DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Hayden U.S. Geological Survey, 1872
Hayden's U. S. Geological Survey: Expedition to Yellowstone
Plant collecting in the Geyser Basins of Yellowstone can yield some unusual specimens. John M. Coulter—botanist on Ferdinand Hayden’s second expedition into the new national park—noted in his expedition report that the heat from the geysers and hot springs caused some plants to grow much larger than usual. Coulter even found that several species of the Gentianella genus were unexpectedly darker in coloration, describing that they had “perfectly black stems and veins, leaves unusually dark, and petals with the black appearance common to dried specimens.”
Despite the plethora of interesting plants, the main mission of the 1872 expedition was to document the geology and topography of the Yellowstone area, particularly the Snake and Missouri Rivers. Nevertheless, Coulter and Assistant Naturalist Walter Platt collected numerous fossil, animal, and plant specimens. Coulter also made observations on the differences in the plant life in the various environments they encountered, from the desert to the Geyser Basins.
The landscape of the first leg of their journey—in the region between Ogden and the Teton Basin—was dominated by sage brush and other desert plants such as the sego lily (Calochortus nuttallii). Due to the low diversity of species, Coulter described the region as a “dry, sandy” desert with an “unpleasant sameness” to the landscape. He also noted the “entire absence of trees” on the plains, except for the occasional “stunted growth” near a large stream. Near the Great Salt Lake, however, the plant life was a little different: the alkaline soil was unsuitable for many species, so Chenopodiaceae were very common.
Sub-alpine and alpine plants, including the Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), dominated the region between the Teton mountain range and the mountains near Yellowstone. At around 11,000 feet in elevation the tree life abruptly ceased to exist, leaving a distinct timber line that Coulter believed marked the lowest temperature that the trees could endure. However, plant life continued above the timber line. When exploring Mount Hayden, Coulter collected plants at elevations up to within 300 feet of the summit, at about 13,800 feet.
Coulter noted that, “[f]erns are almost unrepresented [in the Yellowstone area], owing to the great dryness of the climate.” However, some fern species, including the winter grapefern Botrychium lunarioides, could be found in the Geyser Basin or near water sources in the Teton mountains. Mosses and lichens were common on the Teton mountain range, and dominated the landscape at elevations too high for forest plants.
Three of the approximately 1,200 plant specimens collected were species that had not been previously collected in North America. The “Longhorn Steer-Head” Dicentra uniflora—a member of the bleeding-heart genus—was collected on the summit of a mountain at 10,000 feet in elevation. The other two new species, Peziza vulcanalis and Sphaeria coulteri (named after Coulter), were both fungi. Coulter himself believed that western explorations such as Hayden’s Survey contributed valuable information to the field of botany. As he said in his Report to Hayden, “[t]he study of western flora is an immense field open now to all lovers of botany, and many rich harvests are waiting to be reaped by the industrious collector.”
Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden and the Founding of the Yellowstone National Park. Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1973.
Hayden, F. V. Sixth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, Embracing Portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah; Being a Report of Progress of the Explorations for the Year 1872. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1873.
Hayden, F. V. Preliminary Report of the United States Geological Survey of Montana and Portions of Adjacent Territories; Being a Fifth Annual Report of Progress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872.
Rodgers, Andrew Denny. John Merle Coulter: Missionary in Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944.
USDA PLANTS database. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. National Plant Data Center. http://plants.usda.gov/ (for information on plant species Dicentra uniflora, Calochortus nuttallii, Pinus ponderosa, and Botrychium lunarioides; accessed July 6, 2010).