Friedrich Sellow was born on 12 March 1789, the oldest son of Carl Julius Samuel Sello, the gardener of the Royal Court of Potsdam. After learning the profession of gardener with relatives, Sellow went to work and study in the Botanical Garden of Berlin, under the patronage of its director, Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812). In 1810 Sellow started a study travel to Paris, France, where he attended the scientific lectures of Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and worked at the Jardin des Plantes.
In the next year, with recommendations and financial assistance of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). he traveled to the Netherlands and England, coming in contact with the most prominent botanists of the time. Due to the war with France, however, Sellow was impeded to return to continental Europe for a time, so he accepted an invitation by the Russian consul, Baron von Langsdorff (1774-1852), who was serving at the time as a diplomat in Rio de Janeiro, to be part of a scientific expedition he was organizing in Brazil. After detailed preparations, and funded by British botanists, he sailed in 1814 to Rio de Janeiro. There, he and his colleagues were well received by the Portuguese colonial government in Brazil and soon started to receive a generous annual salary as an official naturalist. Sellow learned Portuguese and carried out initially smaller excursions in the environs of Rio de Janeiro. First he followed, from 1815 to 1817, an expedition led by the German prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867). He collected many specimens, which he sent out to London. One of the plants he discovered, Lee's Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens Sellow), became quite popular as an ornamental summer flowers in England and Germany.
Further financing from Prussia allowed Sellow to undertake numerous other expeditions to southern Brazil and Uruguay in the next 11 years. In these expeditions, he would travel into unexplored regions of the country, and would collect thousands of plants, seeds, wood samples, insects and minerals, in the tradition of the independent 19th century naturalist, sending them to botanical gardens in Brazil, Portugal, England and Germany. Among the seed specimens of South American ornamental plants sent by Sellow were two new species of begonia (Begonia semperflorens) and white petunias (Petunia axillaris), which became wildly popular in the summer balconies of homes across Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
In one of his ethnographic expeditions, Sellow accompanied the diplomat Ignaz Maria von Olfers (1793-1872), who later became the first general manager of the Royal Prussian museums. His scientific collections from Naturkunde Uruguay ('Staat von Montevideo' or 'Banda Oriental') and Brazil are divided between the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where parts are displayed and the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Berlin-Dahlem Ethnologisches Museum These include many zoological preparations,insects, shells, ethnographic drawings and original diaries.
Unfortunately, Sellow met his end very early in his life, perishing by drowning in a river in October 1831, only 42 years old. His versatile and rich contribution to the botanical knowledge about Brazilian plants remained forgotten until recently, when Sellowia, a botanical journal published in Itajai, state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, received his name.