Topical Summary: Prosaic prickly pear—Linnæus in English—What hath God wrought?—An agreeable vegetable—Nature's prickly paradox—The silent menace—Lewis's notes on cactus—Cactaceae at the birth of botany in the U.S.
"No sod, no sign, no cross nor stone,
But at his side a cactus green
Upheld its lances long and keen;
It stood in sacred sands alone,
Flat-palmed and fierce with lifted spears;
One bloom of crimson crowned its head,
A drop of blood, so bright, so red,
Yet redolent as roses' tears."
Prosaic Prickly Pear
Linnæus in English
Image from the Metcalf Collection at North Carolina State University. Internet Archive
Title page of Volume Five of the first English edition (1802) of Carl Linnæus's Systema Naturæ
The seven volumes of the first edition of the Systema Naturæ, translated into English by the British naturalist William Turton, were published in London between 1802 and 1806. Volume five alone listed 180 species of "Vegetables," including 28 species of Linnæus's genus Cactus, divided into four groups. The first group contained two species, C. mamillaris and C. Melocactus (Figure 3).
The second group included Cactus repandus, commonly called Cereus (Latin for "torch," from its use as such by Indians of its native habitat, Jamaica); it was well known among physicians in Europe and America for its homeopathic uses. The fourth group included Cactus opuntia which is a synonym for Opuntia humifusa, (Raf.) Raf., the eastern pricklypear (Figures 5 & 6). Group four also contained C. ficus-indica (Figure 4, also known as Barbary fig) and C. coccinellifer, (now C. cochenilliferus L., Opuntia cochenillifera (L.) Mill, or Nopalea cochenillifera (L.) Salm-Dyck.).
There is no evidence that Meriwether Lewis ever saw Turton's translation. At first it failed to attract much attention in the United States, possibly because most people seriously interested in botany then were fluent in Latin.2 In any case, Miller's Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnæus would have been more useful to Lewis than the Swedish scientist's already outdated system.
An Agreeable Vegetable
© 2008 J Agee, Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation
This naturally spineless cladode and reddish-brown fruit of Opuntia ficus-indica, familiarly known among Mexicans as well as Latinos in the U.S. as nopales, or cochineal nopal cactus, was purchased at a supermarket in Anchorage, Alaska. Nopales have a flavor that has been compared with green beans, and are nutritious as a source of fiber and several vitamins, including A and C.
Cactus melocactus . . . of a globular form
Melon Thistle, or melon cactus
J. Miller, An Illustration of the Termini, Botanici of Linnæus (1789), München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Google Books, accessed 23 April 2010.
As Figure 7 in Plate 9 of Miller's Illustration of the Termini Botanici, this drawing merely illustrated a truncus angullatus (a trunk or stem having symmetrical angles or ribs in the horizontal cross-section) but is not discussed further. As Figure 8 in Plate 41, the same image is referred to as "Cactus melocactus," and serves to illustrate pubescence, or woolly clusters of simple (not divided) hairs now called glochids (Figure 14).
In his Preface, Miller justified his omission of certain of "the more rare and curious Exotics," implicitly the Cactaceæ, which had become extremely popular with gardeners. "Though many of those Exotics often Flower in this Climate," he explained, "few ever attain to the Maturity that is requisite for producing Fruit or Seeds; and without arriving at this Stage of vegetative Perfection, it is impossible to copy from Nature the Delineation of the Parts which alone are characteristic of the Species."
Cactus-tuna, Indian Fig, or Barbary Fig
Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill.
Courtesy of Google Books
This drawing by John Miller (c. 1715-1790), a famous English illustrator of botanical subjects, appeared in his Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnæus (1789), a copy of which is believed to have been in the Expedition's small reference library. 14 It was the companion volume to Miller's Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus (1779), which was also in the library. As Figure 5 in Plate 14, identified as Cactus- tuna—tuna being the Spanish synonym for prickly pear—or Opuntia, or Indian Fig, Miller's drawing served to illustrate a Truncus articulatus—a jointed trunk or stem. As such, it may have been of passing interest to Meriwether Lewis, although he never mentioned having consulted Miller's book.
The Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill. 15 , often called Barbary fig, is still the most widely cultivated of all species of cactus, chiefly in Mexico, Central and northern South America. Lewis probably would not have seen any of this species en route; today it grows no farther north than southern California and in a few isolated locations in extreme southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.
