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Karl Georg Theodor Kotschy and the Kotschy Oak

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of Theodor Kotschy’s death

Karl Georg Theodor Kotschy, born April 15, 1813 in Ustroń, a small town in what was then Austrian Silesia (today Southern Poland), was an Austrian botanist and eminent plant explorer. He died 150 years ago in Vienna on June 11, 1866, at the age of 53.

Theodor Kotschy (Wikipedia)

His father, the Protestant theologian and botanist Karl Friedrich Kotschy (1789-1856), was a well-known pomologist, who introduced a number of fruit cultivars to Silesia. 

Kotschy studied theology in Vienna from 1833 onwards, but soon became more interested in botany. He started taking botanical journeys to the eastern states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1834, to present-day Croatia and Romania; in the winter of 1835 he crossed Greece and descended to Cairo in Egypt, then back to Alexandria, from where he continued his journey in the company of geologist Joseph Russegger (1802-1863), to Syria and the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of present-day Turkey).  In 1837, the two men traveled on an adventurous trip to “Inner Africa” towards Nubia (southern Egypt) and the kingdom of Sennar in South Sudan on the Blue Nile. After separating from Russegger's expedition, he remained in Egypt, facing serious financial problems. Despite this, he continued to travel to Kurdufan (1839), Cyprus, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Kurdistan (1840-41) and during 1842-43 to Persia, where he made one of the first recorded climbs of Mount Demavend (5,604 m) in the Elburz Mountains.

In 1843, eight years after setting out on his journey, he returned to Vienna, starting his scientific botanical career at the Botanical Collections in Vienna, where he was appointed Assistant Curator in 1847 and Custos-Adjunct in 1852. From 1845 to 1850 he made regular autumn trips to the mountain regions in Central and Eastern Europe.

Illustration of Quercus macrolepis Kotschy from Die Eichen Europa's und des Orient's

With better financial backing, he again took up botanical investigations in Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon (1855); and also in Cyprus, Asia Minor, and Kurdistan (1859), and in 1862 back to Cyprus with Prof. Franz von Unger, and Syria. He travelled extensively in the Osman Empire, and reached the source of the Pyramos River (today  Ceyhan River) in Northern Kurdistan. In the Levant, a serious malaria infection forced him to slow down. On his return he was too weak to continue longer journeys, but used the time in Vienna to work on his collections and to publish many botanical, zoological, and ethnographical accounts.

Kotschy, who spoke fluent Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Greek, never gained the recognition he deserved in Austria. The University of Jena in Germany conferred on him a Doctoris Philosophiae Honoris Causa.

On his expeditions, Kotschy collected an immense amount of plants and herbarium material; a nearly unbelievable number of over 300,000 herbarium sheets are known in different European collections today (other sources count more than 600,000 plant exsiccatae). Many plants and animals bear his name, either as species epithet or as author name. The plant genus Kotschya from the family Fabaceae is named in his honor. His name is associated for example with a species of lizard, Kotschy’s gecko (Cyrtopodion kotschyi), and with the Cyprus bee orchid. His name is also used for a crocus species: Crocus kotschyanus, discovered by him in southeastern Turkey. Most interesting for us is an oak, of course: Q. kotschyana.

Die Eichen Europa‘s und des Orient‘s

Oaks were a prominent passion for Kotschy. He collected oaks on almost all his journeys. His expeditions to the “Orient” were summarized in the publication of Die Eichen Europa’s und des Orient’s (Oaks of Europe and the Orient), written between 1859 and 1862 and published in 1862 by Eduard Hölzers Verlag (Vienna and Olmütz).

This work, published in large Folio format with 40 colored chromolithographs, is one of the most beautiful illustrated books on oaks. The text (in German, French, and Latin), normally two full pages per taxon, is accompanied by one plate, which shows various parts of the plant in great detail. Kotschy gives very accurate descriptions of each plant and its determination, its local usage and vernacular names, and also indicates how it performs (or could do so) in Western cultivation. The plates, made using a special “oil-color printing” process were painted by the artist Carl Horegschj from Vienna after drawings from Oberer and J. Seboth, who had Kotschy’s herbarium material as models. Horegschj made a great number of illustrations and prints for many publications and was a famous illustrator of the time in Vienna. Today, the only way a quercophile might obtain an original copy of this wonderful work is on the rare occasions that it is offered at auctions. Prices range from 1,000 to 1,500 Euro, but again, you have to be very lucky to find it on the market.

