Along the Missouri

Page 2 of 5

Sego-lily (Calochortus nuttallii Torr. & A. Gray)1

photo: close-up of sego-lily blossom

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Soapweed (Yucca glauca Nutt.)1

photo: soapweed plant in bloom

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Nuttall was a printer by trade, and in St. Louis he applied his skills at a local newspaper, thereby gaining a small but adequate income. He met the Englishman John Bradbury, a fellow botanist, and the two collected locally. In the spring of 1811, they headed up the Missouri River, traveling with the "Overland Astorians" who were heading for Oregon with Wilson Hunt Price as their leader.2

Nuttall's adventures along the Missouri River were many, and the botany intriguing. Although the area had been botanized by Lewis and Clark in 1804, and to a much lesser degree in 1806, none of the plants had been described and thus all was new to him. Nuttall also collected at the perfect time, covering the whole of the river from the Mandan region to St. Louis throughout the growing season. Also, it is good to remember that Lewis and Clark lost their entire 1805 spring collection when a winter cache was destroyed by floodwater. As a result, many of the plants Nuttall (and Bradbury) found were destined to be new to science.

Unlike Bradbury, who returned to St. Louis in July, Nuttall apparently remained on the upper Missouri. It is unclear where he went or how he traveled. One new plant he obtain was the sego-lily, Calochortus nuttallii (kal-oh-COR-tus nut-TALL-ee-eye). Today that plant is found from extreme western North Dakota westward. It is possible Nuttall traveled up river a considerable distance, or that one of the trappers brought the specimen to him. It is likely that Nuttall returned to St. Louis with Manuel Lisa of the Missouri Fur Company, arriving there in late October of 1811.

The result for Nuttall was a wealth of new plants, many times more than Barton could ever have expected. In the fall, however, when he got back to St. Louis, Nuttall learned of the possibility of war between England and America. He gave up all hopes of going back to Philadelphia and sailed for Europe from New Orleans, taking his dried plants and seeds with him.

In London, Nuttall prepared his collection, apparently with the intent of delivering a full set of his specimens to Barton. At the same time he published a small pamphlet in association with Fraser's Nursery, wherein he validly published such new species as the cactus spinystar, Escobaria viviparia (Nutt.) Buxbaum (ess-coe-BAR-ee-ah vi-vi-PAIR-ree-ah,referring to the small, persistent fruits), the alpine golden wild buckwheat, Eriogonum flavum Nutt. (er-ee-AH-gon-um and FLAY-vum, referring to the golden yellow color of the flowers), the tufted evening-primrose, Oenothera cespitosa Nutt. (ee-NO-ther-ah ces-PIT-oh-sah, the matted or tufted habit) and big-fruit evening-primrose, Oenothera macrocarpa Nutt. (ma-crow-CAR-pah, big fruit), the large-flower beardtongue, Penstemon grandiflorum Nutt. (PEN-steh-mun gran-di-FLOOR-um, large flowers), and soapweed, Yucca glauca Nutt. (YUCK-ah and GLAW-cah, alluding to the bluish waxy covering on the leaves).

1. Many of the plants shown here were probably collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and were among the cached specimens lost to the disastrous spring floods of 1806. It is difficult to appreciate the significance the loss of these specimens had on Lewis's mental state as he was attempting to prepare his final report. The history of botanical collecting in the American West is filled with the names of now forgotten naturalists who lost essentially everything but their lives to fast-flowing water.

2. The story of the "Overland Astorians" was told with considerable relish by Washington Irving in a two-volume 1836 book entitled Astoria. The party left St. Charles, Missouri, on March 14, 1811 (Nuttall and Bradbury left the following day on foot) and reached the Pacific Ocean on February 16, 1812 after some considerable hardship. Robert Stuart left with a return party in late June of that year and reached St. Louis on April 30, 1813. There is no indication that either botanist desired to go beyond the Mandan villages of North Dakota.