Pursh Flora Americana
The English botanist Aylmer Lambert wrote to his peer, and the President of the Linnean Society, Sir James Edward Smith.
Lambert was giving Smith a heads up that Frederick Pursh’s Flora Americana was published.
Five years earlier, Frederick had been working for Benjamin Smith Barton in America. Barton was supposed to process the plants from the Lewis & Clark expedition and prepare a catalog for publishing. For some unknown reason, Barton never got around to doing the work. When Meriwether Lewis realized that Barton hadn’t started much of anything, he hired his employee Frederick to do the work.
By May of 1808, we know that Frederick had completed all of the tasks that Meriwether Lewis had assigned him. He was eager to get paid the $60 he been promised by Lewis, and the $80 Barton owed him for helping with his herbarium. He was also excited to keep going with the Lewis & Clark project. It seems the mission of sharing the botanical discoveries of the expedition with the public had captured his heart.
This is where Frederick’s story gets a little murky. It’s not clear if he was ever fully paid by Lewis or by Barton. It’s not entirely clear why Lewis & Barton couldn’t seem to keep the project moving forward. But records do show, that over the next 18 months, two key things happened that caused Frederick to leave America with the Lewis and Clark specimens in tow: Meriwether Lewis died and Frederick Pursh began to despise his boss, Benjamin Smith Barton. For his part, Barton may have grown tired of Pursh’s drinking. He wrote of Pursh, “Drinking is his greatest failing.”
When Frederick Pursh arrived in England at the end of 1811, he reached out to both Sir James Edward Smith and Alymer Lambert about putting together the Flora of North America. Lambert became his botanical fairy godfather; he had a huge personal botanical library, herbarium, and funding. That said, Lambert also provided something Pursh desperately needed: discipline.
Pursh was kind of a rough and tough guy with a swarthy complexion and reputed alcohol addiction. Historians say that Lambert made arrangements in the attic of his house, creating a workspace for Frederick. Once he got Frederick up there, Lambert would lock him in for stretches at a time to keep Frederick focused on the project. It was an extreme way to deal with Frederick’s demons, but it worked.
Now, Smith and Lambert didn’t do all of this out of the goodness of their heart. They were enormously interested and what Pursh had brought with him from America: portions of the specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Even with Lambert’s resources and lock-ins, it took Frederick two years to complete the Flora of North America. The whole time he was racing to get it published before Thomas Nuttall, who was working on the exact same project back in America. American botanists felt Pursh had pulled the rug out from under them when he took the expedition specimens to England.
On December 21st, 1813, Pursh won the race when his 2-volume masterpiece describing all of the plants of North America was presented to the Linnaean Society.
In the introduction, Frederick was forthright about his time in America and how he had come to possess the expedition specimens. Giving credit to the work of Lewis and Clark, Frederick created two new genera - Lewisia (loo-WIS-ee-ah) and Clarkia (CLAR-key-ah) for Lewis and Clark. In all, Frederick had received 132 plants from Meriwether Lewis, 70% were brand-new species that were named by Frederick. Today roughly 30% of the Pursh-named plants named in his Flora Americana are still recognized as valid.
Lewisia is a little evergreen Alpine plant with a beautiful bloom. They like well-drained soil and are native to the northwest. Lewisia is a perfect pick for a rock garden.
Clarkia is a little wildflower primrose that can be grown from seed after the last spring frost. Clarkia prefers to be direct-sowed, and they are perfect for use in mixed borders and Rock Gardens. Today Clarkia hybrids are grown for cut flowers.
Link to 1814 Flora Americae Septentrionalis Volume One
Link to 1814 Flora Americae Septentrionalis Volume Two