Few poets have yet been inspired by a cactus. Not that one or two haven't tried, such as the eccentric American "Poet of the Sierras," Joaquin Miller. Walt Whitman gave the plant a brief nostalgic nod in his reflective "Longings for Home," from Leaves of Grass. But even Joyce Kilmer never claimed to have seen a poem as lovely as a pricklypear. The ancient bards didn't even have a chance at it either, for all members of the large family of plants now known as Cactaceæ (kak-TAY-see-eye) are native strictly to the Americas, and were never seen in any other part of the world until Columbus returned to Portugal with some samples after his second voyage to the West Indies. Soon thereafter, explorers and other travelers began to nurse more specimens of the prickley curiosity across the Atlantic to European gardeners who had the patience to learn how to keep them from freezing or drowning in a colder and wetter climate.
By the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, most naturalists were aware that all members of the family Cactaceæ were native to the Americas, but no one knew how many species, if any, would be found along the upper Missouri and lower Columbia Rivers. And few people cared, at least in the U.S.
Until the end of the 19th century, explorers of the Western Hemisphere mentioned cacti only incidentally, if at all. Just one species bore the respectability of the commercial nexus, the cochineal nopal cactus, which came to be known by botanists as Opuntia cochinillifera or, as Lewis once termed it, "the cockineal plant." It was useful for the breeding of the cochineal insects that produced valuable red dye. But they were native to the island of Jamaica, and to the vicinity of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The so-called eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa (Figures 4, 5), caught the attention of one of the earliest explorers of North America. In 1588 the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Hariot (1560-1621) sailed to Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. There he found "Metaquesunnauk a kinde of pleasaunt fruite almost of the shape & bignes of English peares, but that they are of a perfect red colour as well within as without. They grow on a plant whose leaves are verie thicke and full of prickles as sharpe as needles."1 He also heard of, but did not himself see, the Opuntia cochinillifera that he was told was cultivated in the West Indies.
In 1792, twelve years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition began, the Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), who accompanied Captain George Vancouver on his five-year circumnavigation of the globe, found some "Cactus opuntia" on the coast of California near today's Santa Barbara, and later came upon a dwarfed variety of it on the sandy shore of Protection Island, opposite Nanaimo in southeastern Vancouver Island.3 Lewis might have been interested in those discoveries, but they were not mentioned anywhere in Vancouver's narratives that were published in 1801.
What hath God wrought?
Meanwhile, as the art of domestic gardening sifted down from the princely realms of European society to the wealthy new class of industrialists, cacti were slowly introduced as "exotics" in some of their gardens, too. In 1735 the prominent Scottish gardener Philip Miller (1691–1771) published the first abridged edition of his Gardener's Dictionary,4 in which he briefly described two varieties of Melocactus (melon-shaped cactus; see Figure 3) which he had seen in European gardens.
Then, following a detailed and instructive analysis of the challenges involved in importing cacti from the West Indies into the cooler and wetter climate of the British Isles, Miller observed: "These Plants are preserved with great Care by such as are curious in Exoticks, they being of the most uncommon and wonderful Structure, greatly differing from any thing in the vegetable Kingdom, of European Growth, insomuch that many Persons, at the first Sight of these Plants, have supposed them not natural Productions, but rather some artful Contrivance to amuse People." The fruits of these cacti were "extremely agreeable" to people in the West Indies, he admitted, "but, I don't know any farther Use of the Plants."
The cactus thus proved a persistent 18th-century rule: The value of any element in nature was measurable in terms of its potential for commodification for pleasure or profit—and pleasure was a commodity reserved for the rich and powerful. Only a few species of cactus offered any benefit to the health or welfare of humans, and those grew only in tropical climes.
