Friday, March 4, 2016

James and Jamesia—a man and his shrub

Cliffbush, Jamesia americana. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center; photo by Alan Cressler.

“Cliffbush” and “Jamesia” … a plant could hardly be more appropriately named. This is a shrub of rock outcrops, discovered by a man named James—a young botanist on a grand adventure in an unexplored land. We can’t be sure exactly where he found it, for if he made any notes, they were lost. The specimen is poor, as Harvard botanists John Torrey and Asa Gray noted. Yet they named the shrub in his honor:
“… we have applied the present name in commemoration of the scientific services of its worthy discoverer, the botanist and geologist of ‘Major Long’s Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the year 1820,’ and who, during the journey made an excellent collection of plants under the most unfavorable circumstances.”
James’s Jamesia specimen; scale is in centimeters. (NYBG Steele Herbarium).
“Near the Rocky Mountains”—on a label written at least 20 years after the expedition.

In the winter of 1819-20, Major Stephen H. Long traveled to Albany, New York, to persuade physician Edwin James to join his exploratory expedition. James had been recommended by several prominent botanists, and had published papers in both botany and geology even though he was only 23. He would replace physician/botanist William Baldwin, who died the previous year just several weeks into the expedition, as well as geologist Augustus Jessup, who proved to be seriously under-qualified.
Edwin James; source.
Long was head of the scientific branch of what was first called the Yellowstone Expedition, after the Yellowstone River, the main destination. It was the third major survey to explore the vast unknown lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the country!). Long was to explore from the Canadian border south to Mexico—in other words, no one appreciated the immensity of the country. This goal was supremely unrealistic, even if things had gone well.

The party left Pittsburgh in May of 1819, traveling down the Ohio and up the Missouri. Due to recurring problems with the steamboat—a fairly new mode of transportation—they only reached eastern Nebraska by the end of the season. While the men spent the winter camped near Omaha, Long went east to recruit replacements and beg for more money.

Disappointed with Long’s poor progress and faced with budget cuts due to the Panic of 1819, Secretary of War Calhoun instead reduced funding and redefined the expedition. They would travel overland to the Rocky Mountains to locate the source of the Platte, Arkansas and Red Rivers, and among other things, describe “all the products of vegetation, common or peculiar to the countries we may traverse.”

The American West had a rather romantic reputation—as a land of adventure and discovery. Long’s offer must have been irresistible to a young botanist like James. He quickly accepted, even though Long couldn’t pay him just yet. Long, James and John Bell, the new expedition journalist, left Pittsburgh at the end of March, arriving in Omaha in early June. They had waited two weeks in St. Louis for promised funding for supplies, then again in Franklin, and finally in Omaha. But it never came. They left anyway, on June 6, headed west across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. At the end of June, the great range came into view:
“… we were all expectation and doubt until in the afternoon, when the atmosphere cleared, and we had a distinct view of the sumit of a range of mountains—which to our great satisfaction and heart felt joy, was declared by the commanding officer to be the range of the Rocky Mountains … The whole range had a beautiful and sublime appearance to us, after having been so long confined to the dull uninteresting monotony of prairie country …”
View of Rocky Mountains on the Platte 50 miles from their Base, by Samuel Seymour (James et al. 1823).

A week later, they were in the vicinity of today’s Denver. They moved south along the base of the Rockies, making trips west into the mountains. Limited funding meant they had to move fast. They would cover 1500 miles in three months, averaging 15 miles per day. But often they traveled at least 20, due to delays and Long’s policy of no unnecessary travel on Sundays. They carried few provisions, living off the unknown land as best a small inexperienced ill-equipped party could. They were often tired and hungry.

Even so, James’s botanizing was productive. After returning to Philadelphia and going though his material, he reported “between four and five hundred species of plants new to the Flora of the United States, and many of them supposed to be undescribed [new to science].” Indeed, 140 of his collections would be recognized as new species, confirming both his hard work and the novelty of the Rocky Mountain flora. James named and described 13 himself. Others were named in his honor: Frankenia jamesii (James’s frankenia), Hilaria jamesii (galleta grass), Dalea jamesii (James’s prairie clover), Telesonix jamesii (James’s saxifrage), and more.

Among James’s collections was a woody twig with opposite leaves and a terminal cluster of waxy white flowers. Professors John Torrey and Asa Gray of Harvard studied it carefully, but found no close affinities with other species. In 1840, they assigned it to a brand new genus, Jamesia.
Closer view of James's specimen at the Steele Herbarium.
Why did Torrey and Gray wait twenty years to publish? Maybe they were hoping for more material. As they noted, James’s specimen and collection data were meager:
"We much regret that we have not more adequate materials for describing this plant. Our specimens were collected by Dr. Edwin James (in Long's Expedition), but the particular locality is not recorded. It is probably rare or very local, as no other botanist seems to have met with it.” [italics added]
• • •

Fast-forward 150 years …
Who are these characters? Wait, the fog is clearing … it’s the usual bunch, minus 40 years! (thx Phil White)

In 1987, Wyoming botanists gathered in the Laramie Mountains for a tour of the local flora. Bob Dorn guided us to several rare plants, including Jamesia americana, the fivepetal cliffbush or waxflower. Were Torrey and Gray thus correct in concluding it's rare? Well … not exactly.

Jamesia americana is one of several southern Rocky Mountain plants that just make it into Wyoming in the southeast part of the state, where they're at the northern limit of their range. So Jamesia americana is rare in Wyoming. From here, its range extends south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona into northern Mexico (not show on maps below). Distribution is spotty—probably why early botanists were slow to find more of it.

