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People Commemorated in Eastern Sierra Plant Names

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Desert Ceanothus, Ceanothus greggii A. Gray var. vestitus (E. Greene) McMinn (Rhamnaceae)

by Larry Blakely

References and Notes

(First Posted: 2003 01 02; Last Revised: ; Text appeared in the newsletter of the Bristlecone chapter, CNPS, September, 2002/Vol. 22, No. 5)

Ceanothus greggii

Desert Ceanothus, Ceanothus greggii A. Gray var. vestitus (E. Greene) McMinn
Photo and © by Larry Blakely

Ceanothus greggii

Desert Ceanothus, Ceanothus greggii A. Gray var. vestitus (E. Greene) McMinn
Photo and © by Larry Blakely

I first encountered this plant over a decade ago when I noticed it in spectacular bloom along the flanks of Rawson Creek, just below the canyon mouth. A mass of these evergreen shrubs, up to 6 feet or more tall, makes an impressive early Spring show when abundantly covered with their small, white, and also highly fragrant, flowers. The man it was named for, I have discovered, was a pretty impressive person as well. And the businessman turned plant collector, who brought the Desert Ceanothus to scientific attention, might have caused the botanical history of California to have taken a somewhat different course had things been a little different, and his life not had an early and tragic end.

Josiah Gregg

Josiah Gregg.
Fulton, 1944.(1).

The collector was the fearless but frail frontier explorer, trader, and intellectual, Josiah Gregg (1806 - 1850) (1). He found the shrub at the site of the Battle of Buena Vista (one of the 2 decisive battles of the Mexican-American War) near Saltillo, Mexico, in early 1847. At the outset of the war, Gregg served the U.S. Army as interpreter and guide in a country he had spent years in as a trader, on the Santa Fe trail and points south. By the time of the Battle of Buena Vista, he had left off his official service, but continued to observe the war situation, and to send incisive reports to newspapers and friends in the States. His lifelong interest in natural history took a new course at about this time; he began plant collecting in earnest. He sent most of his specimens to his friend George Engelmann (2) of St. Louis, principal botanist of the western U.S. at that time. Duplicate specimens, either via Engelmann or another botanist, C. W. Short (4) of Kentucky, to whom Gregg also sent specimens, made their way to Asa Gray at Harvard. Though Engelmann named some of Gregg's new species (especially the cacti), Gray had much greater herbarium and library resources, and it was Gray who named most of them. Gray's former mentor, and later colleague as principal U.S. botanist, John Torrey, also named some of Gregg's plants.

By the early 1900s the range of C. greggii was known to extend from northern Mexico, western Texas, and southern New Mexico, through Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and on to California. Some varieties of C. greggii are recognized, two in California. Famed Western botanist Edward Greene, then (1889) at UC Berkeley, collected a Ceanothus specimen in the Tehachapi Mountains which he thought to be a new species, calling it C. vestitus. Howard McMinn, in his 1939 classic work on California shrubs (6), decided Greene's 'new' Ceanothus was, rather, a variety of C. greggii. Thus the currently accepted full scientific name for our variety came into being, which includes, it will be noted, the names of four persons (including the three authorities)!

Baileya pleniradiata

Baileya pleniradiata, photo'd by the author at Eureka Dunes, 16 May, 2001.

It appears that all of Gregg's known collections were made in Mexico, and what is now New Mexico. About 80 plant names have have been coined to honor Gregg. Many of the names are no longer valid, but, based on a survey of the literature, forty-seven Southwestern and Mexican plants currently bear the specific epithet 'greggii', for Josiah Gregg. (7). Attempts to name a genus for him came to nomenclatural demise (8). Only one other plant named for Gregg occurs in California: Catclaw, Acacia greggii A. Gray (9). Most of the many plants of which he collected type specimens do not range our way, one exception being the Woolly Marigold, Baileya pleniradiata A. Gray.

In his youth Gregg seemed the least likely person to become an explorer and adventurer. At about age 25 he was in such a debilitated state that he could barely move from his room in the family home, situated near the jumping off site of the rather recently blazed Santa Fe Trail. Then a most remarkable thing happened. His doctor prescribed a radical change - that he take to the prairies and join the next caravan to Santa Fe! Incredibly, within a week on the trail he was no longer riding on a bed in a wagon, but was out walking, and, soon after, riding a horse. Before long he joined in all the tribulations of the journey, hunted the wild bison, and helped with Indian encounters (Jedediah Smith had suffered his untimely end just days before Gregg's party passed nearby). By the time they got to Santa Fe he was a new man, had learned Spanish, and, in subsequent years, became a successful trader on his own. Prolonged stays back in civilization, however, often led to serious declines in his health.