By 1812 the growth of gardening in England, and especially the increase in popularity of cacti as exotics, led to the publication of Synopsis Plantarum Succulentarum, . . . Observationibus Anglicanis Culturaque, (Catalogue of Succulent Plants . . . Cultivated in England), by Adrian Hardy Haworth (1767-1833). It contained descriptions of ten species of Opuntia, including O. ferox (fierce), O. fragilis (fragile), and O. polyacantha (many-spined) with the dates of their introduction into Great Britain. However, since cacti had little or no medical, agricultural, or even aesthetic appeal in the Colonies and subsequent states, few American naturalists were interested in it. The nomenclature was hardly current yet. Noah Webster, in his first dictionary, published in 1806, chose not to include "cactus," nor "opuntia," nor even "prickly-pear." He listed "cochineal," defining it as "a fly or insect used to dye scarlet.," and "cochenile" as "a blood red color," but stopped short of introducing the parasitic insect's favorite host.5
A few plant collectors and hunters were active in the U.S. before 1800. Collectors were naturalists who sent specimens to botanists in Europe for taxonomic studies. John Clayton (1694-1773), for example, was a plant collector in Colonial Virginia who sent many native American specimens to the Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius (1690–1762), who loaned them to Carl Linnæus, who included them in his various publications. Gronovius himself published a list of Clayton's specimens in 1743 as Flora Virginica. It included three species of cactus classified not with Linnæan binomials but with descriptive phrases in botanical Latin. One may have been the species that was to become the plains prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha Haw.; Figures 6, 7); another was O. ficus-indica (Figure 3), an import from the Caribbean and Mexico; a third was Clayton's eastern prickly pear (O. humifusa (Raf.) Raf.; Figures 3, 4).
John Lyon (d. 1814) was a nurseryman and commercial plant hunter in the central and south Atlantic states, with Philadelphia as his center of operations. The journal and field notes that he kept from 1799 to 1814 remain the sole record of that aspect of American commerce in the Federal era. They contain no references to Cactaceæ, so it may be assumed that he never received orders for any species. One of Lyon's customers was the English nurseryman and plant hunter John Fraser (1750–1811), who made seven trips to the US.6
Nature's Prickly Paradox
Although Meriwether Lewis had nothing good to say about either the mosquito or the eye-gnat, he cheerfully recognized one of nature's supreme paradoxes: the delicate flower that is all the more pleasing to behold because of its incongruous berth amid the defensive armament of a cactus. For Lewis it was a symbolic juxtaposition of pleasure and pain, of delight and repulsion. "The prickly pear is now in full blume," he wrote on a mild early-summer day in 1805, "and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains."7
Otherwise, the nearly three dozen journal references to prickly pear consist mainly of complaints, now and then providing some insights into the measure of the plant's pest-factor. Lewis, while making his first reconnaissance up Maria's River on 4 June 1805, found the prickly pears "so numerous that it required one half of the traveler's attention to avoid them." Above the big Gates of the Mountains on 18 July of that year, Sgt. Ordway observed that "the prickley pears are So thick we scarsely could find room to camp without being on them." While proceeding overland west of the Missouri in a premature hope of meeting some Shoshone Indians, Clark complained that besides the "musqutors" being "verry troublsom," his feet were "constantly Stuck full Prickley pear thorns" despite having double-soled his moccasins. That night by the light of his campfire he pulled out 17 of those "bryers." which prompted Lewis to try another expedient: "I have guarded or reather fortifyed my feet against them by soaling my mockersons with the hide of the buffaloe in parchment."8
But on only three occasions did either he or Clark write anything substantive about any species of Cactaceæ.
The silent menace
The first of the expedition's journalists to encounter the prickly pear problem, Clark got the story off to a stressful start. On 19 September 1804 he reported that as the party neared the Big Bend of the Missouri they passed a creek about ten yards wide that flowed through "a plain in which great quantities of the Prickley Pear grows." Consistent with his policy of occasionally naming places after memorable experiences or observations, he named this one "Prickley Pear Creek."9 The pain started on the following day, when he explored the portage across the neck of the Big Bend, ascertaining that it was "quit Short 2000 yards only," but the prairie and hillsides contained "great quantities of the Prickly Pair which nearly ruind my feet."
Clark also had the last word on the subject. On September 1, 1806, as the Corps passed through the vicinity of the mouth of the "Quicurre or rapid" (Niobrara) river some 855 miles above the Mississippi by today's measurements, he once more exerted his ability to extrapolate geographic generalities from the sum of his experiences and observations. The plains were "much richer below the Queiquer river than above," he wrote.10 Then, as if to confirm that, he declared that prickly pears were "not common" below that point.