The genus Jamesia is endemic to western North America. There are only two species (maps above), one of which includes four varieties (below). Source
Our cliffbush is Jamesia americana var. americana, by far the most widespread. Because it’s the “typical variety” we can just call it Jamesia americana. Common names include fivepetal cliffbush, jamesia and waxflower. It has 5-petaled flowers in clusters, versus the 4-petaled solo flowers of J. tetrapetala. The differences among americana varieties are more subtle, but the other three are restricted to small areas in Utah, Nevada and California, so there’s no risk of confusion here in southeast Wyoming (Holmgren and Holmgren 1989).

Jamesia americana is fairly common in Sherman granite in the Laramie Mountains (see my iNaturalist observation).
Leaves are oppositely arranged, green above, and densely hairy beneath. In fall, they turn orange and red.
Photo by Bill Gray; source.
Flowers are lightly scented, white and waxy—hence the common name “waxflower.”
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center; photo by Alan Cressler.

• • •

“treating scientifically the results of Horticultural skill and enterprise”

In the 19th century, exotic species were all the rage among horticulturalists in Great Britain and Europe, especially plants from the America wilderness. The 1875 issue of Curtis Botanical Magazine, comprising plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew, included Jamesia americana—Native of the Rocky Mountains. Director and Editor Sir Joseph D. Dalton emphasized the wildness of the territory where Edwin James discovered it: “Those were the days when every traveller in the Rocky Mountains carried his life in his hand …”

He felt that Jamesia americana showed horticultural promise: 
“It is quite hardy, and was raised at Kew about twelve years ago, from seed received, I believe, from Dr. Asa Gray, where, however, it has not flowered. For the plant here figured I am indebted to the Rev. Mr. Ellacombe, of Bitton, near Bristol, who flowered it in October last.”
Hooker was right—Jamesia americana is now fairly common in native plant nurseries, at least in our area. It does best with full sun, well-drained soil, and medium water. Pests and diseases rarely bother it.
Curtis Botanical Magazine has been in print since 1787. It may be best known for its exquisite illustrations. Jamesia americana was done by Walter Fitch.

Sources  (in addition to links in post)

Axelrod, DI. 1987. The late Oligocene Creede flora, Colorado. Univ. Calif. Publ. Geol. Sci. 130: 1-235.

Evans, HE. 1997. The natural history of the Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. NY: Oxford University Press.

Holmgren, NH and Holmgren, PK. 1989. A taxonomic study of Jamesia (Hydrangeaceae). Brittonia 41:335-350.

Hooker, JD. 1875. Curtis Botanical Magazine, plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew. Volume 101. Biodiversity Heritage Library:

James, E, Long, SH, Peale, TR, and Say, T. 1823. Account of an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky mountains. Philadelphia:H.C. Carey and I. Lea. Biodiversity Heritage Library:

Torrey, J. and Gray, A.. 1840. A flora of North America, vol. 1. NY: Wiley & Putnam. Biodiversity Heritage Library:


  1. An interesting history--thanks for sharing.. You mention that it's available in nurseries. Is it used by the common, urban gardener?

    1. Thanks, Tina. Good question, I don't know. I do know that both the City of Boulder and the Colorado Native Plant Society recommend it, and I've read that it's "a favorite" for rock gardens. I'm sure Google could help ;-) Search on jamesia, cliffbush and waxflower--all three are used.

  2. Very cool. Always enjoy the history behind plants and their naturalists. I've seen Jamesia americana var. rosea in Mono County, but not yet in bloom, just the attractive shrubbery. I also find it fascinating that it's in the Hydrangea family along with Carpenteria and Philadelphus.

    1. Thanks, rt. Jamesia is my only acquaintance in the Hydrangeaceae ... new family for me. It's interesting that in the west we have these quite distinct genera, with only a few taxa each. I read several discussions of Jamesia as old, a relic, once more widespread. I wonder if that's true for some of the others.

  3. Fascinating post! I always love to learn the history behind these plants. With the western natives, it's always tempting to wonder whether I could grow it here, but I have a hunch it wouldn't take low desert conditions despite occurrences in AZ... Dave's Garden could use more info, as it's only reported for Parker, CO lol!

    1. Thanks, Amy. In the wild, Jamesia seems to be a mountain plant. It grows in ranges in southeast AZ, as far west as northeast Pima County. So I bet it doesn't like extreme heat.

  4. Another interesting piece of botanical history! Thanks a lot - I never read about Edwin James,never seen him mentioned along with other explorers.
    And, just the other day I was admiring a seedling of Telesonix jamesii!!!

    1. Thanks, Gabriela! I also knew nothing of James--before I started on this piece. Now whenever I see jamesia or jamesii, I will think of him struggling to collect plants in the Rockies in 1820!

  5. I wanted to read this thoroughly, so I am a bit late commenting!
    These tales of the explorers are absolutely fascinating. It must have been amazing travelling across a landscape with no towns or cities - and presumably not knowing what plants to eat that wouldn't poison you!
    The autumn colour of this Jamesia looks particularly pretty.
    By the way, I had to look up the "Panic of 1819"!
    Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Thank you, Pat! The more I read about these early explorers--botanical and geological--the more amazed and impressed I am, and envious in a way. I can understand their motivation, but I'm definitely not that tough!