Mother Earth Living

Botanizing the West

Learn how Lewis and Clark contributed to the herbs we eat today.
By Robert K. Henderson
February/March 2002
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Nicotiana tabacum is one of the many herbs documented in Lewis and Clark’s journals.
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Two hundred years later, the work of Lewis and Clark is still a vital resource for herbalists. 

A feat that captured the public’s imagination was Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis (a commissioned captain) and Clark (a commissioned lieutenant and acting captain) led an Army unit called the Corps of Volunteers for North-Western Discovery. The route itself, from St. Louis to the Pacific and back through unmapped territory, is the stuff of legend. Yet the expedition’s scientific accomplishments were just as impressive, if far less celebrated. The fact is, notwithstanding the fear, hunger, and exhaustion that were their daily trail companions, co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dutifully brought more than 200 botanical specimens back to St. Louis. Most of this collection, known as the Lewis and Clark Herbarium, survives and is archived at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. Together with the comments in the journals, it’s a priceless resource for herbalists.

Talented amateurs 

As the corps’ designated scientist, Captain Lewis had taken a crash course in formal field work from pioneer botanist William Bartram. However, he owed his lifelong interest in plants to his mother, who taught him practical herbal lore during his childhood. The blend of perspectives is tersely apparent in such journal entries as, “Carduus or Thistle Roots, eatable. Fort Clatsop, March 13, 1806.” As a result, we know not only what plants the expedition encountered, but often what they did with them as well.

Armed with Bartram’s detailed account of his own epic botanical safari through the Southern hinterlands (Travels*), Lewis and Clark plunged into a world almost entirely unknown to Western science. Among the hundreds of previously unrecorded plant species they encountered were Philadelphus lewisii (mock orange), Linum lewisii (Lewis’ wild flax, now referred to as L. perenne subsp. lewisii), and Mimulus lewisii (Lewis’ monkey flower), each of which was named for the person who first identified them. Genera Lewisia and Clarkia are an even better indication of the expedition’s scientific impact, given that genus names are most often accorded only to famous career botanists.

Food, flowers, and a drug 

Lewisia, or bitterroot, which the corps collected in western Montana, is especially interesting to ethnobotanists today. Lewisia taproots were a vital staple to area Native Americans who furnished most of the expedition’s food. In fact, Lewis first encountered the genus that would bear his name among baggage dropped by a Shoshone party during an altercation. Wrote Lewis: “This (dried bitterroot) the Indians with me informed were always boiled for use. I made the expriment, found that they. . . had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and I transferred them to the Indians who had eat them heartily.”

The party collected the wildflower Clarkia in Idaho. As Clark himself played no role in the event, the rare honor is apparently intended to reward his critical supporting role in the corps’ scientific achievements.

Another measure of the expedition’s botanical prowess is the fact that several official state and provincial flowers were first collected or described by Lewis. Among them are Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, found in Oregon), coast rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum, Washington), mock orange (Idaho), bitterroot (Montana), and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii, British Columbia).

Yet for all the groundbreaking discoveries, the herb that most dominates the expedition’s journals is tobacco (Nicotiana spp.). All but seven of the nearly one hundred members of the expedition were badly addicted to this New World drug. Tobacco was vital to Native American diplomacy, and as the company’s stock ran low, the leaders declared it off limits. Save for Christmas and cache-opening celebrations, the men had to forgo commercial tobacco (N. tabacum) for Native American crops bred for aroma rather than kick. (One of these, Arikara tobacco—N. quadrivalvis, was first collected by Lewis and has since become extinct.) Things got worse during the soggy, interminable Oregon winter, when the men were reduced to smoking the nicotine-free mixtures of coastal natives. These were based on willow, apple, and kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and typically contained no tobacco at all.

An invaluable legacy 

As the bicentennial of their departure approaches, we marvel again at their exploits. These legendary explorers did more than simply emerge in St. Louis two years after anyone had heard from them. They also carried detailed journals and hundreds of carefully preserved and cataloged botanical specimens from a vast, uncharted territory. Their data formed the core of America’s botanical knowledge of its new possessions. For a group whose very survival was considered a miracle, scientific success on this scale is truly extraordinary. The Lewis and Clark Herbarium, and their journals, remain a tremendous boon to herbalists, even in our day.

* William Bartram’s journal is available in the following publications:

William Bartram: Travels and Other Writings (Library of America, 1996).

The Travels of William Bartram (University of Georgia Press, 1998)


Robert K. Henderson lives in Gore, Quebec, Canada. He is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion and has written many herb related books including The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet (Chelsea Green, 2000).


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