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People Commemorated in Eastern Sierra Plant Names

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Large white desert primrose, Oenothera caespitosa Nutt. (Onagraceae),
Desert olive, Forestiera pubescens Nutt. (Oleaceae),
~ and ~
Nuttall's linanthus, Linanthus nuttallii (A. Gray) Milliken (Polemoniaceae)

by Larry Blakely

References and Notes

(First Posted: 2000 01 03; Last Revised: 2007 03 29 [Additional information on genera named for Nuttall added to Note 3]; Text appeared in the newsletter of the Bristlecone Chapter, CNPS, January, 2000/Vol. 20, No.1)

Oenothera caespitosa

Large white desert primrose, Oenothera caespitosa Nutt.
Photo and © by Larry Blakely

Forestiera pubescens

Desert olive, Forestiera pubescens Nutt.
Photo and © by Larry Blakely

Nuttall's linanthus

Nuttall's linanthus, Linanthus nuttallii (A. Gray) Milliken
Photo and © by Larry Blakely

Thomas Nuttall at age 38. (5)
Click on the picture for a SLIDE SHOW of 3 more Nuttall images.

Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) (1), "a name which will last as long as flowers are loved" (2), spent most of his adult life in the US, though he was born and also died in England. I've chosen three plants - one to represent each of his three expeditions west of the Mississippi - from the thousands he both collected and named, and of many named in his honor. (3) He was a remarkable man who penetrated much of what is now the US, mostly on foot, in a one-man quest to expand the horizons of botanical knowledge - and other areas of natural history to boot. (4) He was the quintessential rugged individualist, driven by a dogged determination, a botanist who did it all - both collection in the rigorous field and proper naming, later, in the herbarium.

Delphinium nuttallianum.
Brousseau photo (©)

In 1810-1811, not long after settling in Philadelphia in 1808, he walked and canoed across the Great Lakes region, then on to St. Louis and up the Missouri, practically on the heels of Lewis and Clark. (5) His extraordinary focus was remarked on by a young lawyer, along for the adventure, who was with Nuttall near the Mandan villages: " . . . [he] appears singularly devoted [to collecting], which seem[s] to engross every thought, to the total disregard of his own personal safety . . . a young man of genius, and very considerable acquirements . . ." (6) Along the Missouri, south of the Mandan villages, he collected specimens of the plant he later named Oenothera caespitosa, a low-to-the ground evening primrose with large white flowers, found in our neck of the woods also.(7)

Helianthus nuttallii.
Blakely photo

Later, from his base at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, he produced an epochal book on the then-known plants of North America. (8) In 1818 he set out for the Arkansas region. The result, in addition to numerous new plants, was his only published travel journal, a work not only of interest to botanists but a primary sourcebook for the early history of the states of AR and OK. (9) In this area he collected, and later named, many new species, among them the Desert Olive, which, while not plentiful, is common in the Owens Valley. (10)

To put Nuttall's daring in perspective, in 1818 another famous 19th century botanist, John Torrey of New York City, found exploring in New Jersey arduous! (11) Like his protege, Asa Gray, Torrey was primarily a "closet botanist," preferring to have others collect for him.

Minuartia nuttallii. Brousseau photo (©)

Nuttall was now recognized as the leading naturalist of the United States. He was invited to join the faculty of Harvard University, where he labored in rather benign circumstances (for him) from 1823-1834. Finally he could stand the "vegetating" (as he called it) no longer, and, as he approached his 50th year, set off on his third expedition west of the Mississippi, an excursion destined to cement his later recognition as "the father of Western American botany." (2)

In addition to Nuttall's many virtues, it must be said that he lived a charmed life. It is quite remarkable that he survived the perils of travel in those days, much of it solo, over so many thousands of miles. His American experiences seem like one big adventure - of the field and of the mind. On this last trip west, which took him as far as California (with side trips to Hawaii), again his luck held out, and he accomplished botanical miracles in this, his most ambitious adventure. Along the way, in southeastern Idaho, he collected a white-flowered member of the phlox family (later named in his honor by Asa Gray), familiar to us, along trails in the Eastern Sierra, as the Bushy linanthus or Nuttall's linanthus.

