Selmar Schonland was educated at the University of Berlin and the Christian-Albrecht University, Kiel. He obtained his doctoral degree (PhD) in botany at the latter institution in 1883 with a thesis entitled Ueber die Entwicklung der Bl├â┬╝ten und Frucht bei den Platanen (On the development of the flowers and fruit of plane-trees). The thesis was published that same year. The next year he qualified as a high school teacher and for a year taught at the College of Science at Aschersleben, not far from his birth place, before taking a museum post at the Agricultural College, Berlin. In 1886 he went to Oxford as a curator in the Fielding Herbarium. He also taught and studied botany at the University of Oxford and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts (MA) degree in 1888. In 1886 he introduced and published the technique of wax embedding and serial cutting with the microtome into botanical research. During 1888-1891 he contributed descriptions of six plant families to Die Nat├â┬╝rlichen Pflanzenfamilien, by H.G.A. Engler* (under whom he studied at Kiel) and K. Prantl. One of these families was the Crassulaceae, which remained one of his long-term interests. Also during this period he published several more papers and collaborated with Professor E.B. Poulton* and Sir A.E. Shipley* on the translation from the German of Essays upon heredity by A. Weismann.
Schonland arrived in Grahamstown in July 1889 to take up an appointment as curator (later director) of the Albany Museum, having already established himself as a biologist. He held this post until 1910, developing the museum, and particularly its herbarium, into a leading scientific institution. Particularly during the latter part of his career he published a number of important botanical papers in local and overseas journals, for example, "A study of some facts and theories bearing upon the question of the origin of the angiospermous flora of South Africa" (Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society, 1907). He collected, described and re-classified some of the difficult plant groups of the Eastern Cape, such as the Cyperaceae (sedges) and the genus Rhus, and participated actively in the Botanical Survey of South Africa, initiated by I.B. Pole Evans* in 1917. He served as a foundation member of the committee of the Botanical Survey and wrote three of its early Memoirs: The phanerogamic flora of the divisions of Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth (No. 1, 1919), Introduction to South African Cyperaceae (No. 3, 1922), and South African botanical literature (No. 4, 1922). His interest in the Crassulaceae led to an intensive study of particularly the genera Crassula and Cotyledon, of which he described many new species from 1897 onwards. "The most striking example of [his] persistence in a task involving much labour and bristling with difficulties was his faithful adherence throughout his professional career to the Crassulaceae" (Bolus, 1940, p. 199). This work culminated in two important papers: "The South African species of Cotyledon" in the Records of the Albany Museum (1915), and an extensive paper on the South African species of the genus Crassula, "Materials for a critical revision of Crassulaceae", in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (1929). After his retirement he also published an important and richly illustrated monograph on "The South African species of Rhus L." in Bothalia (1930). Many of his papers were read before, and published by, the South African Pilosophical Society, the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society of South Africa. Some twenty more were published in the Records of the Albany Museum between 1903 and 1919. These included a review of the genus Aloe (1903) and descriptions of ten new species of this genus, as well as a "Biography of the late Mrs F.W. Barber" [i.e., Mary Elizabeth Barber*] in 1904.
In addition to his contributions to systematic botany Schonland attended to a variety of practical problems for the farming community and others. For example, in 1891 he and Edwin Tidmarsh* conducted experiments on the breeding of the ladybird Rodolia iceryiae that preys on the Australian bug; in 1894 he reported to the government on the development of fisheries at Port Alfred; in 1900 he investigated a pineapple disease in Lower Albany for the Department of Agriculture; in 1908-1909 he advised farmers on the vine pest Plasmopara; during 1923-1926 he carried out experiments for the Department of Agriculture on the reclamation of overgrazed pastures near Keiskama Hoek (published in Science Bulletin, 1927); and he pointed out the dangers of overgrazing and the spread of exotic plants such as the prickly pear and jointed cactus. The latter plant was dealt with in "The jointed cactus", in the Journal of the Department of Agriculture (1924).
