Famous collector of plants N.S. Turczaninow

M.G. Kholodny Institute of botany NAS of Ukraine


Nicolai Stepanovitch Turczaninow

By N.G. Marchant "The contribution of the Russian botanist Turczaninov to Australian plant taxonomy" (Western Australian Herbarium)


Turczaninow was born in 1796 in Nikitovka, in the south of european Russia near the Ukranian city of Kharkov. In 1810 he attended high school and later, the University in Kharkov. He apparently developed an early love for botany and was an avid collector of plants. In 1814 he graduated from Kharkov (Prokhorov, A.M. (ed.), 1973-83. The great Soviet encyclopedia. 26 vols.) and went to St. Petersburg to join the Russian civil service. He became a controller in the Ministry of Finance but kept his interest in botany, publishing a list of plants of the St. Petersburg area in 1825. This must have established his botanical credentials with the notable botanists of the time.

In 1828 Turczaninov accepted an administrative post at Irkutzk in Siberia. Here he had ample opportunity to travel widely in the Lake Baikal area where he collected many specimens, sending some to St. Petersburg and starting his own herbarium for private use as well as some to use for exchange at a later date. In 1830 Turczaninov was given the title of Fellow of the Imperial Botanic Garden St. Petersburg as the "travelling scientist" responsible for the vast Siberian region between the "Altai mountains and the eastern ocean" (Pacific). This gave him official approval to mix his botanical activities with his administrative ones, enabling him to collect specimens over a wide area.

From 1830 Turczaninov developed a collaboration with A.P. de Candolle. Thus the private herbarium in Irkutzk began to grow and include material from southern Asia and an area of special interest to Turczaninov, South America. In recognition of the botanical endeavours of Turczaninov, de Candolle named a new genus of Compositae Turczaninowia. Most western botanists submerge this with the genus Aster. However it is still recognized as a genus by modern Soviet taxonomists who, compared with western European botanists, have a narrower generic concept.

In 1831, 1832 and 1834 Turczaninov published papers in Bull. Soc. Imp. Naturalistes Moscou on the botany of Siberia and Mongolia. In 1837 he was transferred westwards to the Siberian post of Krasnioarsk as President of the Board of Provincial Governors; later he became Governor of the surrounding region. He may have returned to Moscow in Nov. 1837 for a short period.

In Krasnioarsk, Turczaninov started to publish Flora Baikalensi-Dahurica in separate parts from 1842-1857 in Bull. Soc. Imp. Naturalistes Moscou. Later the entire work was published in 2 volumes. This Flora was an enormous contribution to east Asian botany and it established Turczaninov as an experienced researcher before he started to study and describe Australian plant taxa.

At 49 years of age, in 1845, after 17 years in Siberia, Turczaninov retired and moved his substantial herbarium to Taganrog on the sea of Azov near the Black Sea. Taganrog had assumed importance as a port for foreign trade in the 1780 s; it was probably the port of entry of many herbarium specimens en route to Moscow and handled shipping to and from South America. In Taganrog, Turczaninov fell from a herbarium ladder and fractured his leg. He became a cripple dependent on crutches and, unable to fulfil his desire to travel and collect in South America, he devoted himself to herbarium studies. By this time his herbarium included the 3rd collection of James Drummond which had been sent from the Swan River Colony in August 1844 and Turczaninov was able to prepare his first paper describing many new Australian taxa.

In 1857, in recognition of his contribution to Russian botany, Turczaninov was awarded the prestigious Demidov prize of The Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg.

Nicolai Stepanovitch Turtchaninov amassed a large herbarium of plants from many parts of the world. He never left the USSR except for extensive journeys from Siberia into the Mongolian region collecting plant specimens which he added to his herbarium or used for exchange. Through exchange and purchase he acquired his large herbarium, including some Swan River Colony collections of James Drummond and John Gilbert as well as other Australian specimens. When Turczaninov retired he devoted much of his time to preparing and publishing descriptions of new species, many of them of plants of Australian origin.

