Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer and Velvet Leaf Senna

Much of the botanical exploration of the American West in the mid-19th century was accomplished by an army of dedicated plant collectors of various backgrounds hired to accompany government survey expeditions. Other plant collectors explored the West independent of organized expeditions. One such collector was Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801–1879), a political refugee from Germany who is considered to be the “father of Texas botany”.

Early in his career, Lindheimer taught at a preparatory school in Frankfurt where he was associated with a number of students and activists who mounted a political rebellion in 1833. Although not directly involved in the incident, he was suspected of having sympathies for the movement, and he decided to seek political refuge in the United States. He first settled in Belleville, Illinois, home to many German émigrés, including George Engelmann. From there, Lindheimer traveled to Mexico where he found his passion for plant collecting. After hearing of the start of the Texas Revolution in 1835, he went to Texas to join the fight for independence. Upon leaving the army in 1837, he was invited by George Engelmann to spend time in St. Louis, after which he relocated to Texas and began work as a plant collector for Engelmann and Asa Gray.

The collecting challenges in Texas were substantial, as the area was still largely unexplored and perilous. His friend Ferdinand von Roemer wrote of how Lindheimer made his collections:

“He bought a two-wheeled covered cart with a horse, loaded it with a pack of pressing-paper and a supply of the most indispensable provisions, namely, flour, coffee, and salt, and then set forth into the wilderness, armed with his rifle and with no other companion than his two hunting dogs, while he occupied himself with collecting and pressing plants. He depended for his subsistence mainly upon his hunting, often passing whole months at a time without seeing a human being.”

Over the course of eight years, he discovered several hundred species and subspecies, many of which were documented in Engelmann and Gray’s Plantae Lindheimerianae. Forty-eight species and one genus were named for Lindheimer.

After 1851, Lindheimer’s plant collecting was limited to expanding his personal botanical garden and private herbarium at his home in New Braunfels, Texas. He became editor of the noted German newspaper, Die Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, established a free school for gifted children, and spent his later years studying natural history.

One of the plants named in honor of Lindheimer is Senna lindheimeriana, a perennial legume native to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Plants in the genus Senna have a specialized method for dispersing pollen. Typically, a flower’s anthers split lengthwise to release pollen, which is easily gathered by bees. The senna’s anthers have only a small pore at the top through which the pollen can be released, and in order to get to the pollen, the bee must vibrate the stamen and shake the pollen out through the apical pore. This ‘buzz pollination’ technique is limited to bumble bees, carpenter bees, some sweat bees, and digger bees.

This botanical illustration of Senna lindheimeriana is by Tucson artist Chris Bondante and is part of the Legumes of Arizona project. The September 2013 issue of The Desert Breeze includes information about Chris and her watercolor painting of Opuntia basilaris. Several of Chris’s botanical illustrations prepared for the upcoming book Legumes of Arizona can be seen in the Sonoran Desert Florilegium. — Cindy Hartwell

This appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.