The Mora tree of Guiana

This month's Treasure is an intriguing watercolour of a Mora tree, submitted with a paper read at a meeting of the Society in 1838, yet never published.

Published on 3rd May 2024

Included in the Domestic Archives recently catalogued at the Linnean Society are manuscripts that were submitted to be read at meetings of the Society: a collection entitled Society Papers (SP). Having had its reading at a meeting, each paper would be commented upon by the Fellows in attendance, and, if deemed worthy, would thereafter be published in the Society’s journals; in the early nineteenth century, chosen papers would be published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of London.

Often, such papers would be accompanied by specimens and illustrations. While the specimens have generally disappeared – many of them sold at auction in 1863 – the illustrations have stayed with us.

Schomburgk's Mora tree

Our treasure of the month, the striking watercolour of the Mora tree – which features on the poster of our current exhibition ‘Lovely as a tree’ – is one such illustration. Together with specimens of the tree itself, the watercolour accompanied a paper by Robert Schomburgk entitled ‘Description of the Mora Tree’, which was read at a meeting of the Society on 20 March 1838 (DA/ENG/2/SP/999) and was later published in the Transactions(1839).

SP999 Schomburgk
Schomburgk's paper in 1839 Transactions

Schomburgk's paper as manuscript (left, 1838) and printed in the Transactions of the Linnean Society (above, 1839)

Wikimedia Commons

Born in Germany, Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804–1865) carried out geographical, ethnographical, and botanical studies in South America and the West Indies for the Royal Geographical Society. From 1835 to 1839, one such mission was to British Guiana, where he encountered the giant Victoria Regia water lily and many new species of orchids, one genus of which was named for him: the Schomburgkia.

In his paper, Schomburgk described having been ‘astonished’ by the ‘profuse verdure and gigantic size’ of this ‘majestic Mora, the king of the forest’. In true explorer fashion, Schomburgk recalls seeing a truly magnificent specimen of the tree, but at the time ‘circumstances did not permit me to give it more than a cursory glance […] being then in pursuit of a flock of wild hogs.’ Determined to look at this remarkable tree again, Schomburgk found it on his way back down the river Berbice in February 1837, and was able to measure it, and probably to paint it. It is indeed likely that it is this very tree on the bank of the Berbice that was drawn by Schomburgk, although neither the manuscript nor the printed paper makes that clear. In his description, Schomburgk is especially struck by the tree's buttress roots, and the way the internal decay creates a ‘cavern’ under which several persons could shelter from inclement weather: ‘The tree was not so remarkable for its height, but the tabular buttresses were of an uncommon size, and so completely decayed in the centre as to represent a wooden cavern, upwards of sixteen feet high, which could have afforded room for 15 persons, without exposing them to the influence of the weather’.

Mora tree indigenous people

Indeed, what makes the drawing particularly striking and evocative is the presence of several indigenous people (five men, one woman and a child) living at the base of the tree, with baskets, hammocks and a fire. Nowhere in the paper is it mentioned that Schomburgk ever witnessed indigenous people using the tree as a shelter, so we are left to wonder at the inclusion of these individuals in the drawing. Did Schomburgk see indigenous people living in such a tree? Are they simply there for scale? Or were they introduced to add a dash of exoticism to the painting?

In any case, Schomburgk’s striking watercolour was not included in the published version of his paper. Schomburgk had sent his manuscript to the botanist George Bentham (1800-1884), whose formal botanical description and binomial name (Mora excelsa) were published alongside Schomburgk’s description. Bentham also commissioned two illustrations to be made from the specimens brought back by Schomburgk. These pencil-and-wash botanical drawings were undertaken by Sarah Ann Drake (1803-1857), a prolific botanical artist who worked for many of the prominent botanists of the time. It is her botanical drawings that were published with the paper – giving prominence to the botanical and taxonomic information over Schomburgk’s overall view of the tree.

Drake, Mora excelsa, 1839

One of Drake’s drawings (left) currently features alongside the watercolour in our exhibition in the Library, ‘Lovely as a Tree’, which explores the uses and representations of trees throughout our collections. While Schomburgk’s paper and the illustrations that were chosen for its publication reveal the Society’s focus on taxonomy in the early nineteenth century, it also shows the economic objectives that underpinned British colonial exploration – something that the exhibition also explores in a showcase dedicated to exploitation of trees. Indeed, while Schomburgk is clearly awed by the majestic Mora tree, he also devotes two paragraphs to the ways in which ‘the Mora, of all other trees of the forests of Guiana, is peculiarly adapted for naval architecture’, adding that ‘it is to be found in such abundance, that if once introduced for building material in to the dock-yards, there can never be any apprehension that there would be a want of that timber which could not be supplied.’

Nato wood, the wood from Mora trees, is indeed an excellent candidate for heavy construction due to its resistance to wear, its strength, and its durability. Fortunately, the Mora did not suffer the same fate as the giant sequoias, another imposing species that features in the exhibition. Perhaps the loveliest use to which nato wood is put today is for music-making – owing to its likeness to mahogany, it a favourite wood for many guitar manufacturers.

Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections


R. H. Schomburgk, 'Description of the Mora Tree', 1838, DA/ENG/2/SP/999

R. H. Schomburgk and G. Bentham, Description of the Mora Tree, Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, Volume 18, Issue 2, May 1839, Pages 207–211.

L. Parker, 'The Stunning Work of Miss Drake', L:50 Objects, Stories & Discoveriesfrom the Linnean Society, 2020, pp. 82-83.

Lovely as a tree poster

The exhibition 'Lovely as a tree' is in the Library of the Linnean Society, and open Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm.

Ends Friday 28 June 2024.