Bison and Calf

Bison female with newborn, photo'd by the author at the National Bison Range, Moiese, MT, June, 1994

Gregg is well known among historians of the West for his book, Commerce of the Prairies (1), a masterpiece of frontier lore and practical information in which, with considerable detail and accuracy, he described the country, peoples, and natural history along the Santa Fe trail. He was one of those few early explorers who revelled in what they saw on the frontier of Euro expansion, and also wrote with sensitivity and intelligence about it. From their pens we know what things were like, and what was lost in the inevitable mad rush that followed. He befriended several of the Native Americans of various tribes that he encountered on the Trail, and wrote four interesting chapters about the tribes in his book. There is also a perceptive chapter on the animals of the prairies; the description of bison is a particularly interesting and full account (10).

He was a nineteenth century "techie". In spite of growing up on the rough, ready, and isolated Missouri frontier, Gregg became a whiz at math, in which, as with most subjects, he was self taught. He amazed friends and elders by using trigonometry and home-built instruments to measure the heights of trees. Later, with a sextant and other gadgets, he plotted his way over new routes to Santa Fe, guiding his entourages across the prairie "oceans" (as he often called them). During his travels he made many maps of regions he had traversed in (what is now) New Mexico and Northern Mexico, based on his measurements of latitude, longitude, and elevation. Furthermore, in one of his letters to Engelmann, he asked the botanist to send him plates for his Daguerrotype 'instrument'. If he was successful in taking photos - and most likely he was, given his determination - none survive. Were he alive today he'd surely be thrilled with a GPS unit and a digital camera. On the other hand, the lack nowadays of wide open and unexplored spaces, the frequent exposure to which was so necessary to his well-being, would no doubt depress him. But, as it turned out, even unexplored places couldn't keep him going longer than his physical limitations proscribed.

In 1849 he began hearing about the California mines. He had a long time interest in mines, not as a miner would, but as a businessman providing services to miners; he also had a keen scientific interest in them. So he decided he'd combine his new-found passion for plant collecting with a look at the mining scene in the soon-to-be new State. He planned to leave Mexico City, where he had spent a few months after the war was over, and travel overland through Mexico to San Diego and on to San Francisco, collecting plants along the way. Circumstances delayed his departure, and the season proved unusually dry and unfavorable for plant growth, and, furthermore, his health was not good. So, when he reached Mazatlan, with little prospect of getting much more than he had in the way of collections (he sent Engelmann 600 specimens from that city), as well as being uncertain he could make it further overland in his weak condition, he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco, which he reached after 45 days.

Perhaps, if circumstances had been different, he might have been able to mine the Southern California botanical bonanza a few months before Charles C. Parry, botanist with the Mexican Boundary Survey, arrived on the scene. Had that happened, more California plants might today bear the specific epithet 'greggii'.

Not long after reaching San Francisco, he visited placer mines on the Trinity River. He soon found a way to be of service to the miners, when the possibility of a seaport to the west came up. He led a party of 8 men (probably rough miners and opportunists, the number having diminished from an initially larger number due to the prospect of a rough trip) to go look for it. Unfortunately it was now approaching winter, and the coast ranges, with snow at higher elevations and incessant cold rain at lower, had to be crossed. All of the party were miserable and hungry as food ran out, and the men soon grew weary of 'Captain Gregg' and his frequent stops to make measurements - of latitude and longitude, and, later, of the diameter and height of redwood trees. Some 40 days after setting out (an Indian had told them they might reach it in 8 days), they did find the bay, which they dubbed "Trinidad Bay". However, a party of seamen arrived not long after by sea, and, quickly returning to SF with the discovery news, got credit for its discovery and naming: the seamen called it Humboldt Bay. Some of Gregg's names stuck, though, including Mad River, the scene of a serious dispute within his party, and Eel River, where they met an Indian from whom they purchased a basket full of the river's namesakes. On the return trip, near Clear Lake, Gregg, in a half-starved and very weak condition, fell from his horse and died within hours. He was buried on the spot, and, unfortunately, his journal and any collections were not saved. Gregg was in his 44th year. It was a terribly sad end, far from his many sympathetic friends and family members, for this brilliant man who was strong of purpose and mind, but less so of body (11).

