Rafinesque in Philadelphia

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California plumseed, Rafinesquia californica Nutt.

California plumseed: large white petals

Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

New Mexico plumseed, R. neomexicana A. Gray

New Mexico plumseed: numerous white petals with a yellow umbel

Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

Rafinesque returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1826 laden with some 40 trunks of specimens. In a sense it was a sad return. His father had died there in 1793 of the yellow fever he had contracted in Philadelphia. Now the son was without immediate employment, but as always Rafinesque was inventive. He gave public lectures, organized a bank for working people, and capitalized on his latest interest, medicinal plants. The first volume of his two-volume Medical flora; or manual of the medical botany of the United States of North America was published in 1828 (the second in 1830) and sold well. He found a patron in Charles Wetherill and began to published dozens of books on natural history, philosophy and linguistics.

His Atlantic journal was published in eight parts from the spring of 1832 until the winter of 1833. As a supplement to the later parts he issued Herbarium rafinesquianum, where he described numerous new species of plants based on the specimens then in his possession. It was at this time that Rafinesque took a scientific interest in the plants and animals mentioned by Lewis and Clark. In addition to the six species of conifers mentioned here, he also established the scientific name for the prairie dog, the white-footed mouse and the mule deer. In addition, he described the blue elderberry as Sambucus cerulea [sam-BUK-us sear-OOL-ee-ah], taking his features from the description Lewis wrote on February 7, 1806.

For North American botany, Rafinesque began to publish a series of books. Unlike his earlier works, however, the publications that began to appear starting in 1836 were often a jumble of confusion. None was truly organized into anything resembling a coherent manual or flora. It was often as if the arrangement and even the writing were no more than a flow of thoughts derived from something randomly gathered from his herbarium. It is true that his works were to be mere supplements to floras published by others, but whose flora was rarely identified. The New flora and botany of North America (in four parts, each with a different subtitle, 1836–1838) was rapidly followed by Flora telluriana (in four parts, 1837–1838), Alsographia americana (1838), and Sylva telluriana (1838). Thousands of new species and hundreds of new genera were proposed.10


10. The genus name Rafinesquia was proposed three times. Rafinesque himself published the first two attempts (in 1836 and in 1838). In 1841, Thomas Nuttall proposed the name a third time, and by international agreement, his name has been "conserved" so that it might be used. This genus is a member of the sunflower family Asteraceae and consists of two species found in the American Southwest and northwestern Mexico. Rafinesque never saw specimens of either species.