Wilson Popenoe and Honduras

Wilson Popenoe and Honduras
Dr. Wilson Popenoe. Photo courtesy of El Zamorano

Wilson Popenoe was an American Botanist and Agricultural scientist. He was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1892, and by 1913 he was already living in Central America. He came to the region as an agent for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dr. Popenoe loved the area so much, that he stayed in Central America for the rest of his life.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Wilson Popenoe and Honduras

By 1925, he was working for Samuel Zemuray, the founder of the United Fruit Company. Zemuray controlled the Tela Railroad Company in Honduras. This company was one of the two very successful fruit companies that developed the north coast of Honduras. Zemuray´s work was basically centered within the Honduras departments of Atlantida and Cortes. A long-standing relationship between Wilson Popenoe and Honduras came to be when Zemuray hired him to oversee the Lancetilla Botanical Garden. This experimental botanical garden is still open to this day. You can visit it just outside of Tela.

The Lancetilla Experimental Station in Tela

Lancetilla Botanical Gardens
Exploring Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela, Photo Jafeth Zablah

At Lancetilla, Dr. Popenoe was given carte blanche to experiment with fruits that could be of interest to the Tela Railroad Company. As such, he imported many exotic species to Honduras to see which could adapt to the local climate. There is no doubt that he had a profound impact on the modern agricultural activity in Honduras. Among the most successful imports are the African Palm, Rambutan and Mangosteen. Of these three, the African Palm has become a big cash crop in Honduras. It has also raised many environmental concerns as its success is replacing tropical rain forests with palm plantations.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Wilson Popenoe and Honduras
Ackee fruit

Dr. Popenoe lost his first wife in Lancetilla. Dorothy was also a great botanist met Wilson Popenoe while working for the United States National Herbarium. She and Wilson had 5 children who would follow them to Honduras to the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela. In addition to being a distinguished botanist, Dorothy was also an archaeologist, and conducted several excavations within Honduras, including Cerro Palenque, near San Pedro Sula. Apparently, Dorothy ate an ackee fruit that was not yet ripe and poisoned herself to death.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

The ackee fruit was one of many different fruits that were imported to Lancetilla for scientific purposes. It is originally from Western Africa and can be very toxic if you eat it before it is ripe. Ackee reputedly tastes like cheddar cheese and has become very popular in Jamaica.

The Escuela Agricola Panamericana in El Zamorano

Wilson Popenoe and Honduras
Escuela Agricola Panamericana El Zamorano. Photo Peter A Hughes

In 1941, Samuel Zemuray and his daughter, Doris, were ready to open an agricultural school in Honduras. They had decided on a plot of land east of Tegucigalpa, in the Department of El Paraiso. They decided that Dr. Wilson Popenoe was the ideal person to lead this new project. As such, Dr. Popenoe became the first director of the Escuela Nacional Panamericana, AKA El Zamorano. Over the years, this agricultural school has become one of the top three agricultural universities in Latin America! To this day, the USAID program continues to support this magnificent learning center.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Wilson Popenoe and Guatemala

One of the pet project that Wilson and Dorothy had was to restore an old house in Antigua Guatemala. They purchased the property, and under the direction of Dorothy, who was a serious archaeologist, brought it back to its original glory. When Dr. Popenoe retired from El Zamorano in 1957, he moved his residence to Antigua Guatemala. There he lived in his home until he passed away in 1975 at the ripe age of 83.

Wilson Popenoe and Honduras
Gardens at Casa Popenoe in Antigua Guatemala

If you are in Honduras and have an interest in Dr. Popenoe and his legacy in Honduras, visit the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens. If you are in or around Tegucigalpa, you should visit the Escuela Nacional Panamericana, El Zamorano which is only 25 km outside of Tegucigalpa. They have a lovely campus. If you are Guatemala, you can visit the Casa Popenoe, which is the home where Dr. Wilson Popenoe lived in until his death. To visit Casa Popenoe, you must schedule a tour with a guide. Entrance fees are 80 quetzals per person. To arrange for the tour, please write to casapopenoe@ufm.edu or call (+502) 2413-3258.