Each spring, however, there comes forth, here and across his beloved Southwest, a joyful reminder of Josiah Gregg, as the Desert Ceanothus bursts into bloom.

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1. Works by and about Gregg

  1. Gregg, Josiah. 1844. Commerce of the Prairies. 1954 reprint, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. The text and illustrations are online at:
  2. Horgan, Paul. 1979. Josiah Gregg and His Vision of the Early West. Farrar Straus Giroux, N. Y.
  3. Fulton, Maurice Garland. 1941. Diary & Letters of Josiah Gregg. Southwestern Enterprises 1840-1847. Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
  4. Fulton, Maurice Garland. 1944. Diary & Letters of Josiah Gregg. Excursions in Mexico & California 1847-1850. Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
  5. Lee, John Thomas. 1931. Josiah Gregg and Dr. George Engelmann. American Antiquarian Society, October 1931, pp. 355-404. Letters from G. to E., 1846-1849.

2. For a brief biographical sketch of George Engelmann see Nilsson, Karen B. 1994. A Wild Flower by any other Name; Sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants. Yosemite Association. pp. 52-55.

It is not clear how Gregg met Engelmann, nor how long he had known him when he began sending him plant collections. Gregg's biographers, who were not keenly interested in his botanical contributions, have little to say on the matter. In a footnote Fulton ((1) , 1941, p. 189) writes: "Gregg had made at some time the acquaintance of Dr. Wislizenus and his partner, Dr. George Engelmann, and a mutual interest in scientific discovery and observation had brought them into friendship."

In a "Botanical Appendix" to Wislizenus' book (3) on his botanical explorations in northern Mexico undertaken at the same time as Gregg, Engelmann wrote: "In examining the collections of Dr. Wislizenus, I have been materially aided by having it in my power to compare the plants which Dr. Josiah Gregg, the author of that interesting work 'the Commerce of the Prairies,' has gathered between Chihuahua and the mouth of the Rio Grande, but particularly about Monterey and Saltillo, and a share of which, with great liberality, he has communicated to me. His and Dr. W.'s collections together, form a very fine herbarium for those regions."

One of the plants collected by Gregg was the fascinating cactus, the Night-blooming Cereus or, 'Queen of the Night', Peniocereus greggii (Engelmann called it Cereus greggii). In naming it in the "Botanical Appendix" Engelmann wrote: "I could not have given it a more appropriate name than that of the zealous and intelligent explorer of those far off regions."

Peniocereus greggii

Peniocereus greggii var. greggii.
Upper photo (by R. Spellenberg) of a plant in daytime; lower photo (by T. Todsen) of a plant in bloom at night. New Mexico Rare Plant Technical Council. 1999. New Mexico Rare Plants. Albuquerque, NM: New Mexico Rare Plants. (Version 15 March 2002).

3. Wislizenus, F. A. 1848. Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico, 1846 and 1847. Rio Grande Press, 1969 reprint.

4. Charles W. Short (1794-1863) succeeded Constantine Rafinesque as botanist at Lexington, KY's Transylvania University in 1825. In 1838 he moved to the Medical Institute of Louisville (now the medical school of the University of Louisville). He accumulated a large herbarium (15,000 specimens) which was given to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia upon his death. [Geiser (5), p. 252; Fulton, (1) , 1941, p. 372] The genus Shortia was named in his honor by Asa Gray. Asa Gray wrote a highly sympathetic vignette of Short's career upon the latter's death at age 69: Gray, Asa. 1863. Charles Wilkins Short. American Journal of Science and Arts, 2 ser., xxxv. 451.

Gregg met Short while studying for a medical degree in Louisville. Early in his life Gregg wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but the doctor he applied to for guidance thought him too frail and would not take him on. Nevertheless he read widely in the field of medicine and always carried some basic medical works with him when leading parties to Mexico. He apparently was effective in catering to the medical needs of those in his employ. It was said that, even back home, friends and relatives preferred his ministrations over the local degreed doctors [Fulton, (1) , 1941, p. 384]. In the Fall of 1845 he decided to do a serious study of medicine, and chose Louisville, where he thought he would not be known and could pursue studies incognito (he had become rather famous as a result of the publication of his very well received book). He wasn't successful in that regard, and he suffered lengthy bouts of illness, but he studied as diligently as he could. He apparently did well on examinations, and in spite of having studied for only a few months, was awarded a medical degree in 1847. C. W. Short was one of his favorites among the professors, and probably, along with Engelmann's influence, stimulated in Gregg an interest in the flora of unexplored places, particularly as sources of plants with potential medical use. On his specimen labels Gregg always noted any local medicinal uses. Gregg generally eschewed the title "Doctor", but he did practice very successfully for nearly a year in Saltillo, after the war. He was highly regarded as a doctor there, but refused to charge the high fees he could have demanded, which might have made him more comfortable financially.

