george thurber and the organ pipe cactus,
stenocereus thurberi

Of all the naturalists who traveled with the United States–Mexican Boundary Survey expedition, George Thurber (1821–1890) was the only plant collector to botanize in western Sonora, and the only one to thoroughly explore and collect on the Gila River and the California desert. It was on the Gila River that he collected the previously unknown parasitic flower, Pilostyles thurberi, (described in last month’s Desert Breeze), and it was in northern Sonora that Thurber found the organ pipe cactus, Stenocereus thurberi.

In May of 1851, Thurber’s party, led by the roving Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett, passed through a steep canyon between the towns of Bachuachi and Arispe on the Sonora River. Here, in a pass that was “brilliant with the intensely scarlet flowers of a fine Erythrina”, they found a new species of Cereus, the organ pipe cactus. In 1854, this cactus was described by George Engelmann based solely on Thurber’s field notes and a single flower that he had collected. Engelmann named the cactus Cereus thurberi, to honor the collector. After enduring a few cumbersome renamings, the cactus was finally given the name Stenocereus thurberi by Franz Buxbaum, in 1961.

The illustration here is a lithograph by Edward Hamilton of a pen and ink drawing by Lucretia Hamilton of Stenocereus thurberi. Between 2008 and 2010 Edward Hamilton, Tamarind Master Printer and owner of Hamilton Press in Venice, California, made lithographs of 15 of the drawings that his mother had prepared for Lyman Benson’s The Cacti of the United States and Canada. Hamilton hand colored eight of the lithographs and donated a set to the Florilegium Program, in 2012. Hamilton also donated a set of the 15 uncolored lithographs to the University of Arizona Herbarium.

George Thurber’s interest in botany began when he worked as a pharmacist in Providence, R.I. This led him to make the acquaintance of the botanists John Torrey and Asa Gray, and when his interest in studying plants broadened into an ambition for botanical exploration, Torrey and Gray recommended him to serve on the Boundary Survey Commission. He was hired as botanist, quartermaster, and commissary, travelling primarily in the company of Commissioner Bartlett. Thurber amassed an impressive collection of new plants that Gray eagerly published, in 1854, as Plantae Novae Thurberinanae, knowing that the completion of the final boundary survey report with illustrations of the plants would require several more years (1859).

With his desire for exploration satisfied, Thurber went to New York where he was appointed to the U.S. Assay Office, and a few years later he lectured on botany at the Cooper Union and the New York College of Pharmacy. In 1859, Thurber was hired as professor of botany and horticulture at the Michigan Agricultural College, becoming the country’s first professor of horticulture. Four years later, the Orange Judd Company hired Thurber as editor and contributor for the American Agriculturist, a Boston periodical that occupied him for the next twenty-two years.

Thurber wrote on a variety of topics for the magazine. His recurring columns included “The Doctor’s Talks”, instructional articles for children on a wide variety of scientific subjects; and “Humbug”, a very popular series intended to debunk the claims of hucksters and charlatans, whether medical or agricultural. Near the end of his life, his column “Notes from the Pines” described his life at his home on the Passaic River in New Jersey where he maintained a wild garden and encouraged his readers to do likewise. He made revisions to several important horticultural publications, and, for the Orange Judd Company, he edited and wrote books on horticulture and agriculture.

Graminology was Thurber’s particular field of expertise, and he worked for many years on a monograph of American grasses. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete the project in his lifetime. Upon his death, Charles Sprague Sargent wrote in Garden and Forest magazine that Thurber had been the most accomplished horticultural writer that America had produced. He continued,

“Dr. Thurber was a man of great knowledge and of the broadest sympathies, kind, faithful and true, generous to a fault, simple in the ways of the world, and always more interested in the welfare of others than in advancing his own interests.”

Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.