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James Bowie

James Bowie was a gardener, botanist and plant collector active in the early-19th century. He was born in London, England around 1789, the son of an Oxford Street seed merchant, and by 1810 had joined the staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He worked as a gardener at Kew for four years.

In 1814 Bowie was asked by Sir Joseph Banks to collect plants and seeds for Kew and was sent, together with his colleague, Allan Cunningham, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Two years later Bowie was ordered the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where he arrived from Brazil in November 1816.

In 1823, however, Bowie was recalled home and dismissed. This was partly due to governmental cut backs to Kew's budget a year earlier, but may also have been influenced by Bowie's habit of purposefully providing insufficient and false or misleading location details for plants.

Bowie later returned to South Africa, to the Cape of Good Hope, in April 1827 having decided to permanently settle there. Two years later he wrote the earliest guide to the Cape flora printed in South Africa (1829).

By this stage Bowie's botanical knowledge was close to legendary. He soon began to advise on gardens, notably Baron Ludwig's botanical collection, and to again hunt for plants. The genera Bowiea and Bowiesia were named after him. During the latter part of his life he was engaged as a gardener by Ralph H. Arderne at his gardens at Claremont, Cape Colony, outside Cape Town.

James Bowie died in poverty at Claremont, Cape Colony on 2 July 1869 and was buried at Cape Town. Specimens he collected are held at the British Museum, London (Natural History) and at Kew. Drawings of plants he sent to England are in the Kew collection.


Drayton, Richard, ‘Bowie, James (c.1789–1869)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) <> [accessed 7 January 2008]

National Archives, National Register of Archives, Person Details, 'Bowie, James (1789-1869) Botanist, GB/NNAF/P160333', < > [accessed 7 January 2008]

Robinson, A. M. L., 'James Bowie, Botanical Collector, Reports to Sir Joseph Banks', Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 20 (1965), pp. 48-55; 20 (1966), pp. 89-93.

Smith, Gideon F. and A. E. van Wyk, 'Biographical Notes on James Bowie and the Discovery of Aloe bowiea Schult. & J. H. Schult. (Alooideae: Asphodelaceae)',Taxon, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Nov., 1989), pp. 557-568. < > [accessed 7 January 2008]