ISSN 1188-603X

No. 385/1 December 4, 2007 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2


From: Rhoda M. Love [] - This article was originally published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly 89(4) - Fall 1998.

Editor's Note: Congratulations, Rhoda, on the accomplishments of your son Stanley Love, an astronaut on Atlantis Mission STS-122 scheduled for take-off on December 6.

Wilhelm Suksdorf was one of three major pioneer botanists of the Pacific Northwest. These three remarkable, primarily self-taught plant collectors, Suksdorf, Thomas Jefferson Howell and William Conklin Cusick, made an inestimable contribution to the knowledge of western botany. The German-born Suksdorf, who lived for 57 years on the Columbia River at Bingen, Washington, collected primarily in the Klickitat County-Mount Adams country. Most modern botanists agree that by the time of his death in 1932, he had encountered virtually every plant species in his chosen territory. Suksdorf corresponded with dozens of the country's most important botanists, he collected approximately 150,000 sheets of plants in a lifetime of collecting, his specimens can be found in many of the world's major herbaria, and approximately 70 species and a genus bear his name.

Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf was born on September 15, 1850 near the German town of Dransau in eastern Holstein not far from the Schleswig border where his father, Detlev Suksdorf, was a tenant on a rented farm. The elder Suksdorf and his wife, Louise Schroeder Suksdorf, had nine children, seven sons and two daughters. Both daughters died while very young, but the seven sons all lived into old age. Wilhelm was the 6th child, the next-to-youngest son.

In 1858 when Wilhelm was 8 years old, the Suksdorf family immigrated to America, settling in a German community near Davenport, Iowa where they rented a farm. At first the family existed in deep poverty but in a few years the father could afford to buy 160 acres of virgin prairie where they subsequently lived for 10 years. All the Suksdorf boys worked on the farm. In his youth, Wilhelm was a sickly child who suffered from headaches. Nearly 60 years later, he told Harold St. John of Washington State College that his headaches were cured in a single visit to a Davenport healer who made the boy promise never to reveal the treatment. As far as anyone knows, he never did. On the farm, Wilhelm's job was to drive the cows to and from pasture. It is clear, based on Suksdorf's memories of this time, that he was a born botanist, for many years later, he recalled how he plucked and examined each prairie wildflower he noticed on these walks. He later wrote in a brief autobiographical note: "Living on a farm, I was of course much interested in plants, and so very many of the prairie plants were known to me, but I had no names for them." However, he goes on: "When two of my brothers studied at college at Ames, Iowa, they had to study botany, using Gray's textbooks, and they prepared some specimens. All this helped me in a way. In 1870 or 1871, I was able to buy me Gray's Manual and began to study the wild plants and the botanical terms at once, whenever there was a little time to do so."

The young Suksdorf had only a smattering of formal schooling. He attended the public schools of Davenport for a time, and in the winters of four years, he was enrolled in a private German school. He took several months of college preparatory work at Griswold College in Davenport and in the spring of 1874 another few months at the Academy of Grinnell College. At about that time, two of Suksdorf's older brothers, Friederich and Hinrich went west to seek their fortunes and, after two years of wandering, wrote home to say they had found employment helping a rancher near the Columbia River in the great Northwest. The brothers wrote so glowingly of the richness of the area that the entire Suksdorf family decided to pull up stakes, leave Iowa, and try their hand at farming in Washington State. While they waited to sell their Iowa farm, Wilhelm was sent ahead to attend the University of California for two years, and eventually to rejoin the family on their new homestead at White Salmon, Washington.

Suksdorf left virtually no written record of his time at Berkeley. In his brief autobiographical note he wrote only: "In the latter part of 1874, I went to California and entered the University of California at Berkeley under great difficulties and did not go farther than half way through." We can assume that the difficulties were poverty, ill-health, shyness, and Suksdorf's lifetime belief that he could express himself better in German than in English. He told St. John that he was able to take only a single botany course, which consisted of dry lectures on agricultural plants with no laboratory work. Only on a single occasion was his interest greatly sparked and that was the day a guest lecturer, Dr. Albert Kellogg, talked of the wild plants of California and demonstrated herbarium sheets. But, although Suksdorf examined the sheets carefully, he was too shy to strike up a conversation with Dr. Kellogg and so perhaps missed an opportunity to make a connection with the San Francisco botanical community. The papers Suksdorf saved from this period consist mostly of warm letters from his brothers, a brief correspondence with one college friend, and a laundry bill.