In 1847 Turczaninov moved to Kharkov, accepting an offer to work in the university herbarium with his colleague Professor V. M. Czerniev. Turczaninov's extensive herbarium, which by then included many Drummond collections of Swan River plants, was also moved from Taganrog to Kharkov. It included significant numbers of South American and Indian plants as well as specimens from Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and south-eastern and eastern Asia.

The private herbarium continued to grow through exchange and purchase of advertised herbaria. His herbarium contained approximately 52,000 sheets when he transferred it to the Kharkov University in 1859.

The Turczaninov herbarium was appropriated by the invading Germans in the Second World War. The whole collection was to be transported from Kharkov to Berlin but the consignment was stalled in Posnan, Poland and later returned to the Ukraine. In 1946 the non-Siberian portion went to the Herbarium of the Kholodny Institute in Kiev. The Turczaninov herbarium now remaining in Kharkov contains only some of Turczaninov's Siberian specimens. The Turczaninov type specimens were selected from his herbarium, mounted, numbered 1-1059, and housed separately in the Kiev Herbarium (Myakushko, T.Y. et al. 1979. Gerbarna Kolektciya Typovykh Zrazkiv Novykh Vydiv M.S. Turchaninova. Ukrajins'k. Bot. Zhurn. 36: 85-90).

The Société Impériale des Naturalistes de Moscou met every four or five weeks, on a Saturday, with an annual summer break of four or five months from May to August or September. At each meeting there was usually an announcement of papers accepted or offered for publication. Because Turczaninov did not live near Moscow this was done by correspondence. Announcements of forthcoming publications were printed in the proceedings, the Séances (meetings), published in Bull. Soc. Imp. Naluralisles Moscou.

A publication of Turczaninov which poses no problem for dating was printed in 1852 in the St. Petersburg journal, Bull. Cl. Phys.-Maih. Acad. Imp. Sci. Saint-Pétersbourg 10: 322-346. The paper is titled "Myrtaceae xerocarpicae, in Nova Hollandia a cl. Drummond lectae et plurumque in collectione ejus quinta distributae, determinatae et descriptae". The publication date of this paper is easily confirmed because of the imprint "Emis" (issued), in this case 15 June, i.e. 27 June, 1852. The paper was subsequently reset and republished in M?langes Biol. Bull. Phys.-Math. Acad. Imp. Sci. Saint-Pétersbourg 1(4): 394-428, 20 August, i.e. 1 September, 1852. This paper is of special interest because it described 77 species of Western Australian Myrtaceae and it was not seen by Bentham before he completed Volume 3 of Flora australiensis containing the Myrtaceae, published in January 1867. The reason for this was probably due to poor postal communications between western Europe and Russia. Russia was involved in a war with Turkey from 1853, effectively cutting off the southern sea route to Russia, and Britain was involved in the Crimean War in 1854- 56.

Obviously there are advantages and limitations for taxonomists like Turczaninov who worked on very small samples of foreign floras. There is a greater chance of recording seemingly significant morphological discontinuities in small samples of specimens so that species or generic boundaries may appear substantial. This may partly explain why only a quarter of Turczaninov's 43 genera are currently recognized by Australian taxonomists and many of his 400 species were reduced by Bentham to synonymy. Nevertheless, Turczaninov was a competent taxonomist; he had limited access to literature and herbaria and he worked in an area far removed from the centres oftaxonomic research. Despite these disadvantages he made a substantial contribution to knowledge of the world flora. His published descriptions are generally detailed and clear, unlike the descriptions of many of his contemporaries.

It is likely that as taxonomic research on the Australian flora proceeds many Turczaninov taxa will be resurrected. To achieve taxonomically sound treatments of the taxa described by Turczaninov it is essential that a study be made of his collection of holotypes in Kiev.