What Lewis and Clark Didn’t See

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Mayapple was one of the native plants Lewis and Clark mention in their travel journals.

President Thomas Jefferson, an avid,
inquisitive gardener as well as a political leader, wanted
desperately to know what lay west of the Mississippi River. He had
traveled to Europe several times before his presidency, bringing
back seeds and plants he nurtured in his gardens at Monticello. He
introduced American gardeners to the Brandywine tomato, Tom Thumb
lettuce and hyacinth bean vine, among many other contributions.

As early as 1792, Jefferson had been considering what lay out
West beyond the boundaries of the country. He contemplated what
natural wonders might be there, what routes might be found to the
west, what trade could be established, and what flora and fauna
might flourish there.

When the Louisiana Purchase was signed, even before Congress had
officially ratified the deal, Jefferson directed his personal
secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis’ friend, William Clark, to
lead an expedition. The president wrote detailed directions and
suggestions to Lewis before the Corps of Discovery embarked on its
mission in 1804.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of making friendly
contact with the natives, scouting locations for military forts and
finding potential sites for new towns and cities, Jefferson
directed Lewis and Clark to record the plants they encountered, as
well as the animals and people.

Lewis and Clark’s journals recorded more than 300 new species of
animals, including flocks of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet,
cited in vast numbers along the Missouri River near what is now
Independence and Kansas City. They recorded discovering the Osage
orange tree (Maclura pomifera) on the west bank of the Mississippi
River in March of 1804. Using their journals and maps to trace
their route, you soon discover that the Missouri River has been
altered. Once a multi-channel, meandering river, it is now confined
within much narrower banks.

Although the river’s course has been straightened, many of the
plants remain much as they were in Jefferson’s time. You can find
medicinal plants and herbs that have grown for thousands of years.
The willow, used for easing headaches, still grows rampant there.
So do blackberries and raspberries, used for food and medicine.
Smartweed, mayapple, pokeweed, cardinal flower and many others were
present at that time, used primarily for medicine by the native
people and later by the pioneers.

Many plants found along the route today would not have been
present during the Corps’ expedition. The Corps of Discovery opened
up a vast section of the United States to settlement, and with that
expansion came new varieties of plants and animals.

Some examples of plants not found during the time include white
sweet clover (Melilotus alba) and plaintain (Plantago major), found
in yards all across the United States. Plants we take for granted
as purely American, both were imported from Europe and spread
through grain crops as settlers moved west. Horehound and catnip,
often found growing in the wild, were carried as medicinal plants
and escaped from cultivation after Lewis and Clark’s time. Velvet
leaf (Abutilon theophrasti), a native of India and considered by
early physicians to be useful in treating dysentery, fever and
stomachaches, is now considered a noxious weed by most American
farmers and also spread across the nation after Lewis and

Walking or driving the expedition’s route today yields an
experience of then and now. Lewis and Clark saw an unimaginable
variety of flora throughout their adventure and realized
Jefferson’s dream of discovery. The process of changes in the
landscape continues to this day.

Jim Long writes from his home in the Ozark Mountains and is
author of several books on gardening and historical subjects.

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