He studied medicine and natural history at the University of Leipzig, graduating with a medical degree.
On graduation, the rector of the university gave him a botanical mission to North and South America. He was helped out financially by a small group of friends and scientists in Leipzig, that included botanist Christian Friedrich Schwägrichen, who in exchange, received sets of specimens. He subsequently worked as a naturalist in Cuba (1823-1824) and Pennsylvania (1824-1826).
In 1826 he departed for Valparaiso, Chile, and spent several years performing scientific exploration throughout Chile, Peru and Brazil.
As a result of his journey in South America, he published "Reise in Chile, Peru und auf dem Amazonenstrome, während der Jahre 1827-1832" (2 volumes). In the autumn of 1832, he returned to Germany with significant zoological and botanical collections — several hundred stuffed animals, a collection of ethnographic objects and more than 17,000 dried plants.
During the following year, he became an associate professor at the University of Leipzig, where in 1834 he was named director of its zoological museum. He contributed to the establishment of a scientific museum in Leipzig, and bequeathed to it some of his collections, with the remainder being sent to museums in Berlin and Vienna.
In South America he described numerous new species of plants.
His botanical magnum opus, "Nova genera ac Species Plantarum quas in regno, Chiliensi, Peruviano, ac Terra Amazonica, anni 1827-1832 lectarum" was published in three volumes. In it he described 31 new genera and 477 new species. Foreign the first two volumes he collaborated with Stephan Endlicher.
The plant genus Poeppigia is named after him, as are taxa with the specific epithets of poeppigii and poeppigiana, a few examples being: the silvery woolly monkey (Lagothrix poeppigii), toad Rhinella poeppigii, the orchid Campylocentrum poeppigii (Rchb f) Rolfe, and the angiosperm species Guatteria poeppigiana Mart.
Saxonian Academy of Sciences. German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.