Period of Good Fortune

Page 5 of 8

Pinkfairies, Clarkia pulchella Pursh

Found "on the steep sides of the fertile hills" northeast of Kamiah, Idaho Co., Idaho, on 1 Jun 1806

photo: Clarkia pulcella with antler-shaped purple petals

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Oregon Bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva Pursh

Collected near Travelers' Rest, Missoula Co., Montana, on 2 Jul 1806

photo: Oregon bitter-root blossom with slender white petals

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Pursh arrived with a large collection of plants already in hand. In addition to the small number of Lewis and Clark plants, he had retained significant portions of the plants he had gathered for both Barton and Hosack. He needed some place where he could have access to a large botanical library and collection as well as patronage. All of this he found in the home of Aylmer Bourke Lambert.

Pursh began to work immediately. In late January of 1812, he wrote the president of the Linnean Society, James Edward Smith, asking if he was interested in a manuscript for the Society's Transactions on the new species from the Lewis and Clark expedition.1

It was here that Pursh hoped to describe Lewisia (loo-WIS-ee-ah), Clarkia (CLAR-key-ah) and Calochortus (kal-oh-CORE-tus). By spring, with the encouragement of Lambert, and now with access to the libraries and collections of both Sir Joseph Banks and James Smith, Pursh was set to work on a new flora of North America.

It is said that Pursh had "tartaresque features and was correspondingly rough-hewn in behavior." He was also reportedly an alcoholic. There is a tale, probably apocryphal, that to get the flora finished, Lambert locked Pursh in his attic room, providing him only with books, specimens, paper, ink, food and beer. A contemporary of Pursh's described him in London as "drunk morning, noon and night," and even Barton in Philadelphia noted that Pursh favored the "muddy ectasies of beer." Whatever the truth, Pursh wrote away with considerable diligence. It is also obvious that Pursh was not always confined to his room. In addition to seeing the specimens owned by Lambert, Banks and Smith, he visited the University of Oxford where he consulted many early American collections such as those gathered by Mark Catesby in the 1720s.

In the spring of 1812, Pursh met Thomas Nuttall, a young man who had resided in Philadelphia from 1808 until his return to England in 1811. Like Pursh, Nuttall was hired by Benjamin Smith Barton to collect for him, basically taking Pursh's position when Pursh went to New York. Nuttall spent much of 1810 collecting in the "Old Northwest" around the Great Lakes, but in 1811, he managed to ascend the Missouri to Lewis and Clark's winter site of Fort Mandan, collecting dried specimens and seeds. Obviously, Nuttall recollected many of the new species Lewis and Clark had found there in 1804 and in 1806.

There now was a race by the two men to get their new genera into print.

  • 1. As a young man, James Edward Smith (see (1759-1828) was traveling in Sweden when he learned that the library and collections of Carl Linnaeus might be for sale. Granted the funds by his father, he made the purchase in 1784 and embarked on a career neither he nor his father ever anticipated. As a person of means, but still of consider intellect, he obtained his medical degree in 1786, and in 1788 founded the Linnean Society (see He served as president until his death. From this start, Smith amassed a large number of other herbaria that he brought to London and then made available to others—such as Pursh—for study. He was a prolific writer, contributing some 3,045 botanical articles and biographies for Abraham Rees' multi-volumed Cyclopaedia published from 1802 until 1820. Smith organized Linnaeus's collections, manuscripts, correspondence and library and again made all of it available for critical study by naturalists throughout the world. A strong promoter of the Linnaean method for classifying plants, he championed its use by publishing numerous editions of his English botany. His textbook, An introduction to physiological and systematical botany, would undergo eight English editions and one American edition, two under the editorship of other botanists after Smith died. His lavishly illustrated The English flora, begun in 1824, was completed in 1836 with William Jackson Hooker, who wrote and published the fifth and last volume.