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Manual de Plantas de Costa Rica

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The Cutting Edge

Volume XVI, Number 2, April 2009

News and Notes | Germane Literature | Season's Pick

AUSTIN PAUL SMITH (1881–1948).  Both Manual offices have been gripped by full-blown Smithmania since the publication of the latest Austrian magnum opus (see Weissenhofer et al. entry under “Germane Literature”), with tantalizing new information on the well known (to regional botanists) yet highly mysterious plant collector Austin Smith, about whom almost nothing has been known.  A cult is brewing.  Shortly after absorbing the Austrian data, we became privy to an intense round of e-mail correspondence initiated by one Horace R. Burke, an emeritus professor of Entomology(!) at Texas A & M University.  Burke, for some reason not entirely clear to us, has been pursuing the holy Smith grail for some time on his own, and had succeeded in discovering numerous intriguing details, including the following:  Smith was born in Ohio in 1881, and first appeared on the biological radar as a bird collector, in southern Texas, in 1904.  He married Sadie Witt, barely 16 at the time, in 1918, and she accompanied him in 1919 to Guatemala, then to Costa Rica in 1920; however, she returned to the United States just a year later, and the couple was divorced shortly thereafter.  Smith remained unmarried for the rest of his life (but not for lack of trying, as we shall see).  Spurred on by Burke’s inquiry, we renewed conversations with longtime INBio Entomology curator Ángel Solís, who is from Zarcero and whose mother (as we have known for some time) actually knew Smith personally.  From those conversations emerged the picture of a lonely and socially awkward, yet decent man, who courted several local Zarcero belles (including Ángel’s aunt) without conspicuous success.  He never learned Spanish, so attempted to communicate in a barely intelligible “Spanglish” dialect of his own concoction.  For right or for wrong, some residents of the area associated Smith’s tenure with the disappearance of certain bird spp., such as the scarlet macaw.  Finally, at some point, he left Zarcero, destitute and defeated, but after that the trail dried up, the circumstances and even the country of his demise having been entirely unknown.  Until now!  Caught up in the fervor, Costa Rican entomologist and established biographer Luko Hilje [see The Cutting Edge 15(3): 6, Jul. 2008] took the bull by the horns and marched directly to the Costa Rica Registro Civil, where he scored a copy of Smith’s death certificate, in hand as this is being written.  And now, the rest of the story can be told:  Smith passed away in San José at 7:00 AM on 31 October, 1948 (not 1956, as reported in the Austrians’ book), at 67 years of age.  Sadly, he died in a hospital for the mentally ill, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.  The cause of death:  pellagra, a niacin deficiency that may cause mental aberrations.  It seems that Smith had a sister in Ohio, named Maybelle, who was aware of his plight and corresponded (apparently to no avail) with the United States Embassy in Costa Rica concerning his hospital care (this information again from Burke).  Our appetite for Smith trivia being now quite insatiable, we eagerly await the publication of Dr. Burke’s findings, which will undoubtedly reveal very much more.  And after that?  A. R. Endres calls!

ROCK FEVER.  The Piedra del Convento (that is how the name appears on herbarium labels) has long been known to us as a classic collecting locale of Henri Pittier and Adolphe Tonduz.  From their writings, we knew the approximate location of this rock:  near where their route along the eastern edge of the Valle de El General crossed the Río Convento, at an elevation of about 850 m.  However, the hallowed Piedra appears on no recent maps, and its exact location has remained a mystery, even as to province (the Río Convento forming the boundary between Prov. San José and Prov. Puntarenas).  But a recent resurgence of interest in this historic landmark, beginning in 2004, has led to the rediscovery of the Piedra, attended by a flurry of publicity resulting in its official declaration as Patrimonio Nacional.  The following article appeared in the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion on 5 April, 2007:


Here we learn definitively that the rock is located in the Cantón de Buenos Aires, Prov. Puntarenas.  Moreover, we see that the rock is not only hallowed, it is hollowed as well!  We had envisioned a prominent spire or dome, visible for miles around, but this Piedra is rather more of a mushroom, hunkered down in the undergrowth.  Because its considerable overhang provided shelter for weary travelers, the rock was valued as a “dormida,” or campsite, rather than a lookout or guidepost.  See even more pictures of the rock, and rock aficionados, at the following site:


We owe our belated awareness of these events to independent investigations by Manual correspondent Mario Blanco (FLAS), who has calculated the approximate position of the Piedra as 9°17’N, 83°29’W (or very near “Hda. Sonador,” on the Buenos Aires quadrangle).

EL GRAN SABIO TONDUZ.  Check out the interesting article on Adolphe Tonduz by former INB curator Gregorio Dauphin, which appeared in the 8 March issue of the Costa Rican daily La Nación:


Gregorio’s article is informed by voluminous correspondence preserved in the archives of the Costa Rican Museo Nacional.

ON THE ROAD YET AGAIN.  Manual co-PI Nelson Zamora spent much of the month of March in Edinburgh, Scotland, working with Toby Pennington (E) to finish off their joint revision of Dussia (Fabaceae/Faboideae), in the works for about 10 years now.


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