Quercus look Kotschy in Die Eichen Europa's and des Orient's

The University of Vienna has recently published online high quality scans of the book, which can be viewed here.

Kotschy described 40 species of oaks in this work, some of them new to science. Today, some of the species names he used have sunk into synonymy, but they show the variability of certain oak taxa. Some of the illustrated oaks are rare instances of species that even today are not fully known, such as Q. look Kotschy from the borderland between Israel and Lebanon. Kotschy differentiated also the three taxa Q. vallonea Kotschy, Q. macrolepis Kotschy, and Q. ithaburensis Decne., which to this day are not clearly differentiated in terms of taxonomy and nomenclature (see Michael Avishai’s article "Vallonea or Aegilops Oaks, a Short Review").

Quercus kotschyana O. Schwarz

An oak which he collected on July 28, 1855 in the mountains of Lebanon, “In Libano ad Bscherre et circa Cedretum, in Danie supra Uadi Floa supra Eden, alt. 5000 ped. Die 28. Jul”, closely resembled the Q. pyrenaica we know today. But that taxon is restricted to the Western Mediterranean regions. Kotschy named the oak he found in the mountain regions of Lebanon first “336. Q. Tauzin Pers.”, and later Q. tozza β syriaca, a synonym which also had been used by Hooker in 1861—both Q. tauzin and Q. toza are synonyms of Q. pyrenaica Willd. In an account about his collecting trip in Lebanon (Kotschy 1864), he described the various difficulties he faced while in the region, not only with some of the native people but also the serious problems he had obtaining paper for the plant press.

Illustrations of Quercus kotschyana leaves from Otto Schwarz's Die Eichen Europas und des Mittelmeergebietes

At times he had to press several twigs in one layer of paper (one seems to observe this when looking closely at the Paris specimen—see below). He describes finding this oak on July 28, above the Cedar forest, growing together with another oak new to him, which he named “Quercus subalpina”. For our oak he uses the name “Q. Pseudo-Tozza”, again because it reminds him of Q. pyrenaica. Otto Schwarz, botanist in Berlin until 1942 (see Jablonski 2009) and familiar with the oaks of the Mediterranean region (he published in 1937 the account Die Eichen Europas und des Mittelmeergebietes [Oaks of Europe and the Mediterranean]) described in 1935 the taxon as Q. kotschyana Schwarz. He also described this new Q. kotschyana as being close to the Western Q. pyrenaica Willd., and also similar to the Turkish endemic oak Q. vulcanica Boiss. & Heldr.; in his classification of oaks, Schwarz (1936) established the Series Confertae (in Section Dascia) with the four taxa Q. frainetto Ten., Q. vulcanica, Q. pyrenaica, and Q. kotschyana. This also indicates the close relationship of the four species.

Q. kotschyana is still an accepted species, listed in the Red List of Oaks (Eastwood and Oldfield 2007). Govaerts and Frodin (1998) accept it as a species, saying that it may well be a possible hybrid of Q. cerris × Q. pubescens (which it is certainly not). Interestingly Menitzky (1984), who wrote the most complete account on Asian Oak taxa, does not mention this taxon, despite its West Asian distribution.

Holotype of Quercus kotschyana in the herbarium  of the Swedish Museum of Natural History 

The type specimen of Q. kotschyana Schwarz (holotype) is located in the herbarium of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, No. S-G-5164. Syntypes are placed in Paris and Vienna (the latter one verified by our colleague Michael Avishai already in 1968). Interestingly, the Paris specimen was also earlier determined as Q. sessiliflora var. pinnatifida Boiss. (= Q. petraea subsp. iberica) and later as the hybrid Q. lanuginosa × Q. cerris var. pseudocerris (= Q. pubescens × Q. cerris), both by anonymous revisers. The latter remark may have led to the notice in Govaerts and Frodin (1998).