Near the Corps' last campsite in the "Little Gates of the Mountains" at the mouth of "Howard's Creek," on 16 July 1805, Lewis made his first effort to describe a species of heavily-armed cactus that conspicuously differed from the plains prickly pear. This new thorny pest was, he observed,
of a globular form,11 composed of an assemblage of little conic leaves springing from a common root to which their small points are attached as a common center and the base of the cone forms the apex of the leaf which is garnished with a circular range of sharp thorns quite as stif and more keen than the more common species with the flat leaf, like the Cockeneal plant,12
Two days later, on 18 July, Clark left Lewis in command of the canoes and, accompanied by York, Joe Field and John Potts, set out afoot along the north bank of of the Missouri, in the hope of soon meeting some Shoshones. The going was rough on account of the sharp rocks "which cut and bruised their feet excessively." Lewis recounted more details of Clark's experience, and took steps to prepare himself for the same challenge.
nor wer the prickly pear of the leveler part of the rout much less painfull; they have now become so abundant in the open uplands that it is impossible to avoid them and their thorns are so keen and stif that they pearce a double thickness of dressed deers skin with ease. Capt. C. informed me that he extracted 17 of these bryers from his feet this evening after he encamped by the light of the fire. I have . . . fortifyed my feet against them by soaling my mockersons with the hide of the buffaloe in parchment.13
His remark about their being "so keen and stif" might indicate that the culprits were the ones "of a globular form."
Eighteen days later Lewis crossed the "dividing ridge" of the Bitteroot Mountains at the place now called Lemhi Pass, and descended into the valley of the Lemhi and Salmon Rivers. The soil, he noted, was so poor that it produced little else but prickly pear and a "bearded grass" about three inches high. The prickly pear thereabouts, he continued, were of three species:
that with a broad leaf common to the missouri [Figures 6, 7]; that of a globular form [Figures 8, 9] also common to the upper pa[r]t of the Missouri and more especially after it enters the Rocky Mountains[;] also a 3rd peculiar to this country [Figures 10–16]. it consists of small circular thick leaves with a much greater number of thorns. these thorns are stronger and appear to be barbed. the leaves grow from the margins of each other as in the broad leafed pear of the missouri, but are so slightly attatched that when the thorn touches your mockerson it adhears and brings with it the leaf covered in every direction with many others. this is much the most troublesome plant of the three.
Clark was still behind Lewis on that day, but three days after crossing the Bitterroot Divide via Lost Trail Pass into the headwaters of the Bitterroot (Clark's) River, and one day before reaching the gathering point they would call Travelers' Rest, he—or the hunters—made a retrospective note on the third new species that Lewis had described (Figure 4):
on the head of Clarks River I observe great quantities of a peculiar Sort of Prickly peare grow in Clusters ovel & about the Size of a Pigions egge with Strong Thorns which is So birded [bearded, i.e., barbed] as to draw the Pear from the Cluster after penetrating our feet.
On the lower Clearwater and Snake (Lewis's) Rivers in early October of 1805, the rocky riverbeds made worse by low late-season water levels, monopolized all hands' attention from dawn to dark, but on October 16, 1805, as they approached the Columbia, Clark wrote, cryptically, as it seems: "Great quantities of a kind of prickley pares, much worst than any I have before Seen of a tapering form and attach themselves by bunches." Elliott Coues, in his 1893 annotated edition of Biddle's 1814 edition of the journals, cited Charles Vancouver Piper (1888-1926), a botanist and entomologist at the Washington State Agriculltural and Experiment Station at Pullman, who asserted that Opuntia polyacantha Haw (Figure 3). was the only cactus to be found in that vicinity. But although that species' spines are barbed, the stem segments do not detach easily, and so would not "attach themselves by bunches." However, Opuntia fragilis (Nutt.) Haw. also grows on the south side of the Columbia and Snake Rivers at least as far west as the Deschutes River.16 Biddle omitted Clark's discovery from his 1814 edition of the journals, so Elliott Coues had no opportunity to speculate on the species. Opuntia polyacantha stem segments do not easily detatch from one another, so most likely it was a variety of Opuntia fragilis, the shapes of which may vary from "subspheric to subcylindric, to flattened and elliptic obovate."17
Subsequent journal references to cacti were few. In mid-July of 1806, both Lewis on the Marias and Clark on the Yellowstone remarked that the many pricklypears each saw were flowering, but on the 28th Lewis noted that "the prickly pear has now cast it's blume." Lewis had Miller's Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnæus at hand, and must have spent a few hours of snowbound confinement at Fort Mandan studying the Linnæan Classes and Orders, and learning to write detailed studies of flowers using basic botanical Latin. He proved himself, for example, with his description of the chokecherry on 15 May 1805, including details of its habitat, its season if fructification, as well as its ethnobotany and importance to wildlife. So why, given that he seemed to realize the species he saw were new, didn't he apply the same care and discipline to his descriptions of the cacti? Why didn't he ask the Mandans what they thought of those prickly plants? Sometimes it may simply have been inconvenient, or because there were more pressing exigencies. But more than likely his neglect was a consequence of his primary obligation to record useful information, and prickly pears were about as useful as mosquitoes or eye-gnats. Nevertheless, even Lewis's faltering attempts to find the spiny species worth accounting for placed him at the forefront of the science in North America in that decade.