Linanthus Nuttallii

Linanthus nuttallii.
Blakely photo

After returning to Philadelphia and working up most of his latest collections - but before he had accomplished all that he had set out to do - circumstances dictated a permanent return to England in 1841. In a goodbye essay ((12)) he recapitulated his American adventures. He wrote

"privations to [the naturalist] are cheaply purchased, if he may but roam over the wild domain of primeval nature . . . For thousands of miles my chief converse has been in the wilderness with the spontaneous productions of Nature and the study of these objects and their contemplation has been to me a source of constant delight."

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1. Graustein, Jeannette E. 1967. Thomas Nuttall, Naturalist. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. The author labored many years to produce this definitive biography.

2. Smith, J. Jay, US Botanist and Horticulturist, ca. 1860, cited in Graustein. Other brief remarks on Nuttall's character and contributions to botany by 19th century botanists:

Thomas Nuttall Obelisk

Thomas Nuttall Obelisk
Missouri Botanical Gardens

Inscription on the Nuttall Obelisk at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, erected 1887: "To the memory of / Thomas Nuttall / Born in England 1786 / and died Sept. 1859. / Honour to him the zealous / and successful naturalist / the father of Western American /botany, the worthy compeer of / Barton, Michaux, Hooker / Torrey, Gray and Engelmann."

E. L. Greene, western botanist and historian of botany, 1888: "[Nuttall's] whole career is, to this day, simply without a parallel in the annals of natural science in the United States of America." (1)

John Torrey, 1822 (to Schweinitz): "We are both bachelors, & he is to stay altogether at my office, so that I promise myself a great treat from the company of this celebrated naturalist. He is much devoted to mineralogy which is a favorite pursuit of mine also." (11), p. 62

Lewis David von Schweinitz, 1822 (to Torrey): "The enjoyment you are going to have in living together this summer with Mr. Nuttall I can appreciate, since I had the exquisite pleasure of becoming acquainted with that excellent man at Philadelphia. Be so kind as to present my compliments to him . . ." (11), p. 62

Lewis David von Schweinitz, 1821 (to Torrey): "I think M Nuttall's observations uncommonly excellent. His Genera have given me more light than any other book - it is so evident from all his remarks in that work, that they are the fruits of real personal acquaintance with the plants in nature." (11), p. 46

William Darlington, 1838, in a review of Torrey and Gray's Flora of North America: "The additions derived from the recent discoveries of Mr. Nuttall, during his journey to the western coast of this continent, are highly important and here published, for the first time, from the original manuscript, furnished by that distinguished and indefatigable naturalist." (11), p. 123

C. C. Parry, 1883, writing of Nuttall's last western excursion: "That during this limited period Mr. Nuttall should have accomplished so much for Californian botany speaks volumes to his credit, and we may derive some satisfaction from the fact that a shrub common to the Monterey hills will to all time commemorate his enthusiastic labors, under the name of Nuttallia cerasiformis." Source: “Early botanical explorers of the Pacific Coast.” Overland Monthly II(10):409-416 (October, 1883). Most unfortunately, the name was changed within a few years of Parry's essay; the current name is Oemleria cerasiformis. See also (3)

3. The CalFlora database contains 461 names for California plants given, in part or in whole, by Nuttall. (210 occur in the Eastern Sierra [Inyo and Mono Counties]). Nineteen California species bear his name in the specific epithet; 9 that occur in the Eastern Sierra are: Astragalus nuttallianus, Delphinium nuttallianum, Elodea nuttallii, Helianthus nuttallii, Isoetes nuttallii, Linanthus nuttallii, Minuartia nuttallii, Monolepis nuttalliana, and Tiquilia nuttallii.

Nuttallanthus canadensis

Nuttallanthus canadensis, photo by Eleanor Saulys on the Connecticut Botanical Society website.

Several times in the 19th century, botanists (Barton [T&G I, 681], Torrey & Gray [in Hooker & Arnott, Bot. Beechey Suppl], Rafinesque [1817; ING], and Greene [for certain species of the genus Mentzelia] proposed the genus name Nuttallia (for various taxa), but none has persisted. (A bird genus, Nuttallornis, was dropped from general usage in the 20th century. An ITIS search came up with these three valid genera of molluscs: Nuttallia, Nuttallina, and Nuttallochiton.).

