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Natural HistoryPlantsLewisia Rediviva

Lewis's Specimen of Bitterroot

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he "T.M." in parentheses stands for Thomas Meehan (1826-1901), a botanist at the Academy of Natural Sciences who, in the late 1890s, found many of Lewis's specimens at the American Philosophical Society, where they had lain untouched and forgotten for three-quarters of a century. He moved them to the Academy's collection, mounted them, and in 1898 published the first list of the Lewis and Clark Herbarium. He attests by his initials that it is he who has labeled this specimen Lewisia rediviva Pursh. Frederick Pursh was the young German botanist and formerly a curator for the Philadelphia naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton. In 1807 Lewis entrusted his entire collection to Pursh for organization, classification, and entry into the corpus of contemporary botanical literature.

Bitterroot flower

The phrase "Near Clark's R. Jul. 1st 1806 Lewis" indicates that Lewis collected the specimen on July 1, 1806 in the vicinity of Travelers' Rest near the river now called the Bitterroot. Gary Moulton believes that Lewis's journal entry for July second, 1806, suggests he might have collected it on that day instead: "I found several other uncommon plants specemines of which I preserved."

The next sentence, also in the handwriting of Frederick Pursh, states first that the calyx, or group of sepals, consists of sometimes six, sometimes seven leaves. In the photograph the sepals are the pale leaves behind the pink petals. The corolla consists of "many pedals" (i.e., petals) and many "Tamina" (stamens). The stamens in the center, surrounded by the pink petals, are the male organs of the flower; they are topped by what Pursh called "Capsula," but now are called anthers. Meehan may have added Pursh's name to this label. The white envelope at upper right is the "packet" that contained pieces of the plant that have dropped off of the specimen at some time.

Why is there no root, stem, or leaf accompanying the bedraggled petals? Pursh provided the answer in his description of the plant in his book, Flora Americae septentrionalis (1814):

This elegant plant would be a very desirable addition to the ornamental perennials, since, if once introduced, it would be easily kept and propagated, as the following circumstance will clearly prove. The specimen with roots taken out of the Herbarium of M. Lewis, Esq. was planted by Mr. M'Mahon of Philadelphia, and vegetated for more than one year: but some accident happening to it, I had not the pleasure of seeing it in flower.1

More than likely the "accident" was M'Mahon's over-watering of the dryland species. Nevertheless, relying on Lewis's description, and the little material evidence he had, Pursh painted a strikingly beautiful, if slightly inaccurate, picture of what Lewis saw:

Pursh's painting

-- 5/2003; rev. 6/2012

1. Flora Americae septentrionalis, 2 vols. (London: White, Cochrane, and Co., 1814).

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)