Suspicions About Pursh

Page 3 of 5


Mentzelia decapetala (Pursh) Urb. & Gilg ex Gilg1

photo: botanical sketch of gumbo-lily blossom and leaves

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Alpine golden wild buckwheat

Eriogonum flavum Nutt.

photo: alpine golden wild bucksheet plant in bloom

Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

Nuttall had gotten to know Frederick Pursh, and he was decidedly uncomfortable with the man. Nuttall showed some of his new plants to Pursh, who took a rather unprofessional desire to know much more about them. It was Pursh's opinion that, since he was doing a flora of North America, and had found some (but by no means all) of the same species among the Lewis and Clark material, he should describe all of the new species no matter who found them. Apparently there was some kind of agreement that the two of them would propose Bartonia (bar-TONE-ee-ah) jointly, but Pursh did it without Nuttall, and without Nuttall's knowledge. Still, Nuttall felt obligated to provide Pursh's patron, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, with specimens, and thus Pursh had access to most of Nuttall's new species anyway. This misunderstanding was to play a role in Pursh's Flora americae septentrionalis.2

Nuttall returned to the United States immediately after the conclusion of the War of 1812. From Philadelphia, in 1815, he set off for the field again, this time into the mountains of the Southeast, gathering more new species in areas not yet explored for botanical novelties. In 1817, he published a brief paper on the wild buckwheat genus Eriogonum (from the Greek "erios" and "gonos" meaning "wooly knees," alluding to the hairs at the nodes in some species), suggesting the genus would be a large one when the American West was finally explored. From the four species he knew, the genus has grown to some 245 species! He also proposed a new genus of plants, Collinsia (cole-IN-zee-ah, named for Zaccheus Collins [1764-1831], a Philadelphia botanist), a genus that eventually would also have several species in the West.

Armed with this new material, Nuttall began to set the type for a new book on the flora of North America in 1817, and on July 14, 1818, the two small volumes of his Genera of North American plants were published in Philadelphia. By the end of the year, Nuttall was on the Mississippi River south of the Ohio heading for the Red River of the south. By boat and foot he made his way to Fort Smith along the Arkansas River, and then southward to the Red, collecting there mainly during the months of May and June of 1819. In July he was along the Verdigris River, and in August and September up the Arkansas well into what is now Oklahoma. In January of the following year he bid goodbye to the Arkansas headed for New Orleans, and from that city sailed back to Philadelphia. In 1821 he published A journal of travels into the Arkansa territory, during the year 1819. While a few of the new species would be named during this period, most were not published until the mid-1830s.

  • 1. From Botanical Magazine 36: t. 1487. 1812.
  • 2. As was common for the day, the pages for Pursh's Flora were printed in parts, with the printer's type then reused to print another part. On page 327, or just over half way through the book, Pursh proposes Bartonia ornata (or-NAT-ah, adorned or ornate) as a new name for his own Bartonia decapetala (deck-ah-PET-al-ah, having ten petals) published in Curtis' Botanical Magazine in 1812. Aside from the fact that the new name was superfluous and not correct according to our modern rules of botanical nomenclature, Pursh adds a comment about Nuttall:
    In 1812, Mr. Nuttall, on his return from a journey in those parts [the Missouri River], brought seeds and specimens of this and another species to London; and having those means having the living plants, I agreed with Mr. Nuttall to dedicate it to the memory of Dr. B. S. Barton, of Philadelphia, our mutual friend; under which name it was published in the Botanical Magazine. Since that publication, Mr. Nuttall, whose name has occurred in several pages of this work, with all the credit due to his valuable discoveries, has found himself rather offended at not having given him all the exclusive credit of discovery, which with justice and propriety to the memory of M. Lewis, Esq., I never could do.
    Reveal, Moulton and Schuyler noted in 1999 that after this page, Pursh basically stopped citing Nuttall's specimens making it difficult to know what Pursh had in hand to describe some of the species. They concluded that Pursh continued to credit Lewis with his discoveries, but non-credited species from the Missouri River were probably all based on Nuttall specimens.