The early years of plant collector edward palmer

Plant collecting in the 19th century was a treacherous occupation, one that required considerable physical stamina, but one that was not particularly lucrative. So what motivated these intrepid collectors? Scientific recognition? The thrill of exploration? Wanderlust? Obsession? Edward Palmer is considered the most prolific collector of his day, with a collection of more than 100,000 plant specimens residing in herbaria and institutions throughout the world. Judging from the extent of his never-ending travels throughout the western U.S. and Mexico, his perseverance in spite of recurring illnesses and injuries, as well as the sheer volume of his collections, he was likely motivated by all of those things.

Edward Palmer (1831–1911) was born in Norfolk, England. His father’s profession as a horticulturist and florist undoubtedly influenced his son’s eventual choice of occupation. At the age of 18, Palmer emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he became a protégé of Dr. Jared Kirtland, a noted physician and naturalist. Here he was exposed to Kirtland’s herbarium and learned how to prepare both botanical and zoological specimens.

In 1853, upon Kirtland’s recommendation, Palmer was appointed to serve as naturalist and hospital steward aboard the USS Water Witch with the La Plata Expedition to Paraguay, one of the first expeditions to collect specimens from this region of South America. By 1855, Palmer had made extensive collections in spite of having contracted malaria. In January of 1855, the ship was fired on by Paraguayan forces (an action that caused the U.S. in 1858 to send a large military expedition to Paraguay to demand recompense and apology for the earlier incident). Soon after the attack on the ship, an ailing Palmer requested permission to leave the expedition. He returned to Cleveland, his specimens in tow, and then traveled to England where he married.

Upon his return to the U.S., he obtained additional medical training in Cleveland and settled briefly in Kansas to practice medicine. While Palmer’s biographers note that the fate of the new Mrs. Palmer is unknown, legal registers in Kansas record that the Palmers were divorced in 1860. From this point onward, Palmer traveled unimpeded by domestic responsibility.

After spending time collecting in Colorado and California, Palmer applied for a medical position with the Union Army in 1861. With the expectation of an eventual appointment, he traveled back to Colorado but had to serve initially without pay. He found time for some collecting, but as the conflict intensified, his time was dedicated solely to caring for soldiers. A formal appointment finally materialized in 1864 along with two years’ back pay. Near the end of the war, his health began to fail, and he was discharged from the Army. He was hospitalized in Kansas City, and, after his recovery, he worked as a contract surgeon in the area.

In 1865, enticed by the collecting prospects in the new western territories—and perhaps tiring of medical practice—Palmer began making plans to travel to Arizona. His experiences there and his developing interest in archaeology and ethnobotany will be explored in the August Desert Breeze.

One of the new plant species collected by Palmer was Abutilon palmeri (Indian mallow). It was first described by Asa Gray in 1870 from a specimen collected by Palmer in 1869 on the Yaqui River in Sonora, Mexico. This Sonoran Desert native can be found on rocky slopes from southern California into Arizona, Baja California, and northwestern Mexico.

Indian mallow has become a popular plant for desert gardens. While the plant’s intense yellow-orange flowers are striking, the most memorable feature of the plant is its light green, velvety heart-shaped leaf that just begs to be touched. Despite those soft leaves, this is a tough plant that thrives in the desert

This illustration of Abutilon palmeri is by botanical artist Cherie Ann Gossett. As a freelance botanical artist, Cherie paints detailed portraits of plants, usually working in watercolor or graphite and colored pencil. Cherie’s love for plants began with floral design, leading to gardening, then horticulture, and finally botanical art. Her professional design background includes architecture, landscape design, and city and campus planning.

As a landscape designer, she is particularly fond of portraying plant subjects that can be planted successfully in ornamental landscapes, with an emphasis on plants native to western North America. As a horticulture enthusiast, her paintings often convey the plant from bud to flower to fruit, with as great accuracy as possible. And as a gardening teacher, she hopes to share her appreciation of plants through her paintings.

More of Cherie’s work can be seen in the Members’ Gallery on the website of the American Society of Botanical Artists. — Cindy Hartwell



This appeared in the July 2017 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.