Friday, August 28, 2015

Mr. Nuttall and his violet, his lily, his larkspur, his sunflower, his evening primrose, …

Thomas Nuttall, the great 19th-century naturalist.
“The Pilgrim’s crew christened Mr. Nuttall “Old Curious” from his zeal for curiosities, and some of them said he was crazy, and that his friends let him go about and amuse himself in this way.”  William Henry Dana, Two Years before the Mast
In the 19th century—the golden era of natural history—North America was inhabited by two species of botanists.  “Plant men” thrived in the paradise that was the American West, an unexplored land where potential for discovery seemed endless.  They roamed the plains, mountains, and deserts in heat, cold and rain—sick, lost or half-starved—collecting plants.  They especially hoped for novelties, species new to science.
“We plant men climb along the water courses and tramp along the clefts looking for plants that we, and hopefully the esteemed Dr. Gray, have not seen before … When we spy a bright red mimulus that we hope is different from all the others, we kneel by it, as if in prayer, and dig it up carefully down to its very bottom root.  We carefully shake off the dirt and when possible wash it clean.  Then we put it in our container called a vasculum and sling it over our shoulder.” (unknown collectors, in Nilsson 1994)
Plant men carefully pressed and dried their collections, and sent them east to members of the second species—“closet botanists” (such as the “esteemed Dr. Gray” mentioned above).  These were experts in plant classification, usually associated with academic institutions, with the requisite education to identify plant species and recognize any new to science—even though they may never have set foot west of the Missouri River.  A novelty was cause for celebration … and a publication, in which the closet botanist described and named the new species, sometimes after the plant man who had found it.
Nuttall’s sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii), named by closet botanists John Torrey (Columbia) and Asa Gray (Harvard).  Sally & Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

But just as plants will sometimes do, some 19th-century botanists confounded the classification.  Thomas Nuttall especially blurred the distinction between collector and expert—between plant man and closet botanist.

He came to the United States from England in 1808, at age 22, to work as a printer.  But he soon met botanist Benjamin Smith Barton of the University of Pennsylvania, who convinced Nuttall to work in his herbarium and make collecting trips west.
Nuttall’s violet (Viola nuttallii), named by Frederick Pursh, who also worked for Barton.  Source.
In 1810, Barton paid Nuttall $8 per month plus expenses to travel and collect as far as the Great Lakes.  But then, instead of returning home, he went to St. Louis, and in the spring of 1811, traveled up the Missouri River with a party of Astorians.  The voyageurs called him “le fou”—the mad one—for his single-minded preoccupation with plants.

In 1816, Nuttall went down the Ohio River and collected through Kentucky and Tennessee to the Carolinas, traveling on foot.  In 1818 and 1819, he headed down the Ohio and Mississippi to collect in today's Arkansas and Oklahoma—a journey of 5000 miles at his own expense.  He published A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory in 1821.
“For nearly ten years I have travelled throughout America, principally with a view of becoming acquainted with some favourite branches of its natural history. I have had no other end in view than personal gratification, and in this I have not been deceived, for innocent amusement can never leave room for regret. To converse, as it were, with nature, to admire the wisdom and beauty of creation, has ever been, and I hope ever will be, to me a favourite pursuit.”
Nuttall's larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum.

Naturalists of the 19th century were regarded as eccentric.  Consider the stereotypical Dr. Battius, created by James Fennimore Cooper in The Prairie.  In the midst of a skirmish, Battius caught sight of a new plant and forgot the danger at hand, oblivious “to everything but the glory of being the first to give this jewel to the catalogues of science.”

But Thomas Nuttall was exceptional, even in this context.  The most common story tells of him digging up plants with his rifle (while inspecting firearms, the expedition leader found the barrel of Nuttall’s to be full of dirt).  It seems he got lost, sick or desperately hungry on a regular basis—often saved by fortuitous encounters with other adventurers.
“Delighted with the treasures, he [Nuttall] went groping and stumbling along among a wilderness of sweets, forgetful of everything but his immediate pursuit.  The Canadian voyageurs used to make merry at his expense, regarding him as some whimsical kind of madman.”  Washington Irving, The Astorians.
Nuttall’s evening primrose (Oenothera nuttallii) greets me every morning in summer.

