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Missouri's First Botanists

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

that another botanist took up residence in St. Louis. He was George Engelmann, one of the best known of all Missouri botanists. Broadly trained in botany and medicine in Germany, Engelmann moved to the St. Louis area in 1832.

Although he maintained a successful medical practice throughout the rest of his career, it was his outstanding accomplishments in science that made him famous. He kept the first accurate weather records for the region, at a time before anyone else thought of doing so. He was instrumental in the founding of the St. Louis Academy of Science, which brought together scientists in all fields. He also kept up correspondence with the major botanists in the eastern U.S. and Europe, thus promoting Missouri as a center of science to the rest of the world, and was a mentor to the next generations of Missouri botanists.

Engelmann's accomplishments in botany were truly astounding. He published over 100 botanical papers, including numerous large monographs on groups, such as yuccas and agaves, hawthorns, dodders, oaks and pines, describing more than 600 species new to science.

The specimens that formed the basis of his ambitious research came partially from his numerous field trips into Arkansas, Illinois, the Appalachian and Rocky mountains, the Lake Superior region, the Pacific Coast and the Missouri Ozarks, as well as duplicates that he exchanged with other botanists. However, Engelmann also was instrumental in arranging for various botanists to accompany more than 30 expeditions to the western United States, and it was the wealth of specimens he accumulated on these trips that made him an expert on western American flora.

Perhaps Engelmann's most enduring contribution to botany was his large role in the founding of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and especially of its famous library and herbarium, which are today among the biggest and best botanical research facilities in the world. His friend, the wealthy St. Louis businessman Henry Shaw, contacted him in the early 1850s for advice when Shaw decided to build a botanical garden on land he owned west of St. Louis. Engelmann convinced him to include a museum in the initial plans and to provide funds for trips to Europe, where he purchased large quantities of books and specimens that are still an important part of the Garden's research program today.

This magnificent start paved the way for a succession of botanists who continued to add to knowledge of the state's flora. Botany branched out from the St. Louis area, and diligent collectors cataloged the flora of every region of the state, a never ending pursuit that is as popular and important today as it was 150 years ago.

Julian Steyermark

The contributions of several generations of Missouri botanists culminated in 1963 in Julian Steyermark's landmark volume, Flora of Missouri, which has helped to inform botanists, ecologists, students, conservationists, land managers and all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts about how to identify plants and where each species grows in Missouri.

The Flora of Missouri Project, which is a collaboration between the Conservation Department and the Missouri Botanical Garden, is working to expand our knowledge of Missouri plant life and to update this valuable reference. The first of two volumes of a revised edition of Steyermark's flora was published in early 1999, with the second volume to follow in a few years.

For those interested in more information on the history of botany throughout the state, the new volume contains a chapter with details on the numerous men and women who have contributed to knowledge of Missouri flora and how our understanding of these plants has changed over time.

Flora of Missouri Now For Sale

The first of two volumes of a revised edition of Julian A. Steyermark's monumental Flora of Missouri is now available. This 1,000-page hardbound book contains treatments of 801 species of ferns, fern allies, conifers and monocots with all new illustrations and simplified maps.

George Yatskievych, Conservation Department botanist and curator of Missouri plants at the Missouri Botanical Garden, spent 10 years researching and writing the new volume, which includes streamlined keys and taxonomical changes and additions. Volume 1 also contains a series of introductory chapters that catalog the history of floristic botany in Missouri and discuss our state's unique climate, geology and vegetation.

The book is available at nature centers, the Missouri Botanical Garden and other stores for $38 plus $2.37 tax. You also can order one by mail from Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $5 for shipping.

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