According to Kotschy, the oak is quite rare in the mountains of Lebanon; also Schwarz’s comment “ut videtur rarissima” (“it seems to be very rare”) suggest its rarity, and he writes further about the mainly deforested mountains in that part of Lebanon, which may be the reason for this. Despite its narrow geographical distribution, Schwarz thinks that this taxon could possibly be found in parts of Armenia, as samples collected by Jaroschenko (1935) seem to belong to the same taxon.

It would be interesting to learn about the situation of this still incompletely known taxon in Lebanon and perhaps its adjacent areas, and to collect living material.

Quercus kotschyana syntype at Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Selected publications of Theodor Kotschy

1843: Abbildungen und Beschreibungen neuer und seltener Thiere und Pflanzen, in Syrien und im westlichen Taurus gesammelt (Illustrations and descriptions of new and rare animals and plants, in Syria and western Taurus)

1854: Analecta botanica — with Heinrich Wilhelm Schott (1794-1865) and Carl Fredrik Nyman (1820-1893)

1855: Coniferen des Cilicischen Taurus (Conifers of Cilician Taurus) — with Franz Antoine (1815-1886)

1859-1862: Die Eichen Europa’s und des Orient’s (Oaks of Europe and the Orient)

1865: Die Insel Cypern, ihrer Physischen und Organischen Natur nach mit Rücksicht auf ihre frühere Geschichte (The island of Cyprus) — with Franz Unger (1800-1870)

1867: Plantae Tinneanae — with Johann Joseph Peyritsch (1835-1889)

Quercus kotschyana syntype at Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Anonymous. 1969. Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815–1950 (ÖBL). Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 4: 160.

Eastwood, A. and S. Oldfield. 2007: Red List of Oaks. Fauna and Flora International. Cambridge.

Fenzl, E. 1867. Theodor Kotschy, eine Lebensskizze, Almanach der k. k. Akademie d. W. zu Wien, in:  Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB, 1882), Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 16: 763.

Govaerts, R. and D.G. Frodin. 1998. World checklist and Bibliography of Fagales. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Hooker, J. D. 1861. On three oaks of Palestine. Transactions of the Linnean Society XXIII: 381-387.

Jablonski, E. 2012. Quercus robur L. subsp. estremadurensis (O. Schwarz) A. Camus ‘Andenken an Prof. Otto Schwarz’ (Quercus robur L. ‘Andenken an Prof. Otto Schwarz’), in: New and Recently Described Oak Cultivars. International Oaks No. 24, Proceedings 7th International Oak Society Conference Bordeaux: 169-171.

Jaroschenko, G. 1935. Die Eichenarten Armeniens [Oaks of Armenia]. Bot. Arch 37 (4): 481-495.

Kotschy, T. 1862. Die Eichen Europa‘s und des Orient‘s. E. Hölzel, Wien und Olmütz.

Kotschy, T. 1864. Der Libanon und seine Alpenflora. – Verh. der Zoolog.-Bot. Ges.Wien. XIV: 733-768.

Menitsky, J. L.  1984. Dubi Asii (Oaks of Asia). Akademia Nauk SSSR, Botanickii Institut im. V.L. Komaarov. Nauka, Leningrad.

Schwarz, O. 1935. Einige neue Eichen des Mediterrangebietes und Vorderasiens. Notizbl. Bot. Gart. u. Mus. Berlin-Dahlem XII (115): 461-466.

Schwarz, O. 1936. Entwurf zu einem natürlichen System der Cupuliferen und der Gattung Quercus L. Notizbl. Bot. Gart. u. Mus. Berlin-Dahlem XIII (116): 1-22.

Schwarz, O. 1936-1937. Monographie der Eichen Europas und des Mittelmeergebietes, Textband u. Atlas der Blattformen, Rep. spec. nov. reg. veg., Sonderbeiheft D. Dahlem bei Berlin, Selbstverlag. 200 pp. 64 pls.