravan, he fought off attacking bandits by sword blade. In Lebanon he encountered good strong trees useful to his King for shipbuilding. Finally, in Palestine he found what he came for: plants capable of curing ills - from joint pain to pleurisy to the plague - and a generous people willing to divulge their knowledge.
On his return voyage to France, surrounded by his specimens, Belon fell victim a second time to pirates. Again, Belon survived; but all his notes, his drawings, and his treasure trove of seeds and cuttings were lost, forever drowned in the salty, blue sea.
He carried on, by boat, foot, mule, carriage, eventually reaching Paris in late 1549. His pockets were empty, but the tales of his adventures awakened the imagination of Kings and subjects, alike, and justified the need for further plant-hunting expeditions.
The science of Botany was born. And to honor France’s first official Botanist, the King offered Belon a tract of royal land to the west of Paris, now the Bois de Boulogne, to cultivate a botanical garden filled with natural treasures from around the world. But Belon’s work would never begin.
One evening in 1564, while out walking his land – perhaps laying out his fruit orchards and medicinal herb groves in his mind – Belon was attacked a final time. Run through by the blade of an unknown assailant, Belon was dispatched. Some said it was thieves, others called it a tragic accident; but friends believed that Belon was silenced…deliberately.
If only the trees of the Bois could talk!
Duval, Marguerite. The King's Garden, trans. by Annette Tomarken & Claudine Cowen. Charlottesville: University of VA, 1982.
Images (in order of appearance):
Bois de Boulogne, by Dutch painter, Isaac Israels (1865-1934).
Comb for extracting Labdanum from goat fur, thanks to: Perfume Shrine.
Pierre Belon, French Botanist (1517‑1564), artist unknown.