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What's in a Name? - Spring 2014Written By J. Marie Bassett; Photographed by Steven Schwartzman
PHLOX DRUMMONDII, SENNA LINDHEIMERIANA, Salvia greggii, Engelmannia peristenia. These names roll glibly off our tongues – with little thought given to the fearless explorers behind these beautiful plants. The men whose names they bear are largely unknown, except to botanists, but they were titans in their field. Thomas Drummond, Ferdinand Lindheimer, Josiah Gregg and George Engelmann literally risked their lives in pursuit of plants. Read on for their fascinating life stories.
THOMAS DRUMMOND (1793-1835)
It was Scottish-born Thomas Drummond’s passion for mosses and lichens that earned him the job as assistant naturalist to Captain John Franklin’s 1825 Arctic expedition. For the next two years, he traversed central Canada either alone with an Iroquois guide or in the company of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur-collecting brigades. He even scaled the Rockies to determine the effect altitude had on vegetation.
When Drummond returned home, what tales he had to tell his wife and their three children – of close encounters with bears, fending them off by rattling his vasculum and barely surviving the worst Canadian winter on record, forced to eat skunk and deer hide in his spruce-branch hut. He suffered snow blindness, lost his sled dogs and had to carry his baggage with nothing to eat for a week. He was even swept away by a gale while in a small boat 70 miles into Hudson Bay.
Drummond was meticulous about his daily plant collecting. Working until the wee small hours of the morning, he laid down plants and changed and dried papers of earlier collections. After a few hours sleep, he was off on the next day’s hunt. His memory is enshrined notably in Banff National Park’s Mount Drummond and the moss genus Drummondii.
Back home, Drummond was appointed the first curator of Belfast’s botanic garden, but realizing he was not cut out for a “day job” headed back across the Atlantic in 1831 as an independent collector. Disembarking in New York with two tons of paper to preserve his specimens, Drummond set off across the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio Valley, where recurrent illness left him “skin and bone.” He sailed south to New Orleans, becoming the first bryologist to record Louisiana’s mosses.
In early 1833 he set off for Velasco, Texas, which was embroiled in political turmoil and a cholera epidemic to which he succumbed. Miraculously recovering, braving flood and blazing heat, he collected 750 species of plants and 150 birds in Texas. He nearly died of hunger on Galveston Island after a 100- mile solo canoe trip. In December 1834, the ailing Drummond was back in New Orleans shipping off the last of his collections to Glasgow, ready to head for home but determined to return with his family. Unfortunately, he died en route, in Cuba. Although many plants bear his name, it is the “most loved of garden annuals,” the scarlet phlox (Phlox drummondii), sent in his last shipment, that is his true legacy.
FERDINAND JACOB LINDHEIMER (1801 - 1879)
It was political unrest that brought Ferdinand Lindheimer – born into a wealthy family in Frankfurt, Germany – to New York in 1834. Once in America, he headed to St. Louis, where he met George Engelmann, another recent immigrant from Frankfurt. Boredom and the harsh winter weather sent Lindheimer south to New Orleans, where he was encouraged to sail to Vera Cruz, Mexico, rather than head into the turbulent state of Texas.
Once in Mexico, near Cordova he worked at a distillery, then on a banana and pineapple plantation. It was there that his passion for botany was kindled. Although life was pleasant, he was stagnating, and news from the outside world led him to board a small Mexican ship at Vera Cruz headed for Texas.
By April 1836, Lindheimer had enlisted in the Army of Texas and was involved in the defense of Galveston. It is said that, during 19 months of military service, he was allowed to collect botanical specimens while the rest of his company drilled.
Three years later, Lindheimer bought a 10-acre farm near Houston. Not cut out to be a farmer, he was soon in St. Louis studying botany under George Engelmann. He became so passionate that he sold his farm and entered into an agreement with Engelmann to supply preserved specimens of Texas plants.
Lindheimer scoured the Lone Star State in unbelievably harsh conditions, enduring heat waves, floods, serious injuries and thievery. On the frontier, he went for months without seeing another human being, hunting to keep alive.
In 1844 he met Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, leader of the Adelsverein immigrant company, who asked him to guide the first group from the Texas coast to New Braunfels, Texas. Lindheimer settled there but soon realized he needed someone to guard his home while he was off looking for plants. Consequently, he married Eleanor Reinartz, who meticulously helped prepare his specimens for shipment while raising their four children. In 1847 he was named director of a botanical garden there on the banks of the Comal River. Now known as the “Father of Texas Botany,” when Lindheimer died in 1879, it was estimated that he had collected close to 100,000 specimens of Texas plants. They are in collections as far afield as Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia.
JOSIAH GREGG (1806 - 1850)
Another of George Engelmann’s plant suppliers was Josiah Gregg, whose fascinating life was full of hair-raising adventures – literally. When he was 8, he saw his uncle killed and his cousin abducted by Indians in Missouri. A frail, thoughtful child with many interests, he dabbled in math, medicine, surveying and law until tuberculosis and chronic indigestion laid him low.
