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. [released December 11, 2007]

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)


From: Rhoda M. Love [] - This article was originally published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly 89(4) - Fall 1998. [released December 13, 2007]

On his return from Harvard, at the age of 39, Wilhelm settled down to what Lawrence Stark, who compiled the Suksdorf correspondence for the Washington State University Library, has called his "long and complex, if outwardly simple" life. He lived with his brother Theodor until, in 1910, another brother, Philipp, gave him four acres of land in Bingen and built him his own small, two-story, three-room house. (The house still stands occupied in Bingen today, although additions have been built on each side of the original structure.) In this house, Suksdorf lived a relatively self-sufficient existence. His brother Theodor wrote in his diary at the time that Wilhelm could bake better bread than most of the local girls. He botanized and collected steadily every year, usually from March to December. June, July and August were his heaviest collecting months and, year after year, again with a few exceptions, he spent most of those months combing the Columbia River and Mt. Adams areas.

Suksdorf so seldom strayed from the Bingen, Mt. Adams, and Columbia River environs that it is easy to note the exceptions. Between 1882 and 1912 he occasionally collected in the Portland area, where he may have lodged with brother Hinrich and sister- in-law, Stella Bancroft Suksdorf. In 1890 he collected near Seattle with sites around Puget Sound, Lake Washington and Lake Union. He made a brief collecting trip to California in 1913. He collected near Spokane in 1884, 1889, 1916 and 1921, living with his brother Detlev in Spangle, Washington. In 1916 and 1921 he stayed with a nephew near Wilsall, Montana, and in 1925 and 1926 made a few collections near Pullman. During a 3-month collecting trip to Montana in 1921, Suksdorf stayed on the wheat farm of his nephew Adolph Suksdorf. Adolph's daughters, Frieda Herman and Irma Gourley, recall Suksdorf as a slight, blue-eyed, sandy-haired man in his 70s, who shook his finger and told the children not to disturb his plants. However, they relate that later he kindly gave them some "Uncle Willum paper" so they might press their own specimens.

As he built up his specimen collecting and selling business, Suksdorf needed to make contact with various systematists in order to have his new species and varieties named. Whenever possible, he continued to use names proposed by Asa Gray and his successors at Harvard; but in time the new academic botanists in the west, especially in California, began to name western plant species on their own. One such botanist was Edward L. Greene of Berkeley, who was an eager purchaser of Suksdorf's specimens. Greene, however, found himself increasingly in disagreement with the taxonomy of Asa Gray and thus frequently objected to the nomenclature used by the Bingen botanist. In 1895, in a bad- tempered and somewhat bullying letter he wrote to Suksdorf in part: "You are so careful an observer, and so excellent a collector, that I just wish you could be taught to study books and papers and get a little clearer botanical head. ... Gray knew nothing about the plants [in this case genus Mimulus] and so in his [Synoptical Flora] he copied Bentham's jumble in the Prodromus; and you are content with anything; ... you are not the only one who wants to swim by some authority whom nobody shall criticize ... Your Massachusetts friend's scheme is dead. There will never be another botanical pope in that seat..." Although it is true that after the death of Asa Gray, no single individual was to dominate American botany as he had, nevertheless the sensitive Suksdorf must have found the attack on his mentor very painful.

As the letter from Greene reveals, Suksdorf was caught, to some extent, in a botanical controversy which had begun to brew even before Gray's death, and which grew in intensity during the next several decades. The dispute is epitomized by a serious quarrel which erupted between Gray and Greene beginning about 1884. Edward Lee Greene had become an instructor at Berkeley in 1885 and was appointed head of the Botany Department in 1890. He began to establish himself as an expert on the western flora, collecting widely as well as purchasing sets of plants from the major collectors of the time. Greene's strict religious conservatism may have influenced his taxonomic decisions, but no matter what the cause, he began to name a great many new genera and species setting himself up as a leader of a group of botanical "splitters." Though formerly a follower of Gray, Greene diverged more and more from the older taxonomy and finally wrote a series of sarcastic letters to Gray which bordered on the impertinent. Suksdorf, eager to have his specimens named and always willing to sell his sets of plants to paying customers provided Greene with many new Northwest entities which Greene proceeded to name.

