Missouri's First Botanists

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

In his written orders to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, President Thomas Jefferson referred to observing and collecting plants. He wrote, "Other object worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions; especially those not of the U.S."

When writing this short sentence, Jefferson probably didn't realize the important role plants would play, both in the survival of the expedition and the eventual development of the West.The skills of the two captains could not have been better matched. Clark was a surveyor and cartographer. Lewis was a naturalist. Records show that Clark collected only one plant during the entire expedition, a white-margined spurge he found along the Yellowstone River in July 1806, when the two men were separated on the return trip. Otherwise, Lewis observed, collected, described and preserved all of the specimens.

Lewis began studying botany at an early age. His mother was an herbalist in Albemarle County, Virginia, and she taught him the medicinal properties of plants. He used this knowledge to treat party members and natives for various maladies during the expedition. Lewis continued his studies when he became Jefferson's private secretary in 1801. Jefferson, one of the best naturalists in the country at that time, passed along his knowledge of botanical classification and nomenclature. To prepare for the expedition, Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia for six weeks to study botany, navigation and medicine with members of the American Philosophical Society.

Equipped with wilderness skills, practical knowledge and numerous reference books, Lewis and Clark prepared for the two-year mission. They collected their first plant before they even left Camp Dubois, near present-day St. Louis. It was an Osage-orange. They sent a cutting to Jefferson from St. Louis on March 26, 1804. This Osage-orange was the first of 178 plants collected during the expedition that were new to science.

Of the 178 plants they discovered, 140 were from west of the Continental Divide. They likely described more eastern species, but the expedition's collections from Fort Mandan to the Great Falls of the Missouri were destroyed by floods during the winter of 1805-06.

The plants found by Lewis and Clark were curiosities, but they were also necessary to their survival. Trees along the river provided fuel, shelter and wood for new masts, oars and dugouts. Near the present town of Waverly, Missouri, the party camped for two days to make 20 new boat oars from ash trees

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