DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Peary's Expedition to Greenland
Peary's Summer Voyage (Peary's 4th Trip to Greenland) - Northwest Greenland
The field of botany is a specialist science that requires hands-on experience and training in order for one to become an authority on the subject. Admiral Robert E. Peary’s Expedition to Northwest Greenland during the summer months of 1896 was used as a botanical fieldtrip for several students at Cornell University. The voyage was an ideal opportunity for young botanists to get their first experience collecting in the field. Cornell Professors, Ralph S. Tarr and A.C. Gill led a group of four promising scholars around the Island of Baffin, up the Labrador Coast, and to their main collecting ground on the Nugsuak Peninsula. The group collected numerous plants, including 135 species of seed-producing spermatophytes.
After the expedition, a report titled A List of Plants Collected by the Cornell Party on the Peary Voyage was published. The report notes that one of the students, J.O. Martin, did the greater part of the botanical work for Tarr. It was also stated that the rare finding of the arctic willow, Salin groenlandica, was particularly exciting. Botanists on the expedition found the rare plant, which only grows to be around 15cm tall, in the tundra. Its branches grow in long trails and often develop roots when in contact with the ground. Its flowers bloom in the spring and resemble spikes that point upwards. Commentary from the report explains that, “The arctic willow gives testimony of the zeal and success with which the party studied the flora of the places where they stopped.”
In late July, the expedition ventured to Baffin’s Land which is part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where several more plant specimens were gathered. Among these were a variety of grasses, including Phillipsia algida, more commonly known as ice grass, Savastana alpine or sweet alpine grass, and Elymus arenarius often called ‘Blue Dune’ or blue lyme grass.
On August 7th, the expedition arrived at their main collecting site on the Nugsuak Peninsula, and proceeded to make camp on nearby Shurman Mountain. The report states that, previous to the arrival of the expedition, Mount Shurman had been covered by an ice cap. The botanists were very curious as to what plants they would find growing in this changing environment. The Cornell party students concluded that,“the cliffs of the mountains are a favorite nesting place for birds, and no doubt they carry seeds across the ice and leave them upon the mountain.” The scientists collected many perennial plants from this area, including the alpine catsfoot (Antennaria alpine) and an herb called alpine bittercress (Cardamine bellidifollia). The bog blueberry (Vaccinium uglinosum) was one of their first finds in the area. This flowering plant is native to cooler temperate regions and has edible fruit.
Admiral Peary took an interest in several of the mosses found in the arctic and collected Drepanocladus exannulatus, a moss common to arctic and temperate regions around the world. Nevertheless, as with most expeditions of the time, the botany was not the main concern or objective of the voyage. The most notable and recognizable achievement of Peary’s expedition to Greenland was the collection of a 65 ton meteorite, later named the Cape York meteorite, that Peary brought to the United States after his fifth voyage to Greenland in 1897. Despite this fact, Peary’s 1896 summer voyage was an invaluable experience for the Cornell students, as well as a rewarding venture for U.S. National Herbarium and other museums that received the plant collections.
Nature Publishing Group. "Commander Peary's Expedition to the North Pole."Nature 83 (1910): 284.
Peary, Robert. Northward Over the Great Ice. London: Methuen And Company, 1898.
Rowler, Willard, and K.M. Wirgand. "A List of Plants Collected by the Cornell Party on the Peary Voyage of 1896."Botanical Gazette 24 (1897): 417-425.