Nuttall took a sabbatical from field work in 1822, when Harvard University offered him a position as instructor of natural history and curator of the botanical gardens.  Because Nuttall had no formal education in botany, the university was able to replace a deceased professor at only $700 per year, quite a bargain.  There was no suitable botany textbook, so Nuttall wrote one:  Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany.  He also wrote a Manual of Ornithology while he was at Harvard, a compact field guide to birds (he was a self-taught and widely-recognized expert in both botany and ornithology).

As an instructor, Nuttall was well-liked, perhaps because his classes included field trips.  One of his students was William Henry Dana, quoted at the beginning of the post.  As a sailor, Dana met up with Nuttall many years later in California, on a ship bound for Boston.
Nuttall’s woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) was named by William Gambel.  Gambel’s oak (Quercus gambelii) was named by Thomas Nuttall.  The two were good friends.  Source and source.

By 1833, Nuttall was restless.  When invited to join an expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and the Pacific, he abandoned Harvard.  He in turn invited his friend, John Kirk Townsend, a young ornithologist who also was eager for adventure.  Townsend kept a diary, which became Across the Rockies to the Columbia (1839).  He greatly admired Nuttall’s dedication—for example when plant specimens were soaked in a bad storm, and had to be re-dried:
“In this task he exhibits a degree of patience and perseverance which is truly astonishing; sitting on the ground, and steaming over the enormous fire, for hours together, drying the papers, and re-arranging the whole collection, specimen by specimen …  I have had constantly to admire the ardor and perfect indefatigability with which he has devoted himself to the grand objects of his tour.  No difficulty, no danger, no fatigue has ever daunted him, and he finds his rich reward in the addition of nearly a thousand new species of American plants, which he has been enabled to make to the already teeming flora of our vast continent.”
Nuttall found this sego lily in the Valley of Salt Lake (Utah).  John Torrey named it Calochortus nuttallii.  Source.

Was Thomas Nuttall mad or was he blessed?  I say blessed.  In fact ... to have that kind of passion and purpose in life is to be exceptionally blessed, especially in a paradise like the American West of the 19th century.  Nuttall agreed:
“How often have I realized the poet’s buoyant hopes amid these solitary rambles … 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 … privations to him [the naturalist] are cheaply purchased if he may roam over the wild domain of primeval nature”  Thomas Nuttall, autobiographical preface to The North American Sylva, 1853
Yellow-billed magpie, named Pica nuttallii by John James Audubon:  “I have conferred on this beautiful bird the name of a most zealous, learned and enterprising naturalist, my friend Thomas Nuttall”  Source.

UPDATE:  "2461 species of plants alone that he authored or co-authored"—as Pat points out in his Comment.  An amazing contribution!  Pat also provides a link for access to most of the books mentioned above, through the Biodiversity Heritage Library ... see Comment below.

Sources (in addition to links in text)

Evans, HE.  1993.  Pioneer naturalists:  the discovery and naming of North American plants and animals.  Howard Holt & Co.

Nelson, J.  2015 (May-June).  Thomas Nuttall, brief life of a pioneering naturalist.  Harvard Magazine. 

Nilsson, KB.  1994.  A wild flower by any other name:  sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants.  Yosemite Association.

Williams, RL.  2003.  “A region of astonishing beauty”—the botanical explorations of the Rocky Mountains.  Roberts Rinehart Publishers.


  1. Wonderful post! I know the name of Nuttall, but only from the species named for him ;-)

    1. Thanks so much, Amy. I see Nuttall's name so often, so it was neat to learn about him and his contributions.

  2. Yes, I would say "exceptionally blessed" as well, Hollis. Thanks for sharing these great stories of botanical history in such an accessible, interesting way. Great writing and great photos!

  3. Tropicos gives 2461 species of plants alone that he authored or co-authored. A great British Nutt.

    The Biodiversity Heritage Library has most of these books available in full online.


    1. wow, that's incredible! Thanks for the info, Pat, I stuck a reference to it in the post.

    2. I find that I spend far too much time in that virtual library. Looking up the history and uses of the most obscure plants. It is like the botanical version of tvtropes, just looking up one more thing before I go and eat.

    3. there are worse habits ;-)

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  5. "Naturalists of the 19th century were regarded as eccentric"

    Really, has anything changed? Thanks for the article. As you already know, I've seen the Nuttall's Woodpecker and the Magpies in my neighborhood.

  6. I really enjoy reading about the people behind the plants. Thanks for introducing me to another of the greats. I don't think I'd ever reach the patience he had!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tim. And great to hear from you! Hope things are well.