However, in 1988, in a revision of the tribe Antirrhineae of the family Scrophulariaceae (published by Oxford Univ. Press), D. A. Sutton proposed the generic name Nuttallanthus for 4 taxa previously placed in the genus Linaria. Two of these plants, Nuttallanthus canadensis and Nuttallanthus texanus (= N. canadensis var. texana) occur in California, although the Jepson Manual and CalFlora currently keep them in the genus Linaria. According to ITIS, Nuttallanthus canadensis is the "accepted" name for this taxon, while Linaria canadensis is "not accepted." Most state and regional botanical websites checked January, 2001, use Nuttallanthus canadensis.

Nuttall (see the work by Sutton, above, p. 456) had considered that N. canadensis should be separated from Linaria (a genus coined in 1754), but did not validly publish a new name. Sutton, in agreeing with Nuttall, wrote "the new name 'Nuttallanthus' commemorates the perception of the British-born naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1789-1859)."

4. Nuttall contributed considerably to the Ornithological literature, and also did significant work in mineralogy. While at Harvard he wrote a text on the birds of North America for his students (works by Wilson and Audubon being much too costly as well as bulky for student use), which became a classic. It underwent many revisions and printings, right up into the early 20th century, and is still a rewarding work to consult

5. Graustein, Jeannette. 1951. Nuttall's Travels into the Old Northwest. Chronica Botanica XIV:1-88. Also see (1).

6. Brackenridge, Henry Marie. 1814. Views of Louisiana. On-line Edition. (Nuttall was accompanied up the Missouri by (and spent the preceding months in St. Louis with) English botanist John Bradbury. Bradbury published a thoroughly engaging account of the voyage.)

7. Nuttall, in his Genera (8), gives for the habitat of the plants he collected: "On denudated and arid argillaceous hills on the banks of the Missouri, from White river to the Mandans, and in all probability to the commencement of the mountains." He further notes that "the flowers are white, of uncommon magnitude . . ."

I was first introduced to this plant by Mary DeDecker on a CNPS field trip up Mazourka Canyon to Badger Flat in the Inyo Mtns., June 13, 1992, when I took the photo at the top of this essay. Our plant is O. c. ssp. marginata.

8. Nuttall, Thomas. 1818. The Genera of North American Plants and a Catalogue of the Species to the Year 1817. Philadelphia. This work was widely applauded and established Nuttall's reputation. Graustein says (1, p. 121): "An amazing publication for a young, self-taught botanist who had spent less than seven years in North America, it proved a landmark in American botany initiating the shift of the study of North American plants from the eastern hemisphere to the western." (Graustein also notes that Nuttall agonized over whether to use the "new" natural system or the Linnaean system, but opted for the latter, thinking American botanists, most unfamiliar yet with the former, would find the work more useful in that format. She further notes that Torrey and Gray are often credited with shifting the study of American botany to America, but clearly Nuttall had started the process 20 years earlier with this work.)

9. Nuttall, Thomas. 1821. Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory. Palmer, Philadelphia.

10. Andrew Kirk first showed me this shrub, when it was in flower near his home in Independence, May 18, 1997, and when the photo at the top was taken. Mary DeDecker's specimen card for this plant is the source of the comment on it's occurrence in the Owens Valley.

11. Rodgers, Andrew D. 1942. John Torrey. A Story of North American Botany. Princeton U. Press

12. Nuttall's Sylva, a continuation of one begun earlier by Michaux, was written as he prepared to leave the US. In the preface, he briefly reminisced over his years in America:

Thirty-four years ago, I left England to explore the natural history of the United States. In the ship Halcyon I arrived at the shores of the New World; and after a boisterous and dangerous passage, our dismasted vessel entered the Capes of the Delaware in the month of April. The beautiful robing of forest scenery, now bursting into vernal life, was exchanged for the monotony of the dreary ocean, and the sad sickness of the sea. As we sailed up the Delaware my eyes were rivetted on the landscape with intense admiration. All was new! - and life, like that season, was then full of hope and enthusiasm. The forests, apparently unbroken, in their primeval solitude and repose, spread themselves on either hand as we passed placidly along. The extending vista of dark pines gave an air of deep sadness to the wilderness.

"-----these lonely regions, where, retired
From little scenes of art, great Nature dwells
In awful solitude, and nought is seen
But the wild herds that own no master's stall."

