James Bowie, son of a London seed merchant, was trained as a gardener and botanical collector. He was employed at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1810 and four years later he and Alan Cunningham were sent as botanical collectors to Brazil, where they collected seeds and plants for two years.
In 1816 Bowie was ordered to the Cape, where he arrived on 1 November as the first botanical collector from Kew since Francis Masson* left in 1795. He remained for six years, collecting and dispatching a large number of plants and seeds, particularly mesembryanthemums, aloes, and euphorbias, including many succulent species new to Kew. For more than a year he collected only around Cape Town, but in March 1818 he undertook his first long collecting trip, travelling to Knysna and returning to Cape Town only in January 1819. A second journey to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay occupied him from April 1819 to January 1820. His third journey again took him to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, where he remained from March to September 1820. He then went to Avontuur and Uniondale in the Lang Kloof and from there via Uitenhage to Algoa Bay. After visiting Kowie (Port Alfred) and Grahamstown, he returned to Cape Town in January 1821. On his final journey, starting in June 1821, he travelled inland from Algoa Bay to Graaff-Reinet and to Eerste Poort in the Colesberg Division, returning to Algoa Bay late in December 1821. He met the naturalist G.L.E. Krebs* near Uitenhage, advising him on the packing of bulbs and succulents. He returned to Cape Town overland, with a three month stay at Knysna, arriving in December 1822. Although he collected extensively over a wide area the value of his collections was reduced by the fact that many of the localities he gave for his plants were wrong.
In 1822 Bowie was recalled to England "because he lacked application". He was now unemployed, but worked at Kew arranging his herbarium. During this time he developed a drinking problem which appears to have afflicted him for the rest of his life. In April 1827 he returned to the Cape on his own as a commercial plant collector and continued the business of C.M. Villet* in Cape Town. After this enterprise failed he worked as a gardener for Baron C.F.H. von Ludwig* for a time. By 1842 he was again working on his own, collecting plants for von Ludwig. During the later years of his life, when already in poor health, he was employed as gardener by H.M. Arderne*. He has been described as "regrettably lacking in moral fibre" (Robinson, 1965/6) and the latter part of his life as much wasted.
However, for several years after his return to the Cape in 1827 Bowie was intellectually active. He was a founding member of the South African Institution (1829-1832), the first purely scientific society on the subcontinent. He was moreover the first to deliver a paper to its members, on 31 August 1929. This dealt with the advantages of having a botanic garden near Cape Town where plants destined for Europe could find a temporary resting place and be studied. By December 1830 the council of the Institution had made arrangements for some kind of botanical establishment in the Government Gardens which would be run privately for gain, but Bowie declined to avail himself of the opportunity. He delivered a second paper at the same meeting in August 1829, the first of three contributions titled "Sketches of the botany of South Africa", which listed the indigenous plants flowering in the Cape district in September, October-November, and December-March respectively. The second of these was published in Cape Town by W. Bridekirk in 1829 and constitutes the first guide to the Cape flore published locally. The third contribution was published in the South African Quarterly Journal, No. 1, 1829-1830, pp. 27-36. Similar lists of Cape plants flowering in June and July were published in the Cape of Good Hope Literary Gazette in 1831 (No. 13, p. 160; No. 14, pp. 172-173). From December 1829 Bowie delivered another series of three papers, which dealt with the culture of exotic plants, shrubs and trees at the Cape (South African Quarterly Journal, 1830, No. 2, pp. 160-171; No. 3, pp. 293-304; No. 4, pp. 408-413). These efforts earned him the Institution's gold medal for contributions to botany in 1830. He also revised the African gardener and agriculturalists calendar compiled by W.A. van der Stel* in 1700 and published it under his own name in the Cape Almanac from 1831 onwards. In 1836, while working for Baron von Ludwig, he corrected the "Alphabetical list of indigenous and exotic plants growing on the island of St. Helena" by S.F. Pritchard, and had it published in Cape Town. The next year his advice to the Stellenbosch Agricultural Society on "decay in the apple trees" was published in one of the local newspapers.
Bowie was commemorated in the genus Bowiea, named by W.H. Harvey* who had met him at the Cape.