The Desert Botanist

#OTD On this day in 1878, the American botanist Forrest Shreve was born.

We owe such a debt of gratitude to Shreve. 

He was THE preeminent botanist of North American deserts during the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

Shreve worked out of a laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. The lab was ideally situated for Shreve's field research of the western United States and northern Mexico. Shreve relished telling the origin story of his lab:

“Of course you are familiar with the story of Andrew Carnegie,” he began, “the immigrant boy who became one of America’s richest steel magnates and who left a fortune “to encourage in the broadest and most liberal manner investigation, research, and discovery, and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind.” 

Before he died Carnegie had established an institution that divided its scientific investigations into twelve departments in widely separated parts of the country. The Desert Laboratory became one of the outposts of the Division of Plant Biology. The total Carnegie benefaction totaled about $25,000,000.”

In July of 1908, Shreve ascended the Santa Catalina Mountains for the very first time. His party rode on horses to climb the 6,000 feet from Mount Lemmon's desert base to the summit which is 9,100 feet above sea level. 

During that climb, Shreve noticed what he called, "a continually shifting panorama of vegetation". Shreve's astuteness helped him realize the most amazing aspect of desert mountains; changes in vegetation are compressed into a few thousand feet of elevation - started with desert scrub, then grassland, then oak woodland... and followed by pine-oak woodland and forest, then pink forest, montane fir forest, and finally subalpine forest.

Shreve's mastery of the North American Desert allowed him to describe and define, with precision, the four distinct desert regions of the United States.

Today, each year, in Shreve's honor, the Forrest Shreve Student Research Award ($1000-2000) is given to support the ongoing research of the hot deserts of North America.


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Forrest Shreve
Forrest Shreve