Shreve's Desert Laboratory
1878 Today is the birthday of the American botanist Forrest Shreve.
We owe such a debt of gratitude to Shreve.
Shreve 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 and the lab was perfectly situated for his research of the western United States and northern Mexico. Shreve relished telling the origin story of his lab:
“Of course you're familiar with the story of Andrew Carnegie, the immigrant boy who became one of America’s richest steel magnates...
Before he died, Carnegie had established an institution that divided its scientific investigations into twelve departments into widely separated parts of the country."
Shreve's Desert Laboratory was part of Division of Plant Biology and was created thanks to the Carnegie gift - which all in - totaled about $25,000,000.
In July of 1908, Shreve climbed the Santa Catalina Mountains for the very first time. The group he was with 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." And it was Shreve's astuteness that helped him realize the most fantastic aspect of desert mountains - which is the changes in vegetation. Those changes are drastic and abrupt; and they are compressed into a few thousand feet of elevation.
And you can almost imagine yourself there with Shreve. As you go up the mountain, you begin with seeing desert scrub, then it transitions to grassland, then oak woodland... and then finally pine-oak woodland and forest, then the pink forest, the montane fir forest, and finally subalpine forest - at the very top of the mountain. And I love how Shreve described that change: "a continually shifting panorama of vegetation."
Thanks to Shreve's mastery of the North American Desert, he was able to clearly describe and define the four distinct desert regions in 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.