Suksdorf's older brothers, who had preceded the family to the Columbia River had purchased 320 acres of land at White Salmon, Washington. When the rest of the family arrived from Davenport, they bought 80 adjacent acres with money from the sale of two farms in Iowa. At this time, about 15 families had settled in the area. The new Suksdorf ranch encompassed rich Columbia River bottomland as well as groves of Garry oaks, and a timbered hillside of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Anyone who knows the White Salmon area realizes that this is one of the great beauty spots of the world. With a mild climate, rich soils, the huge river rolling by, the forested hillsides (now mostly replaced by orchards) and views of snow-capped Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, it must have indeed seemed a paradise to the Suksdorfs who left Iowa during the winter of 1874-75 when ice on the Mississippi River was 5 feet thick.

Suksdorf returned to his family in 1876 and, although he later had brief botanical experiences at both Harvard and Washington State University, he never again attended college after those two difficult years at Berkeley. In fact, with the exception of only a handful of brief sojourns elsewhere, Suksdorf, at the age of 26, settled down in White Salmon (later to become Bingen when the White Salmon Post Office moved to a new location on the bluff above) in the bosom of his close family, never to marry and essentially never to move again. However, here in this new and diverse land, his love of botany blossomed. Of his early years on the farm in White Salmon, Suksdorf wrote: "When I left Berkeley in 1876, I went of course to Washington to help my brothers on the farm and in their dairy business. Here Gray's Manual was not as helpful to me as it had been in Iowa, the flora being very different here. So, after a year or two, I sent a few specimens of plants to Dr. Gray, who seemed to be pleased and wanted more." Asa Gray of Harvard was America's preeminent botanist. Gray had dominated American botany since the 1850s and was now working on what he hoped would be his crowning achievement, a Flora of North America. Suksdorf had first come across Gray's botany texts as a young boy in Iowa, and now he found himself corresponding with the great man himself. Among his papers he kept an April, 1878 letter from Gray who identified some species of Nemophila, Plectritis, Claytonia, Alchemilla and others and encouraged the young botanist to " Please keep on sending..." Gray, who had never visited the Northwest and thus relied on collectors to provide the western material he needed for his Flora, wrote another friendly letter to Suksdorf on July 8 of that year and again on December 18 encouraging him to concentrate on collecting near Mt. Adams, advice that, as we shall see, Suksdorf took very much to heart.

Wilhelm Suksdorf, at 28 years of age, was shy, retiring, modest and unsure of himself. In retrospect, it seems clear that the early encouragement of Asa Gray was the major factor which set the young German on a lifetime course of plant collecting. Gray, in addition to naming the hundreds of new plants which flowed into his herbarium from throughout the continent also carried on a staggeringly large correspondence, yet he took the time to write to Suksdorf every few months with names for plants Wilhelm sent and praise for the beginning botanist. In fact, it is clear that Gray became an object of hero-worship on the young man's part, a situation which no doubt played a strong role in Suksdorf's later relationships with other botanists at Harvard and elsewhere after Gray's death in 1888.

In 1879 Gray paid Suksdorf one of botany's highest compliments when he named a new genus and species in the Saxifragaceae, Suksdorfia violacea after the young collector from White Salmon. Suksdorf had collected the delicate perennial in April, 1878, on "wet rocks on the Columbia River, ... near the junction of the White Salmon River." In naming the genus for Suksdorf, Gray wrote: "... dedicated to the first discoverer, whose collections and notes prove him to be an intelligent botanist and an acute observer." The same species was collected a year later by Joseph Howell, brother of Thomas Jefferson Howell, on the Oregon side of the Columbia, but Gray chose to name it for Suksdorf. The shy German immigrant must have been thrilled, but unfortunately we do not have his written reaction. Suksdorf's earliest letters to Gray no longer exist in the Gray Herbarium, and Suksdorf did not begin to save copies of his outgoing letters until later in his life. (Not only are certain letters gone, but it seems likely that, due to changes in the level of the Columbia River after construction of the Bonneville Dam, the Suksdorfia type locality also may no longer exist.)

