The progress of our knowledge of the flora of North America

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The progress of our knowledge of
the Flora of North America
 (1907) 
by Lucien Marcus Underwood
This reprint from The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 70 (1907), contains two additional paragraphs that were omitted from the magazine article. This work was first published about six months before the author's death.
THE PROGRESS OF OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE FLORA OF
NORTH AMERICA
By Professor LUCIEN MARCUS UNDERWOOD
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
[Reprinted from The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. LXX, June, 1907]

WHATEVER may be the avenue of approach to the subject of botany as a science, whether we work out the details of the development, maturation and division of the elements within the single cell, or seek to trace the race history through the detailed development of a single organism from egg to egg again, or whether we approach it through either the mutations or the variations of a single species, the last problem of investigation as well as the first will bear directly on the question: What are the relations of plants to each other in the natural system of classification?  In this broader sense all botanists, whether they are only cytologists, whether they deal with the fascinating problems of embryological development, whether they are field ecologists, or finally whether they are just botanists pure and simple, because they love the things of nature and can not help being botanists if they are anything at all — all these are systematic botanists, even though some of them appear to others as unsystematic, when their wilder flights into the realm of the imagination cause them to become mere theorists with no stable foundation in real facts.

So multifarious have become the problems that have entered into the study of botany in these latter days, that it is sometimes difficult for a layman, brought up in the ancient conception of botany as the mere study of flowers, to understand the breadth of scientific training involved in the development of a modern botanist; in fact, it is often a difficult problem for specialized botanists themselves to understand all the bearings of the highly specialized work of some of their fellows, and the research student of to-day soon finds himself pushing out into ground still unbroken, which his predecessors may have had glimpses of from afar, but never really entered to occupy and cause it to yield its fruits. I am speaking here of real students, not of those sutlers and train followers that swarm about the rear of every respectable army, and often try to pass themselves off for the real rank and file.   Of that large array who pursue botany as far as light comedy, because somebody wrote How to know the dandelions in their lair and roll such polysyllables as Taraxacum and Leontopodium glibly from their tongues in order to impress the unwitting citizen of their accomplishments, we have little to say; they are of a class so foreign, that though often loud-spoken, as foreigners sometimes become, they are not botanists to the manor born and never will become anything but sutlers.

498[edit]

PSM V70 D502 Facsimile of a page of the work of porta.png

Fig. 1.  Fac-simile of a page of Porta's work (1591) showing similarities in plants to parts of animals, hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum), bugloss (Anchusa), hart's-tongue fern (Phyllitis), and adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum).  It is interesting to note that two of Porta's names are still in use in a scientific sense, a third in a popular sense, while the fourth (Elaphoglossum) was later taken up for a genus of ferns distinct from the hart's-tongue of Europe.


499[edit]

PSM V70 D503 Showing the apple tree and variations of it.png

Fig. 2.  Fac-simile of an illustration of Bock (1587) showing the apple-tree, known variations of its fruit including the sheep's nose (gilliflower), death's head and the serpent, alluding of course to its supposed relation to the fall of man.


500[edit]

Far back in the early centuries, men looked at plants largely from the standpoint of utility, and every plant not useful for food was supposed to have some virtues of the healing sort that made it useful medicinally.   Doubtless many of these notions came from the real presence of some remedial virtues, for many plants of the pharmacopeia were known to the ancients; but in attributing so many virtues to so many harmless succulents, one wonders sometimes just how far the principle of dishonest graft entered into the dealings of the old simplers with their nostrums.  At any rate, volume after volume of herbals was published, illustrating many common and often rare plants, and sometimes in a very realistic way their real or supposed effects on the human system.  A few illustrations of these from among the works of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may not be amiss.  Porta in 1591 published page after page of illustrations showing fancied resemblances between plants and all sorts of human and animal parts, and often the discovery of such a similarity to some part of the human frame led to the unwarranted conclusion that the Almighty thus pointed out to mortals a definite specific in the plant thus possessing this resemblance.  One of the favorites among these early medicinal frauds was the supposition that because the delicate stems and branches of the maidenhair fern were really hair-like, one had only to steep them in water to supply an effective hair tonic which, for growing copious and lustrous hair and preventing incipient baldness, would place the danderines and herpicides of these degenerate days sadly in the shade!