The Bingen botanist was a superb field naturalist and keen observer but an unsophisticated man with perhaps little conception of evolutionary dynamics. Like Greene, who began to endow many small plant variations (even differences in odor) with new names, Suksdorf also was aware of minor distinctions between plant populations and often believed he was observing new species. However, in the early years he did not have the self- confidence to name plants on his own, and he was aware that when he suggested taxonomic recognition of observed variants he brought himself into conflict with the Harvard botanists on whom he depended for names. Not until after Suksdorf's death did this controversy die down with the advent of new tools such as genetics, biosystematics and floristic studies which revealed that certain species may naturally be more variable than others. In 1894, E. L. Greene accepted a professorship at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, at which point his correspondence with Suksdorf tapered off. He died in 1915.

In April of the same year that he received the critical letter from Greene, Suksdorf was invited to join the prestigious California Academy of Sciences, and in August was invited, by Charles Vancouver Piper of Washington State College to join the Washington Academy of Sciences. Each invitation seemed to set off a storm of controversy in the mind of the introverted Suksdorf. His papers contain many drafts of his replies, all declining to join. To Piper he wrote of his unworthiness and that he had at one time been arrested for a crime. (The crime in question was never described, but one can only imagine that it must have been a minor infraction.) Piper replied: "... I firmly believe that no one who is a botanist can be guilty of a crime ..." The attempt at humor was apparently lost on Suksdorf who never joined either society.

At this time, Suksdorf apparently was not yet ready to attempt to name species on his own and continued to send most of his unknown specimens to the Gray Herbarium where they were worked on by Sereno Watson, and when he died in 1892, by Benjamin Lincoln Robinson. However, he began to be dissatisfied with these associations, frequently feeling that these men failed to accord him the encouragement and respect he had become accustomed to in his dealings with Asa Gray. His letters make it clear that he believed his specimens were not named within a reasonable time, and that often they were incorrectly identified.

One letter to Robinson sums up these feelings: "During the last ten years or more, I have sometimes sent you small lots of plants. I never received a report on them, except on a few plants mostly determined by Prof. Greenman. I am therefore still unacquainted with the names of many of the plants I have sent you. ... I am very sorry it has come to this. But I do not want to complain. ...... you have named several species for me, and I appreciate these things. ...For a period of 8 or 9 years I sent most of my plants to Dr. Gray. To me this was a very pleasant time, and I regret that it did not last longer. There was almost always something of interest, and all along I felt that I was helping. In regard to Prof. Watson, who determined a large share of my collections, my experience was somewhat different. I could not help believing sometimes that he did not like my way of doing things. ... While I was at work on my collections, I received a letter from you. To send you all the unnamed and doubtful plants would have been the proper thing to do. Instead of that, I sent you a specimen of Stellaria, which I thought could not be S. borealis. But in your reply you gave me just that name .. Among the plants collected last year, I have a few things that I cannot place. I would send them, but almost fear there will be no answer or not a favorable one, ..." Again there is the implication that, for the most part, other botanists could not replace Asa Gray. Near the end comes the suggestion that Suksdorf may publish new species and varieties on his own, rather than send his unknown plants to Robinson. In fact, that is exactly what he had begun to do, but, unfortunately, this led to still more problems for the Bingen botanist.

(to be continued)


From: Rhoda M. Love [] - This article was originally published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly 89(4) - Fall 1998. [released December 19, 2007]

Throughout his collecting years, Suksdorf maintained his correspondence with experts on various plant groups to whom he wrote for determinations. Nevertheless, around the turn of the century, he began to name some species on his own. Unfortunately however, throughout his life Suksdorf held fast to the belief that he could best express himself in writing in German. Although his letters in English show an excellent familiarity with this language in both style and vocabulary, he apparently felt that his command of English was not good enough for technical plant descriptions. He therefore consistently searched for publishers who would accept his manuscripts in German. This meant either sending them to German or Austrian journals or finding American publishers who would accept them in German. He mistrusted editors, and would not allow his German articles to be translated. He had issued his first catalogue of the flora of Washington in 1892 in English, however, five additional catalogues of "Washingtonische Pflanzen," followed between 1898 and 1923, all in German. Between 1897 and 1923 he published six papers in German and Austrian journals.

