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Happy Birthday Aleksander Tamsalu!

April 26, 2021

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

Wednesday 28 April 2021 is the 130th birthday of Aleksander Tamsalu, Royal Botanical Gardens’ first field botanist.

Tamsalu was born in Estonia in 1891 and led a turbulent life. He eventually arrived at Royal Botanical Gardens in 1955, where he worked the last five years of his life. His story is part academic intrigue, part spy thriller, and part the heartbreak of war and conflict on a massive scale.

Photo of Aleksander Tamsalu on the cover of the biography. He has dark, round rimmed glasses and is smoking a long pipe
A Botanist in Exile, Written by John B. Lord

We are fortunate to have a detailed biography of Tamsalu, “A Botanist in Exile,” written by former RBG staff member Jack Lord, based on interviews with many who knew him and on original documents, published by RBG in 1980.

Growing up on a farm Tamsalu became fascinated with plants and nature, and left home to study to become a teacher. He eventually studied under the renowned Russian botanist and agronomist Nikolai Vavilov in Petersburg, Russia. Following many adventures in Estonia, Tamsalu and his family were displaced by the Second World War. His wife and one son died during the war, and Tamsalu and his daughter Ainu emigrated to Canada afterward.

Although he was initially hired by RBG as a garden labourer he soon proved his incredible botanical knowledge and work ethic, and was reassigned by RBG’s director Leslie Laking. In the five years he was at RBG, he collected over 9,800 herbarium specimens and completed the first survey of plant communities across our nature sanctuaries.

He didn’t confine himself to RBG either, roaming various large natural areas in Ontario collecting plants and making notes for his own theory of forest plant succession. He had worked incredibly hard in his later years, fell ill in 1958, and passed away early in 1960. His herbarium and botanical observations are still the core of our understanding of the wild plants at RBG.

Today Nadia Cavallin, RBG’s Field Botanist and Herbarium Curator, sums up Tamsalu’s contributions this way:

“Tamsalu’s specimens are the earliest verifiable records of what plants grew on RBG’s natural lands. We now refer to them to learn how plant diversity has changed at RBG, like which species we’ve lost, which species have arrived since the 1950’s and how their distribution and abundance have changed. Knowing exactly which species were here in the past helps us know what to replant in our restoration areas.”

A PDF copy of John B. Lord’s book titled, “A Botanist in Exile” is available for further reading.

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