The deer brought to bay, or plunging into the flood from the pursuit of the Indian, armed with bow and arrow, alone seemed wanting to realize the savage landscape as it appeared to the first settlers of the country.

Scenes like these have little attraction for ordinary life, but to the naturalist it is far otherwise; privations to him are cheaply purchased, if he may but roam over the wild domain of primeval nature, and behold

"Another Flora there, of bolder hues,
And richer sweets, beyond our garden's pride."

How often have I realized the poet's buoyant hopes amidst these solitary rambles through interminable forests. For thousands of miles my chief converse has been in the wilderness with the spontaneous productions of Nature; and the study of these objects and their contemplation has been to me a source of constant delight.

This fervid curiosity led me to the banks of the Ohio, through the dark forests and brakes of the Mississippi, to the distant lakes of the northern frontier; through the wilds of Florida; far up the Red River and the Missouri, and through the territory of Arkansa; at last over the

"Vast savannahs, where the wandering eye,
Unfixt, is in a verdant ocean lost."

And now across the arid plains of the far west, beyond the steppes of the Rocky Mountains, down the Oregon to the extended shores of the Pacific, across the distant ocean to that famous group of islands* where Cook at length fell a sacrifice to his temerity. And here for the first time, I beheld the beauties of a tropical vegetation; a season that knows no change; but that of perpetual spring and summer: an elysian land, where Nature offers spontaneous food to man. The region of the Bread fruit; the Tarrow (Colocasia esculenta) which feeds the indigent mass of the population; the Broussonetia, a kind of Mulberry tree, whose inner rind, called tapa, affords an universal clothing. The low groves produce the Banana, the Ginger, the Turmeric, the inebriating Kava, (Piper methysticum,) a kind of Arrow root, resembling the potato, (Tacca,) and the Saccharine Tee root, (Dracaena terminalis,) at the same time the best of portable fodder. The common timber for constructing houses, boats, various implements, and the best of fuel, is here the produce of a Mimosa, (Acacia heterophylla.) For lights and oil, the too tooe kernels (Aleurites triloba) produce an excellent and inexhaustible supply; the cocoa-nut and the fragrant Pandanus afford delicious food, cordage and mats, and the very reeds, reduced in size, which border the rivulets, are no other than the precious sugar-cane of commerce.

* Sandwich islands.

Leaving this favoured region of perpetual mildness, I now arrived on the shores of California, at Monterey. The early spring (March) had already spread out its varied carpet of flowers; all of them had to me the charm of novelty, and many were adorned with the most brilliant and varied hues. The forest trees were new to my view. A magpie, almost like that of Europe, (but with a yellow bill,) chattered from the branches of an Oak, with leaves like those of the Holly, (Quercus agrifolia.) A thorny Gooseberry, forming a small tree, appeared clad with pendulous flowers as brilliant as those of a Fuchsia. A new Plane tree spread its wide arms over the dried up rivulets. A Ceanothus, attaining the magnitude of a small tree, loaded with sky-blue withered flowers, lay on the rude wood-pile, consigned to the menial office of affording fuel. Already the cheerful mocking-bird sent forth his varied melody, with rapture imitating the novel notes of his neighbouring songsters.

The scenery was mountainous and varied, one vast wilderness, neglected and uncultivated; the very cattle appeared as wild as the bison of the prairies, and the prowling wolves (Coyotes) well fed, were as tame as dogs, and every night yelled familiarly through the village. In this region the Olive and the Vine throve with luxuriance and teemed with fruit; the Prickly Pears (Cactus) became small trees, and the rare blooming Aloe (Agave americana) appeared consigned without care to the hedge row of the garden.

After a perilous passage around Cape Horn, the dreary extremity of South America, amidst mountains of ice which opposed our progress in unusual array, we arrived again at the shores of the Atlantic. Once more I hailed those delightful scenes of nature with which I had been so long associated. I rambled again through the shade of the Atlantic forests, or culled some rare productions of Flora in their native wilds. But the 'oft told tale' approaches to its close, and I must now bid a long adieu to the 'new world,' its sylvan scenes, its mountains, wilds and plains, and henceforth, in the evening of my career, I return, almost an exile, to the land of my nativity!

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