Cactaceæ at the birth of botany in the U.S.
Joseph Ewan traced the history of botany in the United States from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century through eight successive epochs. Until 1790s it was chiefly limited to (or by) the energetic efforts of a few foreign naturalists who scoured the land to find native plants—especially trees and medicinal herbs, plus a few ornamentals and exotics—that would be welcome in European markets.18 What Ewan termed the Bartram Epoch began in the 1730s and 40s with the work of farmer John Bartram's circle of friends, whose efforts were mainly directed toward the exportation of plants and seeds from North America to renew declining botanical resources, and to meet the market for exotic plants in British and Continental European countries. This period is notable for the arrival of Carl Linnaeus's Finn protege, Peter Kalm (1716–1779), who disembarked at Philadelphia in 1748, and whose Travels in North America was published in 1771. Domestically, the apogee of this epoch was reached with the publication of Travels through North & South Carolina, by William Bartram (John's son, 1739–1823), in 1791, which included references to several species of cactus he saw in that region: Cactus opuntia, Cactus melo-cactus (Fig. 3), Cactus grandiflora, and Cactus cochinelllifer.
Fourth was the Barton Epoch, which began in 1797, when Benjamin Smith Barton was elected Professor of Materia Medica and natural history at the University of Pennsylvania. With the publication in 1803 of his introductory college textbook, The Elements of Botany, he was soon acknowledged as the progenitor of that science in America. For our present purposes, it is worth noting that Barton's only reference to cacti occurred in the course of his discussion of Linnæus's class Icosandria.19 "The genus Cactus," Barton wrote, "which stands at the head of the class, does not seem to have much relation with the other genera." That was about all he had to say, except that many species of the genus—of course, he couldn't say how many—were indigenous to the United States, and that "the fruits of some species of Cactus, or Indian-Fig, are deemed good eating."20 Probably it was Barton who recommended Miller's Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus to Lewis, which, although it contained no analytical information about cacti, was helpful to him in describing other plants.
Botanists who had been disappointed by Lewis's failure to produce his promised volume on the natural history along the upper Missouri and lower Columbia rivers21 nonetheless pored over Biddle's 1814 paraphrase of the journals for any pertinent information on their subject. Samuel Rafinesque, in an 1817 retrospective account of the growth of the natural sciences in the U.S. since 1800, asserted that among books of the first rank, such as Henry Muhlenberg's Catalogue of the Hitherto Known Native and Naturalized Plants of North America, and Stephen Elliott's Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia (both then in progress), he included "Lewis's and Clarke's travels on the Missouri and to the North-West Coast of America, which are replete with new facts and discoveries."22
A major landmark of the Barton Epoch was the work of Dr. David Hosack, who in 1801 established the Elgin Botanic Garden on the land that is now occupied by Rockefeller Center. Hosack's garden included 12 species of the genus Cactus, all of which had been listed by Linnæus.23
The first botanist to focus attention on North American cacti was Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859), an Englishman who lived and worked in the United States from 1808 until 1841. He and Amos Eaton (1776–1842) were instrumental, by their respective means, in popularizing the science in America at all levels.24 In 1811 Nuttall ventured up the Missouri as far as the Mandan villages, where he collected specimens of the only four cacti native to that vicinity: Opuntia polyacantha, O. fragilis, Coryphantha vivipara, and C. missouriensis. In 1818 Nuttall published The Genera of North American Plants, a comprehensive inventory of botanical discoveries in America, which launched a new and fruitful phase of the science at the professional level.
