Undaunted Botany: Even While Struggling to Survive, Lewis & Clark Took Time to Stop and Name the Flowers

By Chisholm, Colin | Sierra, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Undaunted Botany: Even While Struggling to Survive, Lewis & Clark Took Time to Stop and Name the Flowers


Chisholm, Colin, Sierra


Popular depictions of the Lewis and Clark expedition focus on encounters with vast herds of buffalo or battles with grizzly bears. Yet the naturalist-adventurers were more often quietly preoccupied by the continent's flora, so meticulously documenting every plant new to them that 200 years later we can view the journey through a botanist's eyes.

For this we can thank polymath President Thomas Jefferson, one of the young nation's most accomplished naturalists. Of all the sciences, Jefferson favored botany, reasoning that plants provided "the principle subsistence of life to man and beast." After hiring Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary in 1801, he began training him in Linnaean classification. (Lewis's prior botanical knowledge was gleaned from a childhood tramping through the Virginia woods with his mother, Lucy Meriwether, a talented herbalist.) In 1803, after choosing Lewis to head the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson sent him to Philadelphia for a crash course with the renowned botany professor Benjamin Smith Barton.

In a letter of introduction, Jefferson wrote of Lewis: "It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has. Altho' no regular botanist &c. he possesses a remarkable store of accurate observation on all subjects of the three kingdoms, & will therefore readily single out whatever presents itself new to him in either."

History confirmed Jefferson's judgment, given Lewis's success not only as an expedition leader but as a field botanist. In all, Lewis recorded 177 plants considered new to science. (Clark noted only one.) Lewis was so eager, in fact, that he collected his first new plant before the corps had even shoved off from Camp Wood near the mouth of the Missouri River, in May of 1804. This was the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera); the thorny cuttings he sent to Jefferson came from trees transplanted from an Osage Indian village 300 miles to the west. The fruit, Lewis said, was "the size of the largest orange, of a globular form, and a fine orange colour.... So much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred of miles in quest of it."

For months to come, the lives of Lewis and his men would depend on the botanical skills of the Native Americans. After the party's first encounter with the Teton Sioux in September of 1804, for example, Lewis wrote of the tribe's use of the prairie apple (Psoralea esculenta), a root that he found unpleasant but that "our epicures would admire.... it would serve them in their ragouts and gravies instead of the truffles morella." Two weeks later Lewis smoked Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) with the Arikara Indians, noting that "it does not affect the nerves in the same manner that the tobacco cultivated in the U'S dose." Lewis sent Jefferson a sample, apparently with future commerce in mind. Likewise with the sticky currant (Ribes viscosissimum), which Lewis described as "really a charming fruit and I am confident would be preferred at our markets to any currant now cultivated in the U. States."

Beyond extending scientific knowledge, Lewis had very practical reasons for paying close attention to edible plants. As the corps worked its way up and over the Continental Divide (near present-day Lolo Pass, Montana), the 31 increasingly ravenous men and their guide, Sacagawea, had already butchered several horses and were almost out of meat. Without the help of the Nez Perce Indians, starvation might have put an end to the expedition long before it reached the sea.

The most significant of the edibles, camas (Camassia quamash), was eaten during the first of many friendly encounters with the Nez Perce along Idaho's Clearwater River. …

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