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Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3) (1978)


Bill and Mary Hood

Few visitors can pass through Yosemite in summer without being impressed by the display of wildflowers. The layman is excited by masses of lupine, shooting star and corn lily, or by a perfect snow plant growing alone. The botanist enjoys all this, but his greatest thrill may come from finding some inconspicuous little plant growing out of its recognized range or perhaps belonging to a new species. Most visitors do not realize that study of the wildflowers of Yosemite reveals a history not only of the botany of Yosemite, but of the Sierra. Many plant names are those of men prominent in botany or those of well-known Yosemite pioneers

The reason for the early botanical activity in the Yosemite region was that it was chosen to be mapped by the Whitney California State Geological Survey between 1863 and 1867. The collection of botanical specimens was an important part of the survey’s assignment. The result was that the type localities of over 100 species of plants were documented within the present boundaries of Yosemite National Park.

The type locality for a plant is the place where the type specimen was collected, that is the plant specimen from which the species was first described and named. This type specimen, dried and preserved in an herbarium, is the documentation for the correct application of the name and is an important historical record. Often the botanist may need to revisit the type locality of a species in order to study the area and the plant variation which occurs there. Thus, a record of type localities is important to present day botanists and provides a valuable indication of past botanical activity. “Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States” by Leroy Abrams gives a complete record of type localities, as does “A Report on the Boreal Flora of the Sierra Nevada” by Frank Jason Smiley However, many of the records from early collections are incomplete because specimens are present for which the exact location of collection, the date, and the name of collector were not recorded. For the type specimen of Calochortus leichtlinii, Hook. f., the familiar white mariposa lily, the only accompanying documentation cites collection as “In the Sierra Nevada of California.”

Plant collections from Yosemite were sent to specialists for identification, and many of the early collections contained new species which were then described and named The full scientific name of a plant is the genus name followed by a species name and then by the name of the describer. The species name is usually a Latin descriptive adjective, but it may be formed from the name of a man. The man may be a statesman or explorer or colleague of the describer, but often, the species is named for the collector of the type specimen.

Early botanists who were important in the description of the new plants from Yosemite include Dr. Asa Gray and Dr. John Torrey. Dr. Asa Gray was appointed Professor of Natural History at Harvard University in 1842 and built up the largest and most valuable herbarium of that time in the United States. By the time specimens first arrived from Yosemite in 1864, he was well prepared to study them. Gray visited Yosemite in 1872 and had as his guides Galen Clark and John Muir. He collected around Peregoy Meadow and obtained Sierra primrose on Clouds Rest. He returned in 1877 with the great English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker and they made the first collection of Yosemite aster near Vernal Fall.

Dr. John Torrey was Gray’s teacher and lifelong friend. Torrey visited Yosemite in 1865 and first saw his namesake plant, Collinsia torreyi Gray when he visited Mariposa Big Trees with Galen Clark. Torrey described hundreds of plants, many sent in by the explorer James Fremont, including Sarcodes sanguinea Torrey, the snow plant, discovered on the Yuba River. In a letter to Gray, Torrey tells of his pleasure in seeing living specimens of the snow plant in Yosemite.

Fortunately, in the 1860 decade there were two very competent and energetic botanical collectors, Brewer and Bolander, who worked in the Yosemite region. They were among the first to collect extensively in the Sierra Nevada, and they sent their specimens to the herbarium at Harvard University, where they could be properly identified and preserved.

William Brewer came to California in December, 1860, as “Principal Assistant,” in charge of the “Botanical Department” for the Whitney Survey. He fitted in his collecting with his many duties as a leader of field parties and surveyor.