Many of these early herbals were printed in Latin as the standard language of medicine and learning generally, but later they were printed in the vernacular of the country in which they were written, and often something symbolic of the particular plant they illustrated was added to appeal more strongly to the mind of the reader.   We give an illustration from one of the larger herbals of the sixteenth century, that of Hieronymus Bock (1587) in old German, depicting with the apple the serpent and death that was supposed to have been brought into the world by eating this really delicious fruit.  We also give a quotation from Parkinson (1640), whose English herbal is perhaps the most complete compendium of the folk-lore of plants and all the other old dames' fancies concerning the English flora that was ever written.  Here every plant description and history is followed by an account of its virtues, often set forth in exaggerated terms.

501[edit]

Concerning Salvinia natans, which he describes and figures as Lens palustris latifolia punctata Parkinson says:

The Vertues

It is cold and moist as Galen saith in the second degree, and is effectuall to helpe inflammations, and Saint Anthonies fire, as also the Goute, either applied by it selfe, or else in a pultis with barlie meale: it is also good for ruptures in young children. Some saith Matthiolus do highly esteeme of the destined water of the herbe against all inward inflammations and pestilent feavers, as also to helpe the rednesse of the eyes, the swellings of the cods, and of the brests before they be growen too much, for it doth not weakely repell the humours: the fresh herbe applied to the forehead, easeth the paines of the head-ache comming of heate. Duckes do greedilie devoure it, and so will Hens if it be given them mingled with branne.

The progress of world exploration that followed the discovery and colonization of the East and West Indies and the mainland of the then dark continents of Asia and America brought to European gardens many unusual plants which later writers, particularly those of the eighteenth century, carefully described, often with elaborate illustrations, in publications emanating from these public and private gardens of the old world. We give a copy of the title-page of the first work of this kind which describes and figures American plants.

JAC. CORNUTI
DOCTORIS MEDICI
PARISIENSIS
CANADENSIUM PLANTARUM,
aliarumque nondum editarum
HISTORIA.
* * * * *
PARISIIS,
M. DC. XXXV.
CUM PRIVILEGIO REGIS.

502[edit]


PSM V70 D506 Wild ginger asarum canadense.png

Fig. 3.  Fac-simile of illustration by Cornut (1635) of wild ginger (Asarum canadense).  (Plate by courtesy of The Plant World.)


It will be noted that this bears the date of 1635, only fifteen years after the landing of the Pilgrim fathers, and is primarily a history of the plants of Canada which was then the synonym of North America.   A sample illustration will give one of Cornut's figures of one of our common spring plants, and its name, Asaron canadense, the same it still bears, will show at a glance that the binomial system of naming plants was not only not invented by Linnæus, but was in common use almost a hundred years before he published a single line on botany, and more than seventy years before he was born!  Our common maidenhair, the bulb-bearing fern (also illustrated here), the false Solomon's seal, the yellow bellflower, the Dutchman's Beinkleider and many other common American plants are similarly illustrated in this quaint old volume.

503[edit]

PSM V70 D507 American ferns.png

Fig. 4.  Fac-simile of illustration by Cornut (1635) of the bulb-bearing fern (Felix bulbifera).  This with a plate of the common maidenhair in the same work formed the first published illustrations of American ferns.


504[edit]

The early days are famous for certain quaint and interesting collectors of curios brought in by sea-captains and other early sailors from the four corners of the earth. Among these old-time naturalists were Petiver and Plukenet, who filled huge folios with miscellaneous illustrations of plants and animals from all over the world.

We reproduce here a single plate from the latter which is just now interesting because it figures a fern peculiar to the caves of Bermuda, and named from that circumstance (Polypodium speluncæ L.), but one which jugglers of the past generation of botanists have placed outside its proper species, genus and even tribe, and have attributed to nearly all parts of the tropical world except, alas, the very island from which it originally came!   We should mention in this connection the Natural History of Jamaica, by Sir Hans Sloane, whose plates are typified by his Jamaica herbarium over two hundred years old, but still in a splendid state of preservation at the British Museum; and also the work of Charles Plumier, who laid the foundations of West Indian botany as early as 1703, and whose works are of vital importance to-day in our study of the flora of our tropical islands. Later on Mark Catesby explored the Bahamas and Carolina and published with elaborate folio plates many of the characteristic plants and animals of those little explored regions.

