Oh, Hello Tree

Spring is in the air here in the Mid Atlantic, flowers are in full bloom, and trees are getting their leaves. The 1800s have been called the golden age of data visualization and during this time, statistical and thematic maps came into their own. Alexander von Humboldt’s Geography of Plants, documenting his exploration of Mount Chimborazo, gave rise to various depictions of plants and climatic data on maps. Meyer’s Umrisse der Pflanzengeographie, translating to something like Survey of Plant Geography, is just one of those thematic maps showing a tremendous amount of data on the distribution of plants.

Photo of Meyer's Plant Geography, c1850. Map showing the distribution of plant life across the planet along with distribution across altitudes of various mountains.
Meyer’s Plant Geography, c1850. Map showing the distribution of plant life across the planet along with distribution across altitudes of various mountains. (Photo: own work)

About 1850 Meyer set out to publish his hand atlas containing a cache of physical and thematic maps. Umrisse der Pflanzengeographie appears to be a copy of a piece from another atlas rather than an original work. OK at the time, many cartographers duplicated the works of others, often buying plates. In this case, Umrisse der Pflanzengeographie was first published by Berghaus sometime about 1840.

Mercator Projection
The Mercator projection in the lower center of the map is color coded according to the climate. This follows the isothermal line style map which Humboldt developed, where lines are drawn to show bands of common temperature (or more generally climate). This map shows an idea that’s a precursor to the modern concept of biomes. Biomes are areas of similar types of life and climate, but are not as specific as the groupings in this map.

That this map shows proto biomes is significant. The mid 1800s were the early days of modern biology. Darwin was making his observations of finches which would underpin On the Origin of Species and Gregor Mendel was studying genetics in pea plants. So it fits that this map describes the beginnings of ecology.


The mountain figures at the top show the distribution of plants on mountain faces across both altitude and latitude. They show latitude, altitude (in toisen, an obsolete unit of measure akin to a fathom), prominent cities, and plant distribution. The tallest mountain shown is Dhaulagiri (Everest would not be surveyed until 1856) at 4390 toisen, the highest peak above sea level. Mount Chimborazo also makes a claim as the highest peak when measured from the center of the earth. As the map shows, Chimborazo is clearly equatorial; since Earth is slightly squished at the poles, bulging at the equator, it gets the little boost it needs to edge out Dhaulagiri.

This set of figures bears a resemblance to a comparative view but is not one because the mountains are neither shown in height order nor are they on a continuous landscape.

Want to learn more about comparative maps? Check out my free ebook!

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

2 thoughts on “Oh, Hello Tree

  1. Interesting to tie the app in to the since timid thought of its contemporaries.

    I am also thinking I could start the dullest tumblr ever, and every entry would be an obsolete measure of length. Never heard of a toilet before.


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