Unlike Pursh's Flora Americæ Septentrionalis (Plants of North America), to which Nuttall conceived his Genera as an addendum—with Pursh's use of Linnæan Classes and Orders retained—all of his descriptions and observations were written in English, and most were based on close personal observations in the field as well as on information acquired from Indians and EuroAmerican hunters. He never reached the Rockies himself, but he remarked on the habitat occupied by Cactus mamillaris (now Coryphantha missouriensis (Sweet, Britton & Rose. Nipple cactus.) that it grew "on the high hills of the Missouri probably to the mountains." Of the Cactus viviparus (now Escobaria vivipara) he learned that "in spite of its armature the wild antelope of the plains finds means to render it subservient to its wants by cutting it up with his hooves." Of the Opuntia fragilis he wrote: "From the Mandans to the mountains . . . and remarkable for its brittleness, the articulations though not very tumid coming off and attaching themselves to every thing which they happen to touch, so much so as to lead the hunters to say that it grows without roots."25
1. Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (London, 1588). Metaquesunnauk was an Algonquian word for the fruit of several prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) Hariot also carried back additional specimens of "medicinal" tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) as gifts to European royalty. For nearly 400 years thereafter, even the best educated persons worldwide would be blissfully unaware that Nicotiana vulgaris was far more deadly than any cactus.
2. Charles Willson Peale mentioned Turton's translation in a letter to Jefferson dated November 3, 1805. Jefferson included it in a list of books he recommended to his friend George Wythe. Jefferson Papers, Retirement, vol. 1, p. 581. For more on Linnæus's system see Bighorn Sheep—Discoveries.
3. See the full text of Menzies' journal of Vancouver's voyage, April to October, 1792, at https://archive.org/stream/menziesjournalof1792menz/menziesjournalof1792....
4. Philip Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary: Containing the Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit and Flower Garden, as also the Physick Garden, Wilderness, Conservatory, and Vineyard, (London; first (Folio) edition, 1733; seven more in the author's lifetime plus many more, including spinoffs. A kitchen garden was devoted to the growing of table foods; a "physick" garden contained medicinal herbs; a "wilderness" garden consisted of wild plants arranged in an idealized naturalistic setting; a "conservatory" was a hothouse or greenhouse in which temperature and humidity were more or less elevated and controlled to permit the cultivation of certain tropical species.
5. A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806, facsimile reprint (New York: Crown Publishers, 1970).
6. Joseph Ewan and Nesta Ewan, "John Lyon, Nurseryman and Plant Hunter, and His Journal, 1799–1814," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 53, No. 2 (1963), 1–69. American trees were more in demand in Britain than American cacti.
7. In the early 1840s Father Nicholas Point (1799–1868), a Jesuit missionary who spent six years among the Flathead, Nez Perce, and Blackfeet Indians. A gifted water-colorist, he viewed the wilderness with an artist's eye. Writing of the "pricleper" (prickly pear?) he wrote: "The prettiest of [the prairie flowers] is the Cactus Americana. . . . I never saw anything as pure and vivid as the bloom of this charming flower. . . . [which], surrounded by a great many thorns, is only two inches from the earth and grows naturally only in the desert. Thus it, more than the rose, could be the symbol of the pleasures of this world." Michael P. Branch, Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing Before Walden (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 204), 315. Fr. Point's poetic conclusion strikingly resonates with Lewis's acknowledgment of nature's prickly paradox.
8. Lewis's "parchment" undoubtedly refers to a carefully dried buffalo skin, with the hair removed, such as Indian people used as surfaces on which dried roots could be pounded into flour, or sewed into storage containers, parfleches, suitcases and battle shields. The skin would have been soft and flexible enough to be sewn, and tough enough to provide superior protection from cactus spines.
10. Clark's observation regarding cacti is in Moulton, Journals, 8:416. Indeed, botanical, biological, ecological, and even geological research since the second half of the 20th century have established that at least since the end of the Pleistocene ice age, between 12,000 and 10,000 years B.P., the Niobrara River valley has been part of a narrow transitional zone between the central grasslands and the High Plains. Robert B. Kaul, Gai E. Kantak and Steven P. Churchill, "The Niobrara River Valley, a Postglacial Migration Corridor and Refugium of Forest Plants and Animals in the Grasslands of Central North America," The Botanical Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (January–March 1988), 45–81. For a simplified overview of the , see the National Park Service's web page on the Niobrara National Scenic River, at www.nps.gov.
11. Figure 8, Pediocactus simpsonii, or any of several other similar genera. Elliott Coues, the editor of the 1893 edition of Biddle's 1814 version, thought it could have been Mamilaria missouriensis.