Others have written about Suksdorf's botanical explorations of Mt. Adams, or Mt. Paddo, as Suksdorf invariably called the snow- capped peak north of White Salmon. St. John details Suksdorf's love for the mountain, his naming of its valleys, lakes, streams, cliffs, and meadows, his favorite camping areas and his many climbs of the mountain. One valley on the mountain's south slope, much beloved by Suksdorf and one of his favorite collecting sites, he called Wodanthal or Wodan's Valley. It appears on present-day maps as Hellroaring Creek. From 1877 until very close to his death, Suksdorf visited the mountain during virtually every year of his life, naming a number of plant species, such as Polemonium paddoensis, in honor of the mountain.

When Suksdorf began to explore the Mt. Adams country, he led his pack horse along Indian trails into the high country, frequently meeting native Americans in his wanderings. (Frieda Herman, Suksdorf's grandniece, recalls being told that Klickitat Indian children taught the Suksdorf boys to swim in the Columbia River.) In the words of St. John: "From the start, Suksdorf had contact with the Indians of the various tribes that ranged up and down the Columbia Valley. He was different from the other palefaces, for when he tramped the hills or meadows he hunted and gathered flowers or roots or bulbs. ... His quiet, gentle manner made him acceptable, and soon he was befriended by the Indians, who taught him their names of the plants, led him to colonies of rare species, and guided him to their trails through the mountains."

Suksdorf listened to the Indians' tales of the origins of plant species which were important in their culture. In 1902 when he published, in German, in The West American Scientist, a new species of Brodiaea, he appended to it a tale he had heard which told the story of the creation of the plant he identified as Brodiaea howellii, whose bulbs were a part of the native diet. In the tale, the Indians are suffering through a long and cold winter with much snow. They hold many dances to try to bring the spring thaw, but to no avail. Coyote grows disgusted with their efforts and casts a spell, sending the people underground. At that, spring comes, the snow melts, and the people are allowed to come forth, but not as humans, but rather as the plant "sittuchs", or, as we know it today, brodiaea.

(to be continued)


From: Rhoda M. Love [] - This article was originally published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly 89(4) - Fall 1998.

(continuation of BEN 385 Part 1)

As he wandered and collected year after year in the Columbia River country, Suksdorf employed a singular habit: that of giving his own, usually German, and almost always highly romantic, names to various geographic features. These names, such as Wodanthal (Wodan's Valley) and Falconthal (Falcon Valley), puzzled later botanists who attempted to locate Suksdorf's specific collecting sites, as none appear either in German or in English translation on modern maps. In addition, Suksdorf was in the habit of employing a shorthand of symbols or abbreviations for many of these place names, making it still more difficult to determine his site locations. In the years shortly before his death, Suksdorf spent some time at Washington State College working over his collections and translating some of these place names. However, it may be just as well that he did not complete this task, as it was his unfortunate habit to change the names of his localities such as Schmetterlingsee, which was a specific lake and a favorite collecting station, to general descriptions such as "small mountain lake, Chiquash Mts."

In the early 1940s, Marion Ownbey, Herbarium Curator at WSU, assigned to Masters student William A. Weber, the task of determining Suksdorf's sites and collecting itineraries. Weber did a splendid job which should be applauded now and forever by anyone concerned with the flora of Washington. For the task, he needed to combine the skills of a detective as well as those of a cryptographer. The young graduate student was able to match Suksdorf's symbols and codes in notebooks with those on plant collection sheets, a few of which also bore complete place names. The result is that we now know the locations of virtually all of Suksdorf's sites. For example, his Donnerthal is the valley of present-day Big Muddy Creek on the south flank of Mt. Adams, and Falconthal or Falcon Valley is the Camas Prairie-Conboy Lake area of northwest Klickitat County. In addition, Weber provided a chronological day by day itinerary of all of Suksdorf's collecting forays in Iowa, California, Washington, Oregon, and Montana for 57 years, from 1872 to 1929. Weber's was a singular and very important achievement.