5. Geiser, Samuel Wood. 1948. Naturalists of the Frontier. Southern Methodist Unviersity.

6. McMinn, Howard E. 1939. An Illustrated Manual of California Shrubs. UC Press, Berkeley.

7. Plants currently named for Gregg: Click here for the list.

8. The genus Greggia.

Fallugia paradoxa

Fallugia paradoxa. Photo by W. L. Wagner, from the USDA's PLANTS database.

Both Engelmann and Gray coined a genus name Greggia. They knew that the genus name had already been used. The name Greggia aromatica (Myrtaceae) was given in 1788 to a Caribbean tree in honor of a different Gregg, who collected in the Caribbean in the 18th century. The name was later changed to Eugenia gregii [sic] when it was decided that the plant belonged in the genus Eugenia. (There already was a Eugenia aromatica, the spice Clove.)

In his "Botanical Appendix" to Wislizenus' 1848 book (3), p. 114, Engelmann wrote:

I cannot omit to introduce here a beautiful shrub discovered on the rocks about Agua Nueva and Buena Vista by Dr. Gregg. Depending upon Don's characters of Cowania as correct, I must consider this plant as the type of a new genus, which I have great pleasure to dedicate to its indefatigable discoverer, my friend Dr. Josiah Gregg, whose name has already been frequently mentioned in these pages. Greggia rupestris is a lovely, sweet-scented shrub, with flowers resembling roses in shape and color, so that Dr. Gregg was induced to name it the "Cliff rose."

But it turned out that the plant Engelmann named Greggia rupestris had been previously named. It was named Sieversia paradoxa in 1824, a name later changed to Fallugia paradoxa. F. paradoxa occurs in Eastern California, including Inyo County, where it goes by the common name Apache Plume. Even had Engelmann's name been the first for this plant, the genus name could not have survived because of rules adopted for naming plants (see next paragraph).

The plant, a mustard, for which Gray gave the generic name Greggia [calling the type Greggia camporum in an 1852 publication; Plantae Wrightianae, Smithsonian Contr. Knowl. 3(5):9] had not been previously named. However, it was renamed Nerisyrenia camporum by E. L. Greene in 1900 (Pittonia 4:225.), in accordance with a rule of botanical nomenclature which demands that no generic name be of identical spelling to a prior, correctly published, generic name. The generic name Greggia had been validly published in 1788. Gray's Greggia is now considered a "later homonym", and, under the rules of botanical nomenclature (which may have first been adopted under the Rochester Code of 1892 [Lawrence, G. 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants. Macmillan. p. 197]), cannot be used.

Gray's name, Greggia camporum, is still listed by some sources (e.g., USDA's PLANTS on-line database) as a synonym for Nerisyrenia camporum. The plant retains the common names Mesa Greggia, or Velvety Greggia. It occurs in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico.

9. Catclaw. Gregg collected this plant in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in April, 1847 (Cronquist, et al., Int. Flora 3B:7); it was named Acacia greggii by Asa Gray in 1852. It appears that Gregg first encountered it in October, 1846, along the Rio Grande River while travelling with the Army southwest of San Antonio, TX. In listing the timber of the region he notes, using the local Mexican name, the "uña-de-gato (or cats-claw)" which he recognized as a "species of acacia".

10. Bison/Buffalo. In Gregg's account of the bison/buffalo, he discusses the name (he felt the term "buffalo" was unfortunate, but used it throughout his discourse); the savory qualities of the meat; the fate of the bison - though abundant on the prairies, clearly headed for extinction in his view; hunting methods by Indians, Mexicans, and Euros; their not being dangerous to man except when wounded; and other aspects of the bison's nature and man-bison interactions. Click here for a complete extract of Gregg's account from Commerce of the Prairies.

11. Both George Engelmann (2) and Charles W. Short (4) planned to do a biographical sketch of Gregg upon hearing of his death; both wrote Gregg's brother John, and Short also wrote Dr. Bayless, a friend of Gregg. Nothing was apparently published, but the correspondence survives in the Fulton volume for 1840-47 (1).

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