12. It has been supposed (Moulton, Journals, 4:433n) that by "Cockeneal plant" Lewis was referring to Nopalea cochenillifera (Linnaeus) Salm-Dyck, Cact. Hort. Dyck, 1849 (since renamed Opuntia cochenillifera; USDA PLANTS Database), a succulent plant that reaches 4 to 5 feet in height, that had been grown in various tropical countries, especially in Jamaica and southern Mexico in the vicinity of Oaxaca for the cultivation of the cochineal scale, from which a brilliant scarlet dye was manufactured. However, the nopal was rarely seen in the United States, and then only in a few private gardens. Moreover, it was known at that time that cochineals feed on nearly any of the so-called pricklypears, so alternatively Lewis might have had in mind the Opuntia humifusa (Raf.) Raf. (Notice the cochineal cocoons on Opuntia polyacantha in Figure 7, photographed near the Sulfur Spring below the Great Falls of the Missouri.)
13. Lewis undoubtedly refers to a carefully dried buffalo skin, with the hair removed, such as Indian people used for many purposes—as storage containers and suitcases, as well as surfaces on which dried roots could be pounded into powder. It would have been flexible enough to be sewn, and tough enough to provide some protection from cactus spines.
14. Donald Jackson, "Some books carried by Lewis and Clark," Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, 16 (Oct. 1959), 3–13.
15. The specific epithet ficus-indica means "fig of the [West] India." The initial L. stands for Linnaeus, who published the first taxon of it; Mill. stands for Philip Miller (1691–1771), the Scottish botanist and gardener who revised Linnæus's taxon for this species.
16. Reuben Gold Thwaites, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806, 8 vols. (1905; reprint, Scituate, Massachusetts: Digital Scanning, Inc., n.d.), 3:120n.
17. Flora of North America, 4:146.
18. "Early History," in Joseph Ewan, ed., A Short History of Botany in the United States (New York: Hafner, 1969), 27–48.
19. From Greek eikosi, twenty; andra, male, together meaning twenty (or more) stamens. Linnæus had placed Cactus as a genus in the class Icosandria and the order Monogynia (one pistil, or female reproductive member of a flower).
20. Benjamin Smith Barton, Elements of Botany; or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables (Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1803), 56-59. Web: Google Books, 12 March 2010.
21. Jackson, Letters, 2:395-96.
22. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1783-1840), "Survey of the progress and actual state of Natural Sciences in the United States of America, from the beginning of this century to the present time," The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review, vol. 2, no. 2 (December 1817). Web: American Periodicals Series 0nline, 1740–1900, ProQuest LLC, 16 January 20010.
23. C. coccinellifer, "Cochineal Indian fig"; C. ficus-indica, "White spined Indian fig," which Lewis might have seen there, although there is no record of such a visit; C. flagelliformis, "creeping Cereus," whiplash or rattail cactus; C. glomeratus, "smallest Indian fig" or ; C. grandifloris or night flowering Cereus, a widely used medicament; C. mammillaris, "small Melon thistle"; C. melocactus, "great Melon thistle"; C. opuntia, "common Indian fig" (the eastern prickly pear sent to Linnæus by the Virginian John Clayton, and the only species from North America, the rest being from Mexico, Central, and South America); C. pentagonus, "five sided torch thistle"; C. pereskia, "Barbadoes gooseberry" or rose cactus; C. triangularis, "triangular Cereus"; and C. tuna, "black spined Indian fig."
24. Eaton's Manual of Botany for the Northern States (i.e., norh of Virginia), the first comprehensive flora of the region, appeared in 1817 and went through eight editions by 1836. Eaton retained Linnæus's binomial nomenclature but adopted the taxonomy of "natural orders" conceived by the French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836). When it came to cacti, however, Eaton described only the flowers, not the more conspicuous aspects of the stems or "leaves," and areoles. In the second edition of the Manual, Eaton recommended the study of botany to the attention of ladies, but found it unnecessary to reiterate that in the third (1822) edition since, he observed, "I believe more than half the botanists in New England and New York are ladies."
25. Thomas Nuttall, The Genera of North American Plants, 2 vols., 1818. Facsimile edition (New York: Hafner, 1971), 2:295–97. Already Nuttall was able to summarize the genus Opuntia as "an American genus of near 40 species, almost exclusively tropical." Today, according to Flora of North America (vol. 4, page 123), there are approximately 150 species of Opuntia in North and South America, Mexico, and the West Indies.
Funded in part by the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.