Botanizing the West

Learn how Lewis and Clark contributed to the herbs we eat today.

| February/March 2002

  • Nicotiana tabacum is one of the many herbs documented in Lewis and Clark’s journals.
  • Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is one of the many plants collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to western North America.

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 

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