Edward palmer's collecting career 1869—1911

“Edward Palmer is a man well named. A palmer of the olden time was one who had traveled to the Holy Land in fulfilment of a vow, and brought back with him a palm branch to be placed on the altar of his parish church. Afterwards the name was applied to pilgrims who traveled unceasingly from land to land, under a perpetual vow of poverty and celibacy.

“This is what our Palmer has done. From the age of early manhood until now, the winter of his life, never content to remain inactive even for a short period, he has set out upon one pilgrimage after another, bringing back many palm branches and other strange and beautiful products of distant climes, reverently to lay them on the altar of science.” — William Edward Safford, from his biographical sketch of Dr. Palmer read at a meeting of the Botanical Society of Washington, D.C., on January 10, 1911, on the occasion of Palmer’s 80th birthday

Three months after this tribute, Edward Palmer (1831-1911) passed away after a brief illness. Unrelenting to the end, he had the previous year made a six-month collecting trip to Tampico, Tamaulipas. At age 75, he had traveled to northwest Durango, a trip that required 8 days of travel by horseback to reach the collecting site. Throughout his very active life, he suffered regularly from ill health, and yet he persevered in his collecting travels.

Palmer’s life through 1869 was surveyed in the July and August issues of the Desert Breeze. Beginning in that year, he was finally able to make a living solely through specimen collecting, with sponsorship over the years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Peabody Museum. The constant pace of Palmer’s travels from this point onward is remarkable. His collecting slowed only for a three-year period that he spent along the New England coast collecting marine specimens for Spencer Baird, the first U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.

In the latter part of his life, Palmer continued to pursue his keen interest in archaeology that had begun earlier in Arizona. Beginning in 1875, Palmer spent considerable time in Utah unearthing burial mounds and collecting ethnological specimens for the Peabody Museum. Initially, he lived in St. George with a Mormon family who provided living quarters and ample working space. The family’s children spent much time with Palmer who taught them proper specimen collecting techniques—and routinely paid them to remove cactus spines from his hands. He returned to Arizona repeatedly for ethnological collecting and made two important excursions into Mexico, the first to excavate mounds in San Luis Potosi and the second to work in prehistoric burial caves in west Coahuila. In addition to an enormous number of archaeological specimens collected for the Peabody during these two trips, the expedition to Coahuila produced some 17,000 botanical specimens. The quality and value of his work in Utah and Mexico led to an appointment as a field worker for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology in 1881. Palmer spent three years in Arkansas and Tennessee, with side excursions to several other states along the Mississippi, excavating burial mounds. He published two works on the use of plants by the indigenous peoples in the southwest, “Food Products of the North American Indians” (1870) and “Plants Used by the Indians of the United States” (1878).

Palmer’s travels continued to the end of his life. He made several more trips into Mexico and returned to the southwest and California. His last field season with the USDA was in 1893, after which he settled down, as best he could, in Washington where he worked on organizing and annotating his collections.

The final result of Palmer’s many years of endless travel and persistence was a collection of more than 100,000 plant specimens and thousands more zoological and ethnological specimens and prehistoric artifacts. Palmer discovered more than 1,100 plants, and 200 of these bear the specific epithet 'palmeri’. The genus Palmerella, a single-species genus, was named for him, as was the single-species genus Malperia, an anagram of 'palmeri’. In naming Palmerella, the botanist Asa Gray acknowledged Palmer’s “indefatigable and fruitful explorations of the botany of the southwestern frontiers of the United States, from Arizona to the islands off Lower California, in which region he has accomplished more than all his predecessors.”

In 1875, after having been stranded on Guadalupe Island for months with nothing to eat but the island’s feral goats and vegetation, Palmer eventually made his way to San Diego where, in the course of a few months, he collected several thousand botanical specimens. One plant, collected in August in San Diego County, was Amaranthus palmeri, Palmer’s amaranth. The illustration of the plant shown here is one of Lucretia Hamilton’s superb drawings of Arizona’s weeds. At the bottom right are the male and female flowers, which are borne on separate plants. With sufficient water, the plant can easily grow to 10’ in height with a 2-3” diameter stem. A single female plant can produce more than 500,000 seeds. The leaves and seeds of Palmer’s amaranth were an important food source for many Native American tribes in the southwest.

Also known as pigweed, this Sonoran Desert native can be an extremely vigorous plant under the right conditions and is a very costly weed for farmers in the Midwest and South—one that has also become resistant to many common herbicides. This has pushed farmers to ever more extreme measures to control it. One herbicide, dicamba, is very effective for killing pigweed. Genetically modified soybean and cotton seeds have been developed to withstand the application of this potent herbicide. Many farmers, however, do not use these seeds, and the “drift” of the dicamba from GMO field to non-GMO field has caused major losses for farmers using traditional seed. Dicamba was temporarily banned from use in Missouri and Arkansas this summer. There are now reports from farmers that Palmer’s amaranth has become resistant to dicamba. — Cindy Hartwell



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