By June of 1863 he had travelled, as related in his book “Up and Down California,” through the inland valleys from the Santa Ana River to Mt. Shasta, and had collected over 1,600 specimens. He had yet to visit the Sierra Nevada. On June 15, 1863, he camped at Crane Flat and next day visited the Tuolumne Grove. On the way to Yosemite Valley at the 6,000 foot elevation he collected specimen No. 1634, a new lupine later described by Asa Gray as Lupinus breweri Gray. Brewer left the Valley June 23rd and camped on successive nights at Porcupine Flat, Tenaya Lake, Soda Springs and at a point 3 miles west of Mono Pass. By the time they reached Mono Lake via Bloody Canyon on July 7th, he and his cartographer, Charles Hoffmann, had climbed Mt. Hoffmann, Mt. Dana twice, and Ragged Peak. Additionally, soft snow turned them back 200 feet below the summit of Mt. Lyell. On their climbs they recorded compass bearings and determined altitudes by barometer. At 10,800 feet on Mt. Hoffmann, Brewer collected a new species of stonecrop, Sedum obtusatum Gray. At a similar altitude on Mt. Dana he found a new Indian paintbrush, Castelleja breweri Fernald. Named for him is the familiar red heather, Phyllodoce breweri (Gray) Heller, which he collected on Mt. Hoffmann, although the type specimen is one he later obtained in Eldorado County. Twenty-three of 200 specimens collected on this trip were types for new species; 7 of them were named “breweri.”

Brewer continued north through the mountains to Lake Tahoe, collecting extensively in the Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass areas. The next year he explored the upper reaches of the Kings and the San Joaquin Rivers, crossing over to Owens Valley via Kearsage Pass and back into the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. During this time he collected on the slopes of a noble peak later to be called Mt. Brewer. He travelled from Clarks at Wawona to Mono Pass and back before returning east to become Professor of Agriculture at Yale University in 1864. During his four years in California, Brewer traveled 15,105 miles, 7,564 on horseback, 3,101 on foot and 4,440 by public conveyance. He collected over 2,800 specimens; 38 new species were designated “breweri.”

Brewer’s successor on the Whitney Survey was Henry Bolander. He worked for several summers in the Mono Pass area, and collected many specimens on the Mariposa Trail between Clark’s at Wawona and the Valley floor. He provided the type specimens for 53 new species from the Yosemite region (18 in the Upper Tuolumne area, 12 in Yosemite Valley, 8 around Peregoy Meadow and 15 in the Wawona Mariposa Big Tree area.) Fourteen new Yosemite species were named “bolanderi,” and a slender saxifrage, Bolandra californica, collected at Artists Point was the first of the two species of a new genus. In his description Dr. Asa Gray states: “For the last few years no one has done so much as Mr. Bolander for the botany of his adopted state and perhaps no one is likely to do so hereafter.”

Some 54 plant species are designated by the name “bolanderi.” A clover, Trifolium bolanderi Gray, has its locality in Westfall’s Meadow near Bridalveil campground. It is easily found in the meadows between there and the South Rim of the valley, but is very rare elsewhere.

Bolander collected the type specimen of a handsome groundsel, Senecio clarkianus Gray. Asa Gray wrote: “This striking tall species may well bear the name of the valued guide and mountaineer Galen Clark, in whose meadow it grows and who has done so much to make the Mariposa Grove accessible.” Bolander often stayed at Clark’s hotel and his photograph appears in Galen’s album.

The early pioneers Galen Clark, John Muir and James Hutchings earned some pocket money collecting seeds and plant specimens for eastern botanists. Asa Gray wrote of a yellow mousetail, Ivesia muirii Gray: “I have with great pleasure named this plant after my friend and valued correspondent, Mr. John Muir, an ardent explorer of the Sierra.”

Brewer and Bolander were not the first to collect in the Yosemite region. Thomas Bridges collected plant and animal specimens in California from 1856 until his death in 1865. Most of his collections, which included many seeds, went to Europe. Unlike Brewer and Bolander, his name is attached to only a few species, and there is little record of his work in California. He collected the spectacular cone flower, Rudebeckia californica Gray, in the Mariposa Grove. He also visited Yosemite Valley, but there is no account of any trip that Bridges might have made to the high country. In his name, the scarlet penstemon seen on the Tioga Road between Yosemite Creek and Olmsted Point is designated bridgesii.

The history of botany in Yosemite is an important one. Botanists working here, particularly William Brewer and Henry Bolander, in conjunction with associates in the east like Asa Gray and John Torrey, laid the foundations for the botany of the Sierra Nevada.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management