The conception of a plant genus as a coherent group of species apparently became crystallized by Tournefort, who published his Institutiones in 1700; in this work he gave many illustrations accompanied by descriptive text in this first genera plantarum.   Tournefort, like many modern botanists, knew mainly the higher plants, and it was reserved for Micheli (1729) to open the eyes of his fellow students to the genera of fungi, hepatics and lichens, and to Dillen (1744) to give us a foundation for the study of the mosses and the lycopodiums.  The plates of Dillen's Historia Muscorum show what he knew about mosses with a hand lens a hundred and sixty-three years ago, and we give a sample plate from Micheli showing the symmetric rows of slime molds of the genera Stemonitis and Arcyria of modern botanical jargon.  When the next generation, less hurried and temporizing than the present, comes to take up the question of plant nomenclature in a really rational fashion, these names of Tournefort and Micheli will be restored to their rightful place in a system that makes priority of publication its corner stone!

505[edit]

PSM V70 D509 Species of dryopteris still growing in the Bermuda caves.png

Fig. 5.  Copy of a plate from Plukenet showing a medley of illustrations. His Fig. 2 is the cited type of Polypodium speluncæ L., a species of Dryopteris still growing in the Bermuda caves. The name has wrongly descended to Davallia speluncæ, a member of a genus and tribe of ferns never native to Bermuda.  (Slightly reduced.)


506[edit]

PSM V70 D510 Earliest mycetozia figured under a definite generic name.png

Fig. 6.  Copy of a plate from Micheli (1729) showing the earliest mycetozoa (myxomycetes) figured under a definite generic name. (Slightly reduced.)


507[edit]

All this vast array of early botanical literature, ranging from ponderous folios with plates, often colored by hand, down to miniature Elzevir editions, with typography that puts the modern imitations to shame, finally became so voluminous and so lacking in a system that it must needs be put in order. This was accomplished by Linnæus, who proved in his Species Plantarum of 1753 that the indexer is sometimes as important as the real discoverer, and this may give encouragement to the often unthanked class of librarians and bibliographers without whose work our best efforts would often be squandered in fruitless searchings of the literature of the past.   Since this work of Linnaeus has been fixed upon as the initial point of priority of names, it is well to pause long enough to see how a page of it really looks. Like many of the standard books even of recent descriptive botanical literature it is all in Latin, which goes to prove that in botany, at least, Latin is not a dead language.  I venture the assertion that as much Latin is read daily within the walls of the museum of the New York Botanical Garden as in any building in New York city, not excepting the departments of Latin in its colleges.

But space forbids us to follow farther the general development of our knowledge of the world's flora as depicted in the various works emanating from the geniuses of the generations.   We can only mention in passing a few of the landmarks that stand as beacons along the course of systematic botany.  Here is an early one at Berlin where the brilliant Willdenow, though dying at forty-seven, gave us a rational Species Plantarum the fourth since Linnaeus and the first that really described plants from their characters.  Here stands another on Lake Geneva where Augustin, most brilliant of four generations of de Candolle botanists, commenced the Prodromus, which was the next great attempt to set in order our increasing knowledge of the world's vegetation.  Here is a third at Kew, where George Bentham actually grappled with death and forced it back, that he might complete his masterly Genera Plantarum. And here is a more recent, wide-reaching, and more useful if less brilliant beacon again set up at Berlin under the leadership of the Bismarck of German botany — who, though Regierungsrath, modestly and democratically subscribes himself, A. Engler.

Turning now to the real subject in hand, let us take a glimpse at the progress of our knowledge of the American flora.   It can be only the merest glance because of the natural complexity of the subject; we must look at landmarks here and there, and note only the general trend of a few of its more salient features.

508[edit]

PSM V70 D512 Linnaeus species plantarum 1753.png

Fig. 7.  Fac-simile of a page of Linnseus's Species Plantarum (1753). It is interesting to note that none of Linnaus's species of Tremella belong either to the modern genus Tremella, or to the family Tremellaceæ.