His doctor suggested the 25-year-old invalid join a wagon train headed for the clear air of Santa Fe. After a week, Gregg was up and walking. As he progressed across the prairie, he became a new man, hunting bison, skirmishing with Indians and recording everything he saw. He became a successful merchant,crisscrossing the prairies four times. He learned Spanish, a language that would serve him well.
It was in the early 1840s that Gregg ventured into Texas, visiting Austin and Galveston. Selling mules to the Republic of Texas financed a one-third share in a general store in Arkansas. Temporarily settled, he produced his two-volume “Commerce of the Prairies” and the most up-to-date map of the southern plains. Next he enrolled at the University of Louisville to study medicine before heading west again. News of the Mexican War prompted him to leave the wagon train and join the Arkansas Volunteers as interpreter and guide. It was on the march to Mexico that he came across autumn sage, Salvia greggii. His interest in plants was such that, even in the heat of the Battle of Buena Vista, he spied desert ceanothus, Ceanothus greggii.
It was here in Mexico that Gregg became a serious plant hunter, dispatching 600 specimens to George Engelmann in St. Louis from Mazatlán, where he heard of the California gold rush. Sensing an opportunity to provide business services to miners and to collect more new plants, he boarded a ship for San Francisco.
In October 1849, Gregg set off on an expedition through the redwood forests to find a suitable seaport to service the placer mining taking place on the Trinity River. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the party, he constantly stopped to collect specimens and measure the majestic redwoods. The return journey from what is now Humboldt Bay was made miserable by winter weather and lack of food. Near Clear Lake, exhausted and starving, Gregg fell from his horse and died. He was buried on the spot. So ended the career of an extraordinary adventurer.
GEORGE ENGELMANN (1809 - 1884)
Like Ferdinand Lindheimer, George Engelmann was born in Frankfurt into an affluent family. By the age of 15, he had developed a passion for botany, reflected in his dissertation on plant morphology that won him a medical degree from the University of Würzberg in 1831. He later set off for America on behalf of his uncles, who were interested in investing in land. Landing in Baltimore in late 1832, he arrived in Philadelphia, visiting respected plant hunter Thomas Nuttall before heading for St. Louis.
For almost three years, Engelmann scoured Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, checking out land holdings while studying the natural world, often sick and with only his horse as company. Selling that horse and a gun to start a medical practice in St. Louis, he was to become an eminent, innovative physician, but botany remained his overruling passion.
Plant Naming Systems - A Source CodeDo you wonder how these explorers’ discoveries got their names more than a century ago? The botanists who accepted their specimens at the great herbariums of their day used binomial nomenclature – the modern referable system of naming things established by Carolus Linneaus (1707-1778), the father of plant taxonomy. In his system, each species has a two-part name, the genus and the specific epithet.
Often, botanists name plants in honor of those who first discovered them, as is the case with Phlox drummondii or Lindheimera texana. To name plants today, botanists still use Linneaus’ system.
By 1840 he returned to Germany to marry his childhood sweetheart and cousin, Dora Horstmann. Back in New York, Engelmann met Asa Gray, the leading American botanist of the day, beginning a lifelong collaboration. During the next decade, he worked with Gray collecting specimens of western plants from men like Jean-Louis Berlandier, Josiah Gregg and Ferdinand Lindheimer.
In 1856, Engelmann spent time at Harvard University’s herbarium and gardens with Asa Gray. He also helped found and became president of St. Louis’ Academy of Science. The same year, businessman Henry Shaw asked Engelmann for his assistance in opening a botanical garden in St. Louis – upon the recommendation of William Hooker, now knighted and then the director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. The Missouri Botanical Garden opened in 1859 and is now the repository of Engelmann’s 100,000-specimen herbarium.
By 1869 medicine had taken a back seat to Engelmann’s botanical aspirations. He became a leading expert on plants as diverse as cacti and conifers, realized that yuccas were pollinated by the pronuba moth, and sensed the perniciousness of invasive plants. His study of plant diseases, focusing on grapes, led to the realization that American vines were immune to aphid relative Phylloxera, which was decimating the French wine industry.
In 1879 Dora died, sending her husband into a depression that was cured the following year by a trip to the Pacific coast. There he met naturalist John Muir, who would supply him with acorn specimens. Three years later, Engelmann, although his health was declining, made his last trip to Europe. Back home, indulging in his long-time interest in meteorology, he caught a cold while clearing a path in the snow to reach his thermometers. He never recovered, dying two days after his 75th birthday. His legacy lives on at the Missouri Botanical Garden, in his 60 volumes of writings, in the many plants named for him and even, like Drummond, in a mountain with his name: Engelmann Peak in Colorado.
The lives of these intrepid beings, supermen in their own right, are best summed up by a quote borrowed from Lord Byron:
“But these are deeds that should not pass away, And names that must not wither.”
J. Marie Bassett is a veteran docent at the Wildflower Center, avid plant enthusiast and local historian who is a member of the Hays County Historical Commission.