Missouri's First Botanists

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

return east and recruit a replacement botanist, Edwin James, but by the time the two managed to catch up, the rest of the party had already travelled to the northwest of Missouri.

Thus, only the few collections that Baldwin made before he died in Franklin serve to commemorate the Missouri portion of this ill-fated expedition. Later in the trip, budget cutbacks from Congress forced an early finish to the expedition, which ended with the tired explorers making a big loop and walking back to Cape Girardeau. An interesting observation in the expedition journals is the earliest report of numerous ticks in the eastern Ozarks, which plagued the travelers during the return portion of their trip.

A number of additional expeditions up the Missouri River valley followed in the next decades after Missouri became a state in 1820. Other groups explored portions of the Ozarks or the land along the Mississippi River. The botanists included U.S. citizens and Europeans, rich royalty and poor commoners, idealists and swindlers. Some gained fame and recognition from studies of plants discovered during their travels, but others gained little, and some even lost their lives.

Although much was still to be learned about Missouri's flora, by the mid-1840s the state didn't seem as interesting to these explorers as regions farther west. The establishment of several towns and military forts in the eastern Great Plains meant that future trips could officially start in Kansas, and the study of Missouri plants shifted from those merely passing through the state on their way west to a growing group of resident botanists who lived and worked here.

Lewis Caleb Beck

The earliest botanist to live in Missouri was the physician, Lewis Caleb Beck, who set up a practice in St. Louis toward the end of 1819. During 1820, he botanized extensively in both eastern Missouri and adjacent Illinois and eventually published a gazetteer of the mineral and vegetable riches of the two states.

Such common and well-known spring wildflowers as common beebalm, cleft phlox and green and purple trilliums were still unknown to science at that time and first described by Beck. Unfortunately, St. Louis was too much a frontier town for him and toward the end of 1820 he moved back to New York, where he became well-known as a physician and writer, as well as an expert in botany, chemistry and mineralogy.

George Engelmann

After Beck's departure from Missouri in 1820, it was not until 1835

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