Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820)

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photo: lance-leaf stonecrop blossoms

Lance-leaf stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum Pursh)
"On the naked rocks on the Kooskooskie. Jun: 5th. 1806."
Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal


The short life of Frederick Pursh (also known as Friedrick Pursch) is a tale of emotional and professional highs and lows, fortune and misfortune, and triumphs and tragedies. He survives in botanical history by virtue of a single book, his Flora americae septentrionalis. He lies dead in an unmarked grave somewhere in Montreal, Canada, a drunk and destitute at the end of life.

Pursh was born at Grossenhain in Saxony in unknown circumstances. Apparently he received little in the way of a formal education and probably in his late teens took employment at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Dresden. There he inherited a manuscript on the plants of the area that he prepared for publication. The work was published in parts by W. G. Becker in Der Plauische Grund bei Dresden, mit Hinsicht auf Naurgeschichte und schÀÜne Gartenkunst in 1799. The title of Pursh's contribution was "Verzeichniss der im Plauischen Grunde und den zunächst angrenzenden Gegenden wildwachsenden Pflanzen," and here he rendered his name "Friedrich Traugott Pursch."

Flushed with the success of his contribution, Pursh left Germany for the new United States. The reason for his departure is unknown, but his work in Dresden may have stirred a desire to see other parts of the world, and especially a part that offered a wealth of new and exciting plants for the garden.