In 1880 Suksdorf had his first experience in the field with a fellow collector when the established plant explorer and colleague of Asa Gray, Dr. Charles Christopher Parry, came west and asked Suksdorf to accompany him on a trip to Mt. Adams. Parry wrote to Asa Gray of his collecting trip with Suksdorf, "... I fell in with W. S. the collector, a modest intelligent farm boy, who was putting in his spare time (not much of that) in collecting and studying plants. They were then milking 70 cows twice a day and making 70 lbs. of butter per day. It was with difficulty that he could be spared to join our mountain party ..." At the time Suksdorf was 29 years old, but the shy naive young man may have seemed but a boy to Parry. Suksdorf later reported that Parry showed him many techniques for pressing and preserving plant specimens. Suksdorf apparently first learned that he might acquire some income by selling pressed plants when he was visited in 1881 by the well-known botanist, Cyrus Guernsey Pringle, who also collected for Gray. Suksdorf's papers contain several long letters from Pringle, whose philosophy seems to have been that the finding of new plant species was, as he wrote to Suksdorf, a "race for the honors."

Shortly after his contacts with Parry and Pringle, Suksdorf began to collect replicate sets of pressed plants and prepare them for sale. In fact, most of the existing Suksdorf correspondence for the years 1882, 83, and 84 is concerned with the selling of plants, both pressed specimens and live bulbs and seeds. Suksdorf's herbarium sheets were always described as beautifully prepared, and his sets contained many new species, thus they began to be regularly purchased by the world's leading herbaria in London, Berlin, Geneva, Paris and New York. Somewhat later Suksdorf also began to provide pressed plants to subscribers in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Stanford and elsewhere. He collected multiple sets, advertising them in printed catalogues and quickly building up a loyal and expanding clientele. The price per sheet in the early years was 7.5 cents; later the price rose to 10 cents per sheet.

The Northwest's two other major self-taught pioneer collectors, Thomas Jefferson Howell and William Conklin Cusick were also offering plants for sale at the time. However, the three men were not strong rivals, as each had more or less staked out his own territory, Suksdorf collecting generally close to Klickitat and Skamania counties, Washington, while Howell, who lived on Sauvie's Island near Portland, collected mainly in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon, and Cusick, of Baker County, concentrated on the Blue and Wallowa mountains of northeastern Oregon. A moderate correspondence took place between the three, and at least one 1898 exchange between Suksdorf and Howell was a bit testy, but in general they simply had little to do with each other. The work of the three collectors added immeasurably to the knowledge of the flora of Washington and Oregon at the turn of the century.

All three of these pioneer collectors had problems identifying and naming their specimens. None was a trained taxonomist with access to a herbarium or botanical library. Thus they were dependent upon academic botanists and other experts to supply names for their specimens. Suksdorf had begun his association by mail with Asa Gray at Harvard in 1878, and although Gray was generally prompt in providing names for Suksdorf's plants, not all botanists were so quick. Unnamed specimens could not be sold, thus Suksdorf and the others often became frustrated while waiting for identifications to arrive. It would be many years before universities in Washington, Oregon and California were able to help our local collectors. These men were pioneers in every sense of the word, exploring a new land, encountering unidentified species, and working in isolation far from the centers of learning where the taxonomic decisions traditionally were made.

In 1885, the 35 year-old Suksdorf was living in his parents' home in White Salmon, helping on his brothers' dairy farm, and pursuing his botanical collecting whenever he had time. That year he collected along Hood River, Oregon in March, in Bingen and Falcon Valley in April, in Bingen and at Mt. Adams in May, along the Klickitat River and at Mt. Adams in June, at Rooster Rock, Bridal Veil, Bonneville and Falcon Valley in July, and in Bingen and the Mt. Adams country in August and September. Then, in October, the shy, introverted Suksdorf suffered a serious blow when both his mother and father died on the same day, October 22, 1885, probably of a flu-like disease. Apparently Suksdorf was greatly devoted to his aging mother. His grief was real and he must have written of it to various correspondents because he continued to receive letters of condolence for a number of years. He collected on only 4 more days for the remainder of that year.