509[edit]

Among the early observers of plants in the American provinces was John Clayton, of Virginia, for whom our little spring-beauty is named.   He made collections of the plants noted in that province and sent them to Gronovius, who published a Flora Virginica in 1739 — a work known to Linnæeus and constantly cited as his authority for American plants.  Gronovius' plants are still preserved in the British Museum.  A little later came John Bartram who brought to his garden near Philadelphia many plants from the wilds of the southern states, over which he collected extensively.  His garden with its quaint old house has appropriately been reserved for a park in which some of the memorials of his labors are still growing.  Peter Kalm, whose memory is embalmed in Kalmia, the mountain laurel, was sent on a mission from Sweden primarily to investigate the American mulberry in the vain hope that Sweden might have an opportunity to compete with France in the silk industry.  Kalm traveled through Pennsylvania, New York and Canada in 1748–51 and took back many plants which served as the originals of some of Linnaeus' descriptions.  Near the time of our revolution another acute observer lived in New York, Cadwallader Colden by name, and once lieutenant governor of the province.  Colden was also one of the correspondents of Linnaeus, and a list of his plants was published from Upsala.  But the real commencement of our botanical exploration began with two foreign botanists, who came to this country near the close of the eighteenth century, and a third at a little later period. These were Frederick Pursh and Andre Michaux, and later Thomas Nuttall.  Michaux was sent from France to collect living plants for ornamental purposes, and as the result of his exploration took back to his native country more than sixty thousand woody plants.  In 1793 he crossed the then wilderness of the Alleghanies into Ohio, going down the river as far as Louisville.  Two years later he went farther and pushed up the Wabash to old Vincennes, crossed Illinois to the Mississippi, which he descended as far as the mouth of the Ohio, and then up the Cumberland and across to Charleston ;   he also went into Florida, then wholly inhabited by Indians.  Pursh traveled less widely, but his knowledge of the American flora was more extensive because of his contact with other botanists who supplied him with plants from their own collections.  Both Pursh and Michaux published Floras of North America so-called, although the North America of their day was practically limited by the boundaries of the thirteen original colonies, with mere excursions into the wilderness of Indiana on the west, and Florida on the south.  Michaux's Flora, edited after his death by Richard, is dated 1803, and Pursh's Flora appeared eleven years later.

After them came Thomas Nuttall, who, true to his English instincts, was an extensive traveler. He was in the vicinity of St. Louis in 1810, ascended the Missouri as far as Fort Mandan in 1816, and the Arkansaw as far as Fort Smith in 1818.   In 1834–35 he crossed the Rockies to Oregon and California.  The results of his travels were published in his Genera of North American Plants and other papers.

510[edit]

It was in the early days of the nineteenth century that botanical activity commenced in New York.   Samuel L. Mitchill was one of the first to give instruction in botany, in the intervals when he was not in congress or the senate of the United States.  After some struggles David Hosack, his successor as professor in the Medical College, secured the establishment of the Elgin Botanical Gardens in this city by aid from the state of New York.  These gardens were located on the square bounded by Madison and Fifth Avenues and Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets, and although south of the lower end of what is now Central Park, they were too remote from the New York city of a century ago to be much visited by the public, and with the pressure of other duties that came to Hosack they soon went into a decline, and the state finally turned them over to Columbia College, first, to manage as a botanical garden and, finally, as this proved a white elephant, to use for whatever purpose they chose.  With strange prescience, the college authorities held to their trust, though at times it was a financial burden, and now this same Elgin Botanical Garden, once so worthless, has become one of the foundations of a university's wealth.  A fitting memorial to Hosack may be seen in the two ancient yew trees that once stood in the Elgin Gardens, but now flank the approaches to the library of Columbia University.  But Hosack was more than a mere enthusiast over botanical gardens.  He had the gift of enthusing others, and among these was a young lawyer with the large jaw so characteristic of the profession, who afterwards became a teacher and finally went to Williams College.  Here he spread the contagion for botanical study, and his students became so enthusiastic over the subject that they volunteered to publish his lectures in a book which became the first of a series of eight editions of the manuals of botany that appeared as precursors of Gray's series of a later period.

