Lewis & Clark discoveries we can plant…
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested $2500 from Congress to send Meriwether Lewis and William Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition. See how their discoveries influenced the garden world of today in our foothills!
Lasting from 1804 to 1806, this was the first exploration of the new Louisiana Territory and an attempt to find the fabled “Northwest Passage,” a passable route to the Pacific Ocean.
Had Jefferson not been a gardener and interested in so many varied subjects of the natural world, how would it have changed the expedition? As it was, President Jefferson asked Captain Meriwether Lewis to collect, describe and record when plants were in bloom and to investigate what their potential value might be.
At the conclusion of the journey, Lewis had mentioned 260 plants in his journals, and over half of them were new to science. What remains of the collection taken by Lewis are now housed in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Naming the plants
Of the discovered species, many were named after Lewis and Clark this way:
Lewisii-(lew-ISS-ee-eye) Honoring Captain Meriwether Lewis. Lewis’ Blue Flax, Linum lewisii, Lewis’ Monkeyflower, Mimulus lewisii and Bitter-root, Lewisia rediviva are common plants named after Lewis.
Clarkii- (KLAR-kee-eye) Honoring William Clark. Frederick Pursh, the botanist who identified and named the specimens back in Washington DC after the expedition returned, named the entire Evening Primrose genus, Clarkia, after him. Clarkia is a western North American genus of more than 40 species, most of which are found in California, including Farewell-to-spring, Clarkia amoena and Mountain Garland, Clarkia unguiculata.
What did they discover?
Here are some of the plants, found and described by Lewis and Clark, also native to California:
Lewis’ Blue Flax, Linum lewisii
Lewis’ notes-“Perennial flax. Valleys of the Rocky Mountains, July 09, 1806.”
On July 18, 1805, Lewis wrote, “the bark of the stem is thick strong and appears as if it would make excellent flax.” Because linen was an important commodity during that time, Lewis thought the blue flax might have great commercial potential in the east. The Native Americans wove the tough stem fibers into fishing nets, ropes, and other cordage. Seeds from a cultivated species are now sold in grocery stores, being valued for their high fiber content and nutritional qualities.
Lewis’ Monkeyflower, Mimulus lewisii
Lewis- “the head spring of the Missouri, at the foot of Portage hill” August, 1805.
Marked with hairy yellow patches and red dots to attract insects, the monkeyflower also attracts hummingbirds and sphinx moths.
Bitter-root or Sand Rose, Lewisia rediviva
The Latin name rediviva is an apt one. Meriwether Lewis, who first collected the plant in Montana in 1806, saved a pressed dried specimen. When it was examined months later, the root still showed signs of life. When planted it then grew afresh and the name rediviva, means ‘restored to life’.
Golden Currant, Ribes aureum
Lewis- “Yellow currant of the Missouri, July 29, 1805.”
On July 17, 1805, Lewis noted that, “there are a great abundance of red yellow purple and black currants,…I find these fruits very pleasant particularly the yellow currant which I think vastly preferable to those of our gardens.” The Shoshone ground the second bark, using it as a poultice
Western Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia
Lewis-“Serviceberry. A small bush, the narrows of the Columbia R. April 15, 1806.”
On August 16, 1805, In another journal by Pvt Joseph Whitehouse, he wrote, “Our interpreter’s wife went on shore & found great number of fine berries, which is called service berries.”
Balsamroot, Balsamorrhiza sagittata
Lewis- “The stem is eaten by the natives, without any preparation. On the Columbia. April 14th,1806.”
Mariposa Lily, Calochortus sp.
Lewis-“A small bulb of a pleasant flavour, eat by the natives. On the Kooskooskee. May 17, 1806.”
Blue Camas, Camasia quamash
Lewis- “Near the foot of the Rocky Mountains on the Quamash flats. June 23, 1806.”
Clark wrote on September 23, 1805, that “the women were busily employed in gathering and drying the ‘Pas-she co’ root of which they had great quantities dug in piles.”
Upon seeing it on June 12, 1806 Lewis wrote, “the quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete in the deseption that on first sight I could have sworn it was water.”
Indian Blanket, Gaillardia aristata
Found by Lewis- “Rocky Mountains dry hill. July 7th , 1806.” Native to the West, it grows in California very well. To many Native American people, the Indian blanket is a gift of liveliness and sunshine from our Mother, the Earth. It also represented the health, earthiness, and wholesomeness of the common people. The seeds of this wildflower were either eaten raw or dried over a fire. Dried seeds were ground into meal or flour for small cakes.
Other discovered plants native to California:
Ponderosa Pine Pinus ponderosa C. Lawson var. ponderosa
Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii
Western Red Cedar Thuja plicata
Pacific Dogwood Cornus nuttallii
Pacific Madrone Arbutus menziesii
Orange Honeysuckle Lonicera ciliosa
Twinberry Lonicera involucrata
Blue Elderberry Sambucus glauca
Bearberry Manzanita, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Big Sagebrush Artemisia tridentata
Red Columbine Aquilegia formosa
Showy Phlox Phlox speciosa
Western Springbeauty Claytonia lanceolata
Western Wallflower Erysimum capitatum
Wormwood Artemisia ludoviciana
Preserving the Collection
The maps, journals and collections documenting the flora, fauna and topography of the American West, discovered by Lewis and Clark are still considered today as one of the most significant undertakings in early American history. Some specimens were sent in advance of the return of the party and Jefferson started immediately to experiment with their culture in his Monticello garden.
Lewis brought back his specimens in folded sheets of blotter paper he had used to dry them. In 1815 William Clark gave all of Lewis’s botanical specimens to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, except some that Frederick Pursh had already taken back to Europe with him. There they lay in bundles, unremembered and unnoticed, until 1896, when botanist Thomas Meehan found them and secured permission to take them back to his institution, The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, to study and catalog them, and prepare them for proper storage. Some forty years later the specimens and the labels accumulated up to that time were transferred to new specimen sheets.
In the 1920s A. E. Fogg, an intern at the Academy, attached all 222 of the Lewis and Clark specimens now on deposit there to standard sheets such as the one above, measuring 11-1/2″ by 16-3/4″.
Some other facts:
Several of the species in the L & C Herbarium were later designated state flowers or grasses. These include Berberis aquifolium, or Oregon grape (state flower of Oregon), Philadelphus lewisii, or Mock-orange (state flower of Idaho), and Lewisia rediviva, or Bitter root (state flower of Montana).
Lewis and Clark as Naturalists Smithsonian Institute- click on Collections->Plants
Monticello Twinleaf Journal: “Public Treasures”: Thomas Jefferson and the Garden Plants of Lewis and Clark
Plant Life Documented By Lewis & Clark National Park Service
“Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.” Ken Burns PBS- The Journals