Missouri's First Botanists

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

The quest for knowledge of the world around us has fascinated humankind throughout history. Native Americans, who lived without grocery stores, pharmacies and home improvement superstores, depended directly on the natural world for survival and, in particular, on the diverse plant life of the region.

They knew about the uses of plants for food, medicines and ceremonial purposes. Unfortunately, because of cultural differences and a lack of a written language, most of this information was never passed on to later colonists of European descent.

Early European and American naturalists who joined in the westward expansion of the United States depended less on plants for survival, but they were on a mission to gather knowledge about the wilderness. This developed out of a European philosophy of science that involved cataloging the natural world in an attempt to make sense of the order and rules governing the universe.

Although many of the early scientific explorers were funded by wealthy patrons to collect new ornamental plants for horticulture or other presumed economic benefits, the scientists themselves were driven to know more about the world.

Lewis and Clark

The earliest phase of botanical studies in Missouri involved expeditions that set out from the St. Louis area to explore the western United States. The first such expedition did not include a trained botanist. When President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to search for a new route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804, he instructed them to make scientific observations and to collect seeds and botanical specimens along the way.

During the first weeks up the Missouri River on their famous three-year journey, Lewis collected about 15 specimens in what is now Missouri, including such wildflowers as golden seal and wild ginger and cottonwood and willow trees. These were part of a shipment of goods sent back to Jefferson from Ft. Mandan (now in North Dakota) during the winter of 1804-1805. Unfortunately, none of the Missouri specimens appears to have survived, so only observations printed in the expedition's journals record the plant life seen by Lewis and Clark in the state.

Nuttall and Bradbury

The earliest professional botanists to explore the Missouri River floodplain were British. In 1811, Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury joined a fur-trading expedition seeking to retrace the Lewis and Clark route to the Pacific Northwest.

Bradbury was an older, seasoned botanist who kept careful notes and eventually published a travelogue of his journey. Nuttall was a young upstart who got himself invited to ac-company Bradbury, he occasionally got lost and tended to use his rifle to uproot plants instead of for its intended purpose.

Although they covered the same territory and saw the same flora, the two made independent collections, with each intending to study his own botanical treasures in England after the trip.

Upon returning to St. Louis, however, the two men's careers took dramatically different turns. Nuttall took a relatively fast boat south to New Orleans and sailed to England, where he spent several years studying his specimens at the British Museum of Natural History and gaining a reputation in scientific circles.

He published his botanical masterwork on North American plants in 1818 and went on to become one of the most celebrated botanists of his day, completing two more major expeditions during his lifetime and receiving a position at Harvard University.

Bradbury took a somewhat slower boat to New Orleans. He was further delayed by arriving in the New Madrid area just as the disastrous earthquake of December 1811 occurred. By the time he was ready to sail for England, the War of 1812 had started, preventing his voyage.

Bradbury did not reach England until 1817, but his specimens had made it there before the war. In London, the botanical pirate, Frederic Pursh, gained access to this treasure trove of plants and published descriptions of the species new to science without Bradbury's knowledge or permission. This effectively ruined Bradbury's career in science, and he died in relative obscurity in 1823, never having contributed to botanical research or exploration again.

William Baldwin

It was not until 1819 that another major expedition involving botanists started in Missouri. The Yellowstone Expedition was the first scientific expedition funded by the U.S. government and was intended to map and explore a vast area of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

The officer in charge was Major Stephen Harriman Long, who led a crew of specialists in zoology, geology, cartography, journalism, art and botany. The initial botanist was the ill-fated William Baldwin, who had a long history of poor health and apparently thought that extended travel would benefit his condition. However, none of the scientists was prepared for the trip's rigors and the poor living conditions aboard their boat.

Within three weeks, Baldwin became too sick to continue and had to be dropped off at Franklin, in Howard County, where he died soon after. This forced Long to 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 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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