Amos Eaton owed his success to his large jaw — what has sometimes been called the oratorical jaw — that first impelled him to enter the law.   Not alone in botany, but in geology, were his auditors most enthusiastic over his lectures, and one of the state legislatures in joint session invited him to repeat one course before their body. Eaton was perhaps saved from the law for a higher mission through the force of the law itself.  For the supposed mismanagement of an estate in Columbia county, he was for a time placed in a debtor's prison in New York city.  During his confinement there he amused himself by interesting the bright twelve-year-old son of the prison warden in the study of plants.  Here Eaton unconsciously did his greatest work in botany, for the seed, so fortuitously planted, took hold of that twelve-year-old boy and in later years he was known as the Nestor of American botany — John Torrey.

511[edit]

But in those early days botany had few emoluments and no endowed chairs.   The time for botanical work must be stolen from his recreation hours when not active in his profession, so that while Torrey was first and foremost a botanist from choice, he was a chemist by profession, and managed to work at his beloved plants in the hours not spent in an assaying office or in teaching chemistry to the students of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  His work on the American flora was perhaps the most critical that has ever been done, and when we consider the meager materials known in his period, we are profoundly impressed with his wonderful breadth of mind and the accuracy of his knowledge.  So well was Torrey known in 1831 that Asa Gray, just through with his medical studies in central New York, sought out Torrey at New York and commenced his apprenticeship in botany under a master mind.  What Gray afterwards became in American botany he owed in large measure to the start given him by John Torrey, a fact Gray himself was not slow to admit, and the friendship of the two men never ceased.  Torrey provided Gray a curator's post in the old Lyceum of Natural History in order that he might have the means to carry on his studies; he gave him the encouragement of a father, as well as of an instructor; and he finally associated Gray with himself in the preparation of the first great Flora of North America, a fact that gave Gray at once a name and a standing among botanists abroad.  The study on the flora early brought to light the necessity of examining the types of American plants preserved in the collections of Europe, and Torrey, unable to make many visits himself, made it possible for Gray to do this and thus come into personal contact with the older generation of botanical spirits of the old world.  The call from Harvard came to Gray in 1843 and closed the combined work of Torrey and Gray on the Flora of North America.  Changes in our national history, to which I shall allude later, shifted for a time the studies on the American flora, and before the further publication of the work was possible, Torrey had passed to his last sleep.  Gray built up at Cambridge the herbarium and garden that bear his name, and after Torrey's death continued his publication of the Synoptical Flora, but the work was left unfinished when Gray died in 1888.

Contemporary with Torrey in his early days were two botanists we need to mention.   One was Stephen Elliott, who published a sketch of the botany of Georgia in 1816-1824 and who may be fairly considered the father of southern botany.  Elliott's successor was Dr. A. W. Chapman, who published three editions of the Flora of the Southern States before his death, and Chapman's successor has recently given us an enlarged Flora of the same region.  The other contemporary of Dr. Torrey was French in ancestry, a Turk by birth, a Sicilian by adoption, and a vagabond by nature, gifted, versatile, wildly enthusiastic, erratic, much maligned and never understood either by his contemporaries or by his biographers.  His name was Rafinesque, which lends itself in rhyme with picturesque and grotesque, and both these adjectives fit him closely as the unique character of American botanical history.  So ardent was he in his desire for new descriptions, that when there were no further plants within his reach, he took flight to the clouds and deliberately classified the form of thunder and lightning.  He published voluminously and so miscellaneously that some of his papers are still coming to light.  Much of his work is worthless, yet there are veins of good interlarded among the bad that it still remains the task of the future to sift and save.  In his crazy notions regarding the multiplicity of species, Rafinesque has had no equals, a few weakling imitators, and only one real successor.

512[edit]

While the study of the higher plants was in progress at various places, there were fortunately only a few to study the lower ones.   Schweinitz, a Moravian minister, commenced the study of American fungi first in North Carolina and afterwards at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  He was followed in his study in the south by another clergyman, Moses A. Curtis, who attended to the spiritual needs of his parish on Sunday, and on Monday started out in his old gig for mushrooms.  Curtis sent most of his material to Berkeley in England for description, so that the types are at Kew.  Later two thirds of all our new fungi were described by Ellis, whose enormous collection is now in the New York Botanical Garden, and by the veteran state botanist of New York, Charles H. Peck, who alone represents the old school of mycologists.  The lichens were early studied by Tuckerman, whose collection is at Cambridge, and the mosses by Sullivant and Lesquereux and later by Austin.  Harvey early studied our algae, and he was succeeded by Farlow in New England and by Anderson on the Pacific Coast.