In this country, C. R. Orcutt of San Diego, editor of the pamphlet West American Scientist, was willing to publish Suksdorf's papers in German, thus between 1901 and 1906 he published six articles on new western species in that sheet, one of which was his 1902 "Eine neue Brodiaea-Art," which included the Indian tale summarized earlier. Not surprisingly, American botanists were not pleased to find new western species described in a foreign language. Over the years, a number of them, including C. V. Piper of Washington State College, and Frederick Coville of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, wrote to Suksdorf remonstrating with him about this practice. Coville wrote in a 1897 letter which Suksdorf saved : ... "As your readers are Americans, publish it in the language easiest for them to read. Do not publish it in German, Latin, Chinese or any other language...."

Suksdorf may have been self-effacing, but he was also stubborn, and although his correspondence reveals that his feelings were often hurt by these suggestions, they were nevertheless mostly ignored. The Bingen botanist did eventually publish several short English language articles including a "Key to the Species of Plectritis and Aligera" in Berkeley botanist Willis Linn Jepson's journal Erythea, as well as the description of a new saxifrage in Torreya in 1923, but for the most part he continued to use the German language for his scientific writing. Finally, in the last decade of his life, he founded and published his own German-language journal, Werdenda, four issues of which appeared between 1923 and 1932. He explained his title as follows: "Werden is a German verb ... [which] means to become, to grow, to turn, to begin to be ... The name "Werdenda" is intended to mean that the contents are raw material which science will have to examine carefully before accepting ..." The final issue of Werdenda contained Suksdorf's controversial revision of the genus Amsinckia, wherein he split the former species, Amsinckia intermedia, into over a hundred new taxa.

The first World War created still more difficulties for the sensitive German-born botanist. First, it interfered with his plant-selling business and thus reduced his income. In addition, like many other Germans in this country at that time, the Suksdorf family suffered some incidents of anti-German prejudice. Suksdorf took these very much to heart. In 1917, Fermen L. Pickett, Head of the Botany Department at Washington State College, had invited Suksdorf to take a position on the staff of the college and bring his personal plant collection to Pullman where he might use the facilities of the library and herbarium. In October, 1917 Suksdorf wrote to Pickett in part: " ...Now if I use your collection and library I shall be much indebted to the college, and since we are in a war and many people are almost wild, it may happen that someone will demand that I write in English. That would be very unpleasant. I write to you as a friend. Do you not think it would be best to drop the whole matter or at least postpone it until this war is over?"

In 1920, Albert Raddin Sweetser, head of the Botany Department at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who had been purchasing sets of Suksdorf's plants for his herbarium, also wrote to Suksdorf, requesting an autobiographical sketch for a project he was beginning on Northwest botanical figures. To this request, Suksdorf replied on March 31, in part: " ...I think I cannot find the time to write something about myself; in fact would not know just how to go about it. The facts that would come out most prominently would be that I am a German and born in Germany. Such facts are not interesting nor pleasing to other botanists here, for we are still at war with Germany. And it seems there will be no changes for the better. Prohibition has won in regard to alcohol, but it cannot stop there, it must now seek other fields to conquer. Language seems to be the next. Oregon has already made a good beginning. I do not see how your colleges and universities can exist for a long time under such laws as you have in Oregon now. Some day a mob may examine your library and destroy every book there that is not English. Yours truly, W. N. Suksdorf."