Outside botany Schonland's scientific interests related mainly to archaeology and ethnology. His paper "On some human skulls in the collection of the Albany Museum" (Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society, 1894) contained an account of skeletal material and food remains found in kitchen middens at the mouth of the Swartkops River by J.M. Leslie*. In a later paper, "Hottentot and Bushman pottery" (Records of the Albany Museum, 1903) he described artefacts and shell species from middens near Port Alfred and pottery form several other coastal sites. Other papers dealt with the collection of stone and bone artefacts in the Albany Museum (1903, 1907), and with biological and ethnological observations during a journey to the Kalahari (1904). A wider interest in natural history is shown by his donation of a number of scorpions and other land invertabrates from Grahamstown to the South African Museum in 1897, and by some articles he published in Nature on "The zebra stripes" (1892), "Snake cannibalism" (1894-1895), and "Plant-animal symbiosis" (1895).
Schonland's other academic activities included serving as a member of the council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope from 1909 to 1918, and as one of its examiners in chemistry and botany from 1891 to 1916; teaching natural science at St Andrew's College, Grahamstown, in 1897; giving talks to farmers and other groups; writing to the newspapers condemning the wide-spread killing of small birds; and urging a more scientific approach to vermin control by farmers. From 1893 he participated actively in efforts to establish a university in Grahamstown. These efforts culminated in the creation of Rhodes University College in 1904. Schonland was appointed as its first professor of botany - a post he held from January 1905 to 1925 - and served on its first council. The main focus of his botanical teaching was the systematics of the entire plant kingdom and he developed the department into an established centre of taxonomic research. In 1910 he resigned as director of the Albany Museum, but remained curator of its herbarium until 1926. During the 37 years he was in charge he developed the herbarium from a collection of less than 1000 specimens to some 62 000 specimens of South African flowering plans, all fully classified and identified. His herbarium work brought him into close association with the government botanist Peter MacOwan* and on 18 April 1895 he married the latter's daughter, Flora Day (1869-1953), with whom he had three sons
Schonland belonged to a number of local and overseas scientific societies and played an active role in several of them. In November 1890 he proposed the formation of the Albany Natural History Society (an earlier society with that name had existed during 1867-1875) and was elected its secretary and treasurer. During the next two years he presented severeal papers to members, including "On protective coloration in some South African animals", "On the fertilisation of some South African plants", and "The orchids of Grahamstown". In 1892, when this society became the natural history section of the Eastern Province Literary and Scientific Society (founded earlier that year with Schonland's support), he became secretary and treasurer of that section and served on the editorial committee of the society's journal, the E.P. Magazine. He read papers before the society on subjects such as "Plant life in South Africa during past geological ages" (1892) and "Art amongst the natives of South Africa" (1894), and presented a series of lectures on botany for its educational section (1893-1894). In 1897 he was a member of the committee of the Grahamstown and Albany Horticultural Society. At that time he had already been elected an honorary member of the Geological Society of South Africa and in 1904 became joint vice-president of the newly founded South African Ornithologists' Union. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1890, became a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London in 1897, and joined the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1905. In 1890 he became a member of the South African Philosophical Society. When this society became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908 he was elected a Fellow of the latter and served on its council for 1916-1917 and 1923. In 1902 he became a foundation member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, represented Grahamstown on its first council, and in 1908 served as president of its Section D, which included botany. In 1916/7 he became a foundation member of the SA Biological Society.
After his retirement in 1925 Schonland remained at Rhodes in a temporary capacity until June 1926. The next year he settled on his farm Aylesby, near Grahamstown, and for the next seven years served as a member of the Albany Divisional Council. He was a botanist of international repute and one of the first formally trained botanists to work in South Africa for an extended period. Plant specimens collected by him are housed in the herbaria of the Albany Museum and the National Botanical Institute in Pretoria and Cape Town. He is commemorated in the Selmar Schonland Herbarium of Rhodes University, in the plant genus Schoenlandia (by H.M.L. Bolus*), and the species Euphorbia schoenlandii, Brachystelma schoenlandianum (by F.R.R. Schlechter*) and Sebaea schoenlandii (by H. Schinz*). One of his sons, Basil F.J. Schonland, became a prominent scientist.