Andreas Schimper and Plant Adaptation to the Environment

Agriculture and commercial forestry have transformed the landscape over almost the whole of Europe. There are few areas of true wilderness remaining, and in an ecological sense the plant communities are not those that would have developed without human interference. Consequently, it is not easy to observe the way plants have adapted naturally to the climate. The German botanist and phytogeographer Andreas Schimper (1856–1901) pointed this out in 1898 in his book Pflanzengeographie auf Physiologischer Grundlage, published in English in 1903 with the title Plant Geography on a Physiological Basis, as the following excerpt from the English edition demonstrates.

The greater prominence of physiology in geographical botany dates from the time when physiologists, who formerly worked in European laboratories only, began to study the vegetation of foreign countries in its native land. Europe, with its temperate climate and its vegetation greatly modified by cultivation, is less calculated to stimulate such observations; in moist tropical forests, in the Sahara, and in the tundras, the close connexion between the character of the vegetation and the conditions of extreme climates is revealed by the most evident adaptations.

It was Schimper, in Plant Geography on a Physiological Basis, who first used the term tropical rain forest to describe one type of vegetation that is adapted to a warm, humid climate. He defined tropical rain forest as being: “evergreen, hygrophilous in character, at least thirty meters high, rich in thick-stemmed lianes, and in woody as well as herbaceous epiphytes.” It is the definition that remains in use today. Lianes or lianas, are free-hanging climbing plants. Hygrophilous means growing in or preferring moist habitats.

Andreas Franz Wilhelm Schimper was born in Strasbourg, France, on May 12, 1856, where his father, Wilhelm Philipp Schimper (1808–80), was director of the natural history museum and a professor of geology. Andreas was educated at the Strasbourg Gymnasium (high school) from 1864 to 1874, when he enrolled at the University of Strasbourg to study biology. He received his Ph.D. at Strasbourg in 1878 and spent a year, 1879–80, at the University of Wurzburg, working with the botanist Julius von Sachs (1832–97), who had studied the process by which plants orient themselves toward light. Schimper was a fellow at Johns Hopkins University from 1880 to 1882 and visited the West Indies and Venezuela before returning to Europe in 1883 to take up a post as lecturer at the University of Bonn.

While he was at Bonn, Schimper published the results of his physiological researches. He was the first person to describe chloroplasts—the bodies within plant cells that contain chlorophyll and that are the sites of photosynthesis. Schimper called them Chlorophyllkorner (chlorophyll grains) and Chlorophyllkorper (chlorophyll bodies). He then changed direction, concentrating on phytogeography and plant ecology. In 1886 the University of Bonn made Schimper an extraordinary professor (a professor who does not occupy a chair). He remained at Bonn until 1899, when he became professor of botany at the University of Basel, Switzerland, a position he held until his death in Basel on September 9, 1901.