Few students of the present generation are able to understand the conditions that were the rule in the past.   A generation ago, instead of well-equipped laboratories of botany, the college boy was fortunate if he could have either botany or zoology as an undergraduate elective at all, and, of course, resident graduate work was practically unknown; if botany was given at all, it was only as a two-hour subject for a short term when the common spring flowers were attainable, for botany then was literally a study of flowers.  The whole course of instruction fostered by the text-books of Gray and Wood led only to a dilettante sort of study which in most colleges was taken to fill in a snap elective for an easy time at the close of the senior year.  No one thought seriously of botany; it was a sort of fringe on the educational garment, pretty enough, but only adapted to girls to be taken as an accomplishment and classed with decorative daubery and other fancy work.  There were only three colleges in the entire country where there was a distinctive professor of botany, and at the best of them there was not enough of the subject in the course to make three points for a full year.

513[edit]

Asa Gray was professor at Harvard from 1843 to 1875, and during those thirty-two years, with the large undergraduate body of Harvard to draw on, and with the best facilities at that time that were offered in this country, only a single Harvard man of that period ever became a botanist.   In fact, it was not the policy of Asa Gray to develop botanists; he was an ambitious man and he thought to hold the higher flora of North America in his own keeping; if any people attempted to do independent work, they were immediately criticized so roundly that only the bravest ever dared show his hand in print again.  But there came a revolt.  Asa Gray was, to use his own expression, a closet botanist.  After his early days in New York he rarely went afield even in the vicinity of his own home.  He knew his plants only as they were found in the hortus siccus.  He never saw the Mississippi or set foot on a prairie until he was sixty-two, and then took a single hurried trip across the continent with Sir J. D. Hooker.  But there were others who studied afield, who knew their plants from their living habits rather than from their fragmentary mummies, and one or two were bold enough to make their own statements in opposition to authority and to stand by them.  One of these, a son of New England, but broadened by residence in Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado and California, raised a standard against the one-man policy that had obtained so long in American botany, and his work was the cause of such mental strain that Gray's nervous tension could not bear it.  This revolutionist, stalwart and vigorous, in figure a hybrid between the Farnese Hercules and the Apollo Belvedere, was Edward Lee Greene, and his revolt was the signal for other and younger botanists who soon followed him in the arena.  After Gray's death in 1888, the center of study on the North American flora shifted from Cambridge, and new centers sprang up in Washington, at St. Louis, where George Engelmann, one of our German-American botanists, had long been at work, and in California, where Professor Greene then held a university chair.  At New York, where botany had been largely dormant since the death of Torrey in 1873, the subject was revived under the leadership of a young man whose modesty forbids my pronouncing a eulogy on him living.  To know how well he has developed this center of botanical work one has only to visit the New York Botanical Garden, at once his magnum opus and his monument.

The period just preceding the entrance of some of the older of the present generation of botanists to their college studies was a brilliant one in European botany, but all foreign researches were carefully hidden away from us as youngsters.   All the splendid work of Hofmeister, of Nageli, of Von Mohl and of De Bary was unknown to that group of American college students, and the appearance of Sachs's Botany in 1875 in English was the first intimation to many of us that we had been grossly defrauded in our college course and fed on the gray husks of the subject.

514[edit]

Following the death of Gray, there was also a concerted movement towards a rational system of nomenclature for American plants, following the practise of zoologists in certain points, and finally resulting in more fundamental methods of fixing the types of genera.   The first effort leading towards unification was expressed in the so-called Rochester Rules evolved after practically an all-night session of a committee at the Rochester meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1892 and passed by a practically unanimous vote the following day.  These were modified the following year at the Madison meeting and some unfortunate minor details were introduced that brought about considerable antagonism.  This opposition naturally attracted to itself a considerable contingent of morphological and physiological botanists who knew practically nothing about the subject, and never took the trouble to learn, beyond the fact that it produced some change in the use of names with which they had become familiar.  Subsequently the necessity for the fixation of generic types1 became apparent as more serious study of the whole subject advanced, and new features were introduced into what is now known as the American Code of Nomenclature.  The mutual concessions at the Vienna Congress of 1905 resulted in removing the most objectionable features of the propositions of both parties in the controversy, and in bringing about practical unanimity on this side of the water.  Old beliefs die hard, however, and the region beyond the River Charles appears to be an appropriate place for beliefs to die.  The doctrine of fiat creation as opposed to the doctrine of evolution died there a royal death with Louis Agassiz in 1873 ;   and after two vigorous antemortem utterances on the subject by the generations past, the Kew rule, the last vestige of personal as opposed to rational usage in plant nomenclature, has recently stalked off the platform, and is now, so far as America is concerned, a thing of the dead past.


