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Missouri's Unsung Green Giant

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Julian Steyermark's "Flora of Missouri", published in 1963, was the first comprehensive book on the state's plants. The book described and classified more than 2,400 species.

Although naturalists and botanists had gathered and classified Missouri plants dating back to the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s, the book firmly established Steyermark as one of the most important figures in botany in Missouri.

One of the virtues of Flora of Missouri is that a reader with only a basic knowledge of plants could understand it. Steyermark wrote his book for the public, not just for other botanists.

In the opening pages of Flora of Missouri, Steyermark included a simple dedication to Ernest J. Palmer. The dedication is a clue to a story of two men bound by their devotion to botany and a drive for scientific achievement.

Palmer and Steyermark did not have much in common. Nearly 35 years older, Palmer was born in England, while Steyermark grew up in St. Louis. Palmer, for the most part, learned botany on his own, but Steyermark attended Harvard University and went on to complete his doctorate at Washington University.

Yet for many years Palmer served as Steyermark's mentor. Both were avid collectors, and the two corresponded regularly.

Palmer was born in 1875 in Leicester, England, but his family immigrated to the United States. The Palmers first stopped in Warrensburg, but in 1889, the family relocated to Webb City in southwest Missouri.

Palmer studied Latin, Greek and other subjects at Missouri Baptist College. When he was in his mid 20s, he discovered some of the botanical writings of Benjamin F. Bush, another important figure in Missouri botanical history. Palmer and Bush began corresponding. In 1901, Bush stayed at the Palmer house while collecting samples of Crataegus, the hawthorn genus, for Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. Palmer later collected plants for the Arnold Arboretum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. He eventually became his generation's foremost authority on hawthorns.

In 1921, Palmer moved to a position at the Arnold Arboretum at Jamaica Plain, Mass. Palmer and Steyermark likely met at Harvard. Palmer was working at the arboretum around 1930, when Steyermark was studying at the university.

Scores of letters the men exchanged during the course of 25 years are housed among Steyermark's papers in the archives at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. They reveal much about the men and their relationship. One aspect is the extent to which Palmer influenced Flora of Missouri.

The letters show how Palmer looked at all things through the prism of botany. He considered gasoline rationing during World War II, Missouri's alternately freezing and blistering weather, as well as the illness, hospital stays and failing eyesight that came with age, as mere inconveniences that interfered with his work in botany. Even the shortening days as the seasons changed were viewed as an obstruction to his mission of collecting new plant specimens.

"The days are so short and Tempus do fugit," Palmer complained to Steyermark in the summer of 1958.

The two corresponded until the early 1960s, when Palmer died. Palmer wrote from the Arnold Arboretum and, later, his home in Webb City. Steyermark primarily wrote from Chicago, where he worked for the Field Museum. The two met while collecting plants a few times during their careers, but the letters were their primary link. They make it clear that Palmer saw great promise in the younger botanist.

"When you get through combing the state I am afraid there won't be much left for a future generation to discover," Palmer wrote in 1938.

This wasn't idle praise. In his career, Steyermark collected more than 138,000 plant specimens, more than 62,000 of them in Missouri.

Steyermark was no less generous. He acknowledged Palmer as the authority on hawthorns.

"Of course, in Crataegus, all of us have to follow you," he wrote, "because your vast experience and long years of work on the genus is far and beyond anything anyone else could match,"

During Palmer's career, botanists from across the country solicited his help and advice when it came to hawthorns.

Flora of Missouri actually had its beginnings in 1935, when Palmer and Steyermark collaborated on a detailed catalog of the state's flora. Their 1935 publication ran 385 pages and detailed the state's botanical history, terrain, habitat and other elements. It also included maps showing counties where each species had been collected.

While Flora of Missouri was likely taking shape in Steyermark's mind in the 1940s, the letters make clear both were working earnestly on the project in the mid 1950s. The two exchanged many letters during the mid 1950s that detailed the project.

Steyermark asked Palmer to write the difficult section on hawthorns for the book. By this time Palmer was in his early eighties. Palmer, however, refused to be named co-author.

"You have put a great deal of time and effort into this work on the Missouri flora, and you have done it at some sacrifice, I believe," Palmer wrote on May 17, 1958. "So I feel that you are entitled to the satisfaction and prestige of full authorship."

Palmer showed no sign of slowing down as he aged. Of his 85th birthday in 1960, he wrote: "And I celebrated it as usual by taking a long walk. I didn't try to break any records. For I only walked from home to Carthage by way of Oronogo. The distance as I went was about fourteen miles, I figure . . . Along the Frisco right-of-way that I followed I found about a dozen wild flowers in bloom."

Financing problems delayed publication of Flora of Missouri until 1963. Palmer didn't live to see one of the proudest moments of his career, but he knew of Steyermark's intention to dedicate the book to him.

The last letter in the archive is one Steyermark wrote on Feb. 25, 1962, the day Palmer died. Always a stickler for detail and accuracy, Palmer had written previously to ask about adding two of his latest botanical finds to Flora of Missouri. Steyermark wrote that it was too late to include them in the main body of the book, but they would be added to a supplement. Palmer would have been pleased.

 

Palmer and Steyermark's Legacy Lives On

The Missouri Department of Conservation, in cooperation with the Missouri Botanical Garden, is ensuring Ernest Palmer's and Julian Steyermark's legacy lives on. They are publishing a revised edition of the Flora of Missouri that will eventually include three volumes.

George Yatskievych, Conservation Department botanist and curator of Missouri plants at the Missouri Botanical Garden, spent 10 years researching and writing the first volume, which was published in 1999. The 1,000 page, hardbound book contains treatments of 800 species of ferns, fern allies, conifers and monocots and includes all new illustrations and simplified maps.

Each of the upcoming volumes will cover an additional 800 species, including legumes, oaks, hickories, willows and other groups.

Yatskievych says the publication of the second volume is tentatively set for 2005, and the final book will follow two or three years later.

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