Lewis's Second Specimen

Glacier Lily, Erythronium grandiflorum

Collected May 8, 1806

lily plant dried, pressed, and labeled on herbarium paper

Lewis and Clark Herbarium, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

At right is a detail from the specimen Lewis collected on May 8, 1806, somewhere along the Clearwater River. This specimen, which is No. 65a in Moulton's Herbarium of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1999), is called a paratype. That is, it represents the same species as the specimen that was selected for the first scientific description (see above, comment 5), but was collected at a different time and place.

The label "Erythronium grandiflorum, Pursh var. parviflorum, Watson" was written by Benjamin Lincoln Robinson (1864-1935), curator of the herbarium at Harvard University to whom Thomas Meehan, of The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, sent nearly all of the Lewis specimens he found at the American Philosophical Society. The Latin parviflorum means "little flower," implying that this is a small variety of the "big flower" of the species grandiflorum. "Watson" was Sereno Watson (1826-1892), curator at Harvard prior to Robinson.

Pursh wrote the label at the bottom of the specimen sheet, copying the information from Lewis's original, which he then discarded. It reads: "From the plains of Columbia near Kooskooskee R. May 8th 1806. the natives reckon this root as unfitt for food." By "the natives" Lewis likely meant the Nez Perce people. In fact, numerous tribes once used the bulbs as a staple food, either raw or cooked, or dried and stored for winter use, and ate the two opposing basal leaves also. A few tribes found medicinal uses for them. Children regarded the small ends of the roots as candy. Women of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia are said to have used the corms as wagers in gambling.1 Both black and grizzly bears also feed on the roots, as do rodents such as the Columbian ground squirrel. Lewis made no mention in his journal of having tasted the root himself.


1. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998), 227.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee