DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
J.W. Powell Survey
J.W. Powell Survey
John Wesley Powell, a civil war veteran, botanist, geologist, and sociologist, describes the landscape of the Rocky Mountains as, “a constant succession of parks and glades—dreamy avenues of grass and flowers winding between sylvan walls, or spreading out in broad open meadows… ” Powel was one of four men during the 1870s to lead a United States Geological Survey of the West. The J.W. Powell Survey unofficially began in 1867 when Powell led a small team of mountain men down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon for the first time in history. In 1870, Congress officially established a Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountains region with Powell in charge. This momentous event was just the beginning of Powell’s life as a surveyor, and he continued leading surveys until 1894.
Throughout this time, Powell and the botanists he employed were able to collect botanical specimens for numerous museums and herbariums across the United States. The most unlikely and least known botanist that traveled with J.W. Powell was his sister “Nellie” who had studied botany at Wheaton College. She wished to accompany her brother through Utah to make collections of flora during his 1871-72 expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers. Using the aid of her botany text book, she was able to collect and classify over 200 hundred species of plants, and her collection was sent to Botanist Asa Gray at Harvard.
Gray was also employed by Powell in 1880. He wrote a section for the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountains region report entitled “Botany of the Black Hills” in which he lists 166 specimens collected during the outing. He describes several of the flowers in great detail. The “Sego Lilly” (Calcochortus Nuttallii), “is noted as an insect-capturing plant” where “flies have frequently been found fast among the bristles that fringe the glands of the petals, where they have perished.”
Lester Frank Ward was another botanist who worked for Powell, and collected plant specimens during late 1870s, several of which are housed in the U.S. National Herbarium. The Pyrrocoma lapathifolia was collected in Utah in 1875. This plant is part of a small genus of the daisy family. It is a perennial wildflower often called the “Goldenweed,” and has red stems and a yellow flower with thinner petals than the typical daisy. Ward also collected the Glenwood milkvetch Astragalus loanus, which was found in Brine Creek Canyon. This flowering plant is an exceptionally rare specimen of Utah. Nicolas Grahm wrote in his book Alpine Plants of North America, that this rare plant “grows only in Sevier County, Utah on sliding volcanic rocky slopes at 1920-2075 meters.” He continues by describing the flora as having, “silver-green leaves covered with wooly hairs… and white lavender-tipped flowers.”
Powell used Ward’s work on the grass studies of the region when writing sections of the “Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions.” He was very impressed with Ward’s knowledge and ability. He recorded in one report that, “Mr. Lester F. Ward collected in a single season more than 600 species of plants.” Ward continued to work for Powell after the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey as the first chief of the New Division of Fossil Plants.
Powell also contributed to the Smithsonian’s collection of flora. In August 1875, Powell found the flowering arrowgrass Trigiochin palustre in Rabbit Valley, Utah. The grass grows in marshy areas with either brackish or fresh water. It often flowers from May to August and grows between 8-30 inches tall. Another specimen collected by Powell was the Amaranthus leucocarpus. This plant produces blooming tassels of a dark red hue that has been called the Summer Poinsettia, the Molten Flower, and the Flaming Fountain.
Powell was known for being a brilliant descriptive writer. In his annual report to Congress in 1880-81, he depicts the Sylvan scenery: “From June to July there is quite a display of wildflowers… The valley sides and platforms above are resplendent with dense masses of scarlet, purples, and yellow.” From the vivid depictions that Powell records, it is clear that he was enthralled and amazed by the spectacular landscape of the Rocky Mountains.
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