By the following summer, Wilhelm was living with his younger brother Theodor, who was running the family farm, while Hinrich (now called Henry) was married and living in Portland. No doubt Suksdorf was still grieving for his dead mother, although the Weber itinerary shows that he collected steadily throughout the spring. Whatever the reason, but surely motivated by kindness and concern, in June, 1886, his sister-in-law in Portland, Stella Bancroft Suksdorf, penned a letter to Dr. Asa Gray at Harvard on Wilhelm's behalf. She wrote, in part: "... He lives so isolated, having no intercourse with scientists, or, indeed with anyone of congenial tastes or interests. Is there no place for him near the center of scientific culture where he could advance more rapidly scientifically, if not financially? ... He is a child of nature, with none of the polish acquired by friction with society, but quiet, unobtrusive, kind hearted, willing and obliging, and though extremely undemonstrative, appreciative of kindness. ... I write on my own responsibility and not at all by his request. I thought however, that there might be some place in the botanical garden, museum, or elsewhere for which he would be fitted, and where his faithful conscientious work might secure advancement. Very respectfully yours, Mrs. H. F. Suksdorf."

In less than three weeks, on July 1, the kindly Gray, wrote to Suksdorf with a firm offer. The young botanist would receive $500 the first year to come to Harvard as Gray's assistant in the Herbarium. This would increase to $600 the second year and work its way up to $1,000, step by step. Gray even made the tentative offer of a future curatorship at the Herbarium. It was a generous offer that most young botanists could not have refused; however self-doubt was always a strong facet of Suksdorf's make-up and he wrote to Gray declining the offer. His letter says, in part, " It makes me sad to be unable to accept your offer. ... My life so far has been a life in the open air rather than an indoor life. I am pretty sure that a sedentary or indoor life would not agree with my health very well. ... It is hard for me to disappoint Mrs. Suksdorf who has always taken so much interest in my affairs; but better now than later..."

Suksdorf later told St. John that after his refusal of Gray's offer, his family gave him no peace so that he finally had to flee to the Mt. Adams country for three weeks to escape their importunings. His collecting itinerary bears this out. He collected at Mt. Adams July 5, in Falcon Valley the 7th and 9th, Mt. Adams the 11th and 12th, Bird Creek Island the 13th, Klickitat River the 16th, Falcon Valley the 17th to the 21st, Peters Prairie the 24th, "Gerstenswiese" the 25th, Trout Lake the 26th, and Larm River the 27th. Then he went home to find additional correspondence from Gray.

The famous botanist apparently did his best to persuade the shy young man to change his mind and the strategy succeeded. On July 31 Suksdorf wrote to Gray, in part: "I read your letters with great interest and they made me happy. You still offer me a place and I almost feared that my refusal might offend you. ... Indeed your kindness is unbounded! You want me to come to Cambridge and try it for a year. In that case I gladly accept your kind offer. ... I remain your much obliged W. N. Suksdorf." Thus, on September 24, 1886, Suksdorf started his train journey to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, at that time the 76 year old Gray had only a little over a year to live.

In Cambridge, Gray found Suksdorf a boarding house on the western edge of town and he began to work with Gray and Gray's assistant, Sereno Watson, in the herbarium at the Harvard Botanic Garden. Suksdorf's tasks were to sort and insert new collections and to help determine new species. Gray was already feeling unwell, but his great final project at the time was to try to complete his huge Synoptical Flora of North America, of which two half-volumes had thus far been published. (The project was never completed, nor has any comprehensive flora of this continent yet appeared although such a project is now under way at the Missouri Botanic Garden.)

At Harvard, Suksdorf "... found himself in an herbarium and library bustling with activity, research and writing. ... Everywhere Gray's presence and genial personality were felt. ... Gray's friendliness and informality made it easy for timid young Suksdorf to know him well and gain greater admiration and respect for him..." In fact, it seems clear that Suksdorf developed such a strong case of hero-worship for Gray, that, for the rest of his life, these feelings colored and influenced his interactions with other botanists. Unfortunately the opportunity to work with Gray was not to last. Suksdorf had been at the Herbarium only a bit over a year when Asa Gray suffered a stroke and died in January, 1888. Suksdorf's sensitive nature could scarcely bear the death of his mentor. He remained distraught for so long that Mrs. Gray was obliged to send him to a sanitarium for rest and treatment which lasted for several months. Once recovered, Suksdorf attempted to return to the Herbarium, but Sereno Watson, the new director, was not sympathetic to the young man, and in the spring he made the decision to leave his post. He remained in the east for several more months, then spent a year with an older brother, Karl, in Iowa before returning to Bingen in the fall of 1889. >From that time, except for relatively short sojourns, he basically never left home again.

(to be continued)

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