1At the present time the zoologists of America are struggling over this problem of generic types, and ideas of what the principle really means are actually penetrating the German mind, slower in grasping the real significance of this problem.   When this principle once takes root among the botanical workers on the continent, not even the methods of the Vienna Congress will be able to stem the tide of real progress.


515[edit]

It is interesting to note the effects of political history on a subject so seemingly remote as botany.   Before the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, German was almost unknown in our college courses except as an unusual elective.  French was then considered the one necessary modern language.  The unification of Germany changed all this, and the German language at once took its proper place in our system of education.  The works of German scholars, previously buried to all but the select few, became more widely known, and many of them were translated into English and thus brought within the reach of all students.  The German language has become a sine qua non of the botanist in whatever field of investigation he enters, and a prominent cause of the backwardness and decline of botany in England, during the generation just past, is largely attributable to the fact that until very recently few of their botanists have been able to read the German language.

A few influences were prominent in bringing about better instruction in botany.   Foremost among these was the introduction of the laboratory method in biology, when an impetus was given by Huxley and his students to zoology which reacted on the cognate science of plant life.  While the laboratory method has often been carried to an extreme, especially in the exclusion of field work as a means of culture, it has, nevertheless, resulted in developing in America a laboratory technique that is the envy of even the astute Germans.  It is a well-known fact that with all the prowess of the German, it took an American botanist to introduce into the German laboratory the method of the microtome with its serial section.

Another factor was the more general introduction of better textbooks and works of reference, a condition difficult for the younger generation to realize.   I have mentioned the first translation of Sachs' Botany in 1875.  This was soon followed by the later work of De Bary and others.  But even Sachs was too advanced for the average student of the early days.  Perhaps no single book did more to serve as a logical introduction to the more advanced literature of the subject and to give to younger students their first broad outlook in botany, than that issued in 1878 by one of the most successful teachers of botany in America-as well as one of the most genial of men — Professor Charles E. Bessey.

Thirty years ago there were, as we have said, only three professors of botany in all this country.   Now the species has become so common that one is no longer a novelty ;   in the colleges of America there are now nearly one hundred botanical laboratories manned with from one to ten botanists each.  Thirty years ago there was a single botanist at Washington, regularly employed by the government to report on some new weed that appeared, and to assist the congressmen in their annual gifts of seeds to their constituents ;   now we have at least one hundred and fifty in the well-equipped laboratories of the Bureaus of Plant Industry and Forestry at Washington alone, and nearly as many more at the fifty agricultural experiment stations in every state of the union, where all phases of botany, physiological, pathological and economic, are being arduously pursued.  Thirty years ago botany was a subject thought to be fit only for girls, but now it ceases to cause a smile when full-grown men take to it seriously, though some of our antiquated coworkers in other university lines still wonder how it is possible to teach the subject except when the spring sunshine favors the growth of the early flowers!

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Space forbids us more than the mere mention of some of the varied divisions of the subject that under the hands of modern masters have grown to be broad special sciences of themselves, though still branches of botany.   We need only mention the growth of paleobotany from the days of Newberry to its modern phases, as carried on by Jeffrey and Hollick ;  of cytology, under Harper and Davis ;  of embryology, under Coulter, Johnson and Campbell ;  of ecology, under Cowles and Clements ;  of plant breeding, under Bailey and Webber ;  of mycology under Arthur, Thaxter and Burt ;  of economic botany, under Fernow and Rusby ;  and there are still other fields into which our science has broadened.

