On the Botany Trail  Contributed by Neal Ratzlaff


What is botany?  
The study of all plants, including trees, grasses, wildflowers, berries, bushes, vines, etc.

What are ‘Lewis and Clark plants’? 
This does not have a simple answer.  It includes plants they already knew and which they occasionally noted in their journals – however, this was valuable in that it extended knowledge of the ranges of those plants.  It includes the plants that were collected and pressed; the specimens that are in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium.  It includes plants that were described but are not in the Herbarium.

Why was botany a part of the expedition? 
President Thomas Jefferson was knowledgeable and interested in all aspects of natural science, and needed to know what to expect in that part of the country.  In his lengthy letter of instructions to Meriwether Lewis of June 20, 1803, he requested information on ordinary occupations in agriculture [of the native inhabitants and] their food”  “the country, it’s growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S.” and ”the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf.” 

How did Lewis determine what plants to note? 
Much the same as our method would be
the “like or unlike” approach, comparing a specimen with one we are familiar with.  He was familiar with plants back east.  His mother was a well-known doctor of simples in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, and thus he knew many medicinal plants.  He learned much from President Jefferson when he was his secretary.  He had been sent to Philadelphia to meet with Dr. Barton, the foremost botanist in the country who had just published the first American botany book.  He carried reference books with him on the expedition, including Dr. Barton’s botany book and two Linnaean books.

How many plants did they discover? 
The oft-quoted numbers are 178 plants and 122 animals new to science.  Actually, it is not known how many were collected, or would have been new.  Not all the first shipment from Fort Mandan in North Dakota is accounted for.  All the specimens collected from Fort Mandan to the Great Falls of the Missouri in Montana were lost.  Later, some of the specimens in Philadelphia were lost due to disintegration or other reasons.

What is “new to science’? 
Ones that had not been previously described and published and thus known to the scientific community.  Some of the expedition crew were French men from St. Louis who had previously been part way up the Missouri River, and they had names for some of the plants and animals, but were still unknown to science.  Ironically, since Lewis and Clark’s planned book did not get published, credit went to others who did describe and publish.

What did they find in the Iowa and Nebraska area? 
They already knew much of what they saw in our area.  Spring was over by the time they came, and spring blooming flowers had likely disappeared.  Since their days seemed very busy, opportunities for observing and collecting plants may not have been always present.

What references do we use for identifying their plants? 
Two great sources are books by Moulton and Cutright.  At times, the botanical or scientific name (Genus species) differs between the two authors, as some plants are hard to classify and botanists have changed their conclusions.  Since Moulton is more recent, it may be considered more current.

The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Gary E. Moulton, Editor, 1986-1999, University of Nebraska Press.  Volumes 2 and 3 include the time period of their outbound journey, July 11 – September 8, 1804, when they were on waters that bordered Nebraska.  In addition, Vol. 3 includes a discussion of the list of plant specimens Lewis sent to President Jefferson from Fort Mandan, ND, April 7, 1805.  Volume 8 includes the time period of their return journey, August 31 – September 11, 1806, when they were again on the waters that bordered Nebraska.  Volume 12 is a listing of all the plant specimens in the Herbarium of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and a photocopy of each sheet.  Most of these are in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Hereinafter referred to as Moulton.

Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, by Paul Russell Cutright, 1969, University of Nebraska Press.  While he listed the plants that were in the Herbarium, his main list was of plants “new to science.”  Therefore his list differs from that of Moulton’s Herbarium.  Hereinafter referred to as Cutright.

Other Links:
The Lewis & Clark Herbarium
Nebraska Arboretum
Subpages (3): Fruits Prairies Trees