It is interesting to note how the study of the American flora has gone hand in hand with the political development of the country.   When Torrey and Gray published their first great flora of North America in 1838-1843, the territory of the United States, which was all it attempted to cover, was very largely east of the Mississippi.  Buffaloes and Indians held the great west from Arkansas to the Saskatchewan.  Texas was just struggling for freedom from Mexico, as Mexico herself had recently struggled to secure her own liberation from Spain.  Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and all California were quiet Mexican provinces undisturbed by the searcher either for ore or for plants, as peaceful as when the first missionaries of the cross opened up their missions among them, two centuries before.  Soon politics entered and commerce, its ally, followed in its wake.  The annexation of Texas in 1845 was followed by the Mexican war, through which the region from Texas to Oregon came over as the first great expansion of American territory since the Louisiana purchase.  Then on the heels of annexation came the discovery of gold in California, and the wild rush towards that Eldorado changed that territory in a twelve months from a quiet colony to a great bustling state clamoring for its full rights, and seeking to be joined to her sister states, not only by the bonds of fraternity, but by the practical iron bands of the Pacific railroad that made commerce possible with them.  In the wake of all this war, annexation, settlement, exploration for railroads, came the botanical explorer, and the floral wealth of the great West was poured into Eastern collections with Torrey at New York, and Gray at Cambridge, and to a much less degree with Engelmann at St. Louis.

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A word of mention is due to some of the early and later botanical explorers to whom we owe so much in those days when it was less possible than now for botanists themselves to extend their studies afield and learn the flora in its native heath and study it in its associations and in its relations to soil, temperature, moisture and climate.   Among these early field botanists was Charles Wright, who explored Texas, New Mexico and Nicaragua, and all through the period of our civil war and later spent his years in Cuba and made known the flora that its native and introduced Spanish inhabitants had ever been expecting to study themselves in their glorious mañana, the never-appearing period when this race does its leading work.  Wright with his boyish spirit was Dr. Gray's Carlo, a name given not only in sport, but seriously embalmed among plant names in Gray's genus Carlowrightia.  Then there were Fendler and Lindheimer, both German-Americans, who collected in Texas and New Mexico, and Fendler later in Panama, Venezuela, and last of all in Trinidad, where he died in 1883.  There was also the old Pathfinder, Fremont, who made collections in California and over the Oregon trail ;  and Parry, quiet, open-hearted, the type of the sincere botany man, who ranged over the great west from his home in Iowa to the Mexican boundary and the golden gate of the Pacific.  Later, Lemmon explored the high Sierras and Arizona, and Brandegee, led on from his surveys of the Denver and Rio Grande, left enginering for botany and explored from the Great Basin to the lowest confines of Baja California.  Both of these were followed by the veteran collector, Pringle, who finding Arizona and California too small for his ambitions, traveled year after year throughout Mexico from Chihuahua to Tehuantepec.  Time forbids the mention of the many others, even by name, who, in their untiring zeal for botanical exploration, not unlike those mentioned by the sacred writer, subdued kingdoms . . . quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword . . . out of weakness were made strong . . . wandered about in sheep-skins and goat skins . . . of whom the world was not worthy.  To these botanical explorers we owe a debt of profound gratitude.

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Fifteen years ago two men now associated together, but then distantly separated in everything except good fellowship, laid plans that proved much deeper than either of them realized at the time.   The plans involved the organization of American botanical workers for the preparation of a Flora of North America which was to include not only the higher forms, but everything from slime-molds to sunflowers that men call by the name of plants.  North America as then understood included only the region north of the Mexican boundary.  Delays of one sort and another succeeded one another, and only sample pages of this proposed work in sixteen volumes were ever printed.  The Spanish war of 1898 came on and North America from a political and botanical standpoint again took on a wider significance.  The plan jumped from sixteen volumes to thirty, and the reorganized territory of North America went southward so as to include the West Indies and Panama — the latter territory, indeed, before it was annexed by our good President; and the last two years have seen the commencement of this encyclopedic series successfully launched by the publication by the New York Botanical Garden of four initial parts of the North American Flora, the first concerted attempt to describe all the plants of North America within the limits of a single series and under a single title.  The completion of this work means the active cooperation of all the specialists in America, and already the invitations to become contributors have met with a hearty response.

The writer is neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but perhaps the present is as good a time as any for prophesying, and this is his prophecy: Before another generation of botanists shall have come to the front, American botany will have fully entered into its proper heritage, the Flora of pan-America, — and this future Flora of 1937 will include in it the one remaining botanical dark continent of all the world — South America — and the geographic limits of this flora will be Behring Strait and the Strait of Magellan.