In 1923 Sweetser again contacted Suksdorf, writing, "Now that the armistice has been accomplished, I am making bold to ask if you will give me a brief epitome of your life and work, together with your publications. As I told you once before, I am trying to collect material about all of the botanists of the Northwest and most certainly desire to include you in the list. Very respectfully, Albert R. Sweetser." Like Sweetser, a number of other botanists seemed inclined to use a gentle humor in their dealings with Suksdorf. One wonders if it had the desired effect, or if in fact, Suksdorf had much of a sense of humor. This time, however, the brief autobiographical sketch was written and sent to Sweetser.

Finally, during the war years Suksdorf was forced to sell a piece of property he had homesteaded in northern Klickitat County near the village of Laurel. People who are familiar with Suksdorf's herbarium sheets have noted that a favorite collecting location was the site he called "my farm in Falcon Valley." This was not a farm in the usual sense, but rather an 80-acre parcel of wild grass prairie. Suksdorf had a small lean-to or shack on the property and was in the habit of harvesting the native hay there each summer. It was also a regular camping area for him which he used as a center for his many collecting forays in the Mt. Adams country. The exact location of the property was the northwest corner of T5N, R11E, Section 12, on what is now Kreps Lane about a half mile east of Laurel. The property is now part of the OK Ranch. Suksdorf had owned the property for a number of years when, in 1910, it was declared part of a drainage district and a debt of $1,000 was placed on the land. It was also stipulated at that time that a crop must be planted on the property. In 1918 Suksdorf applied for loans at two banks, the Glenwood National Farm Loan Association, and the Federal Land Bank of Spokane, in order to pay off his debt and keep the property. Both loans were turned down. In the spring of 1919 he was forced to sell the land to pay the debt. Suksdorf blamed his failure to secure a loan on anti-German sentiment, writing to Pickett at WSC, in part: "I have to believe ... that I did not get a loan because I am a German; possibly there is a prejudice, since there seems to be a move all over the land to suppress anything that is German..." No matter what the reason, it must have been a blow to Suksdorf to lose this favorite piece of land.

Suksdorf's connection with Washington State College in Pullman began in the 1890s. The first botanist at WSU was Charles Vancouver Piper, trained at the University of Washington, who taught at Pullman from 1893 to 1903, and was the author of the 1906 Flora of the State of Washington. Piper contacted Suksdorf upon arrival in Pullman, and he and the Bingen collector had an apparently amicable relationship, although Suksdorf's letters and his numerous rough drafts reveal that he was offended by a number of Piper's suggestions. In one of the earliest Piper letters in the Suksdorf file, the former questions whether every species in Suksdorf's 1892 Flora Washingtoniensis had actually been collected in the state of Washington. Suksdorf apparently replied that if a plant was seen close to the Washington border, it could be assumed to be present in the state. To this, Piper's patient reply was that any plant listed for Washington must be collected within the state. This rather benign suggestion caused Suksdorf to reply accusing Piper of being "harsh." However, throughout this time, the State College Herbarium regularly purchased sets of Suksdorf's plants.

Piper moved to a federal job in Washington, DC in 1903, and was succeeded at WSC by Rolla Kent Beattie, who had studied under Asa Gray's student Charles Bessey at the University of Nebraska. Beattie also had a cordial relationship with Suksdorf and at least once suggested that the college might one day purchase the Bingen botanist's personal herbarium. Beattie left WSU in 1912 to take a government position and was succeeded by Fermen L. Pickett who became head of the botany department and remained at WSC until his death in 1940. Pickett was not a taxonomist, but he fully recognized the worth of Suksdorf's herbarium and made it a point to establish a relationship with the German collector, who by this time had the reputation of being something of a recluse. As stated above, Pickett had invited Suksdorf to WSC at the time of the first World War, but Suksdorf had demurred. After the war, Pickett renewed the invitation, and finally, in 1924, at the age of 74, Suksdorf agreed to work for a few winter months in the herbarium at Pullman.

In his April, 1924 acceptance letter Suksdorf wrote in part: "Your kind letter of the 26th of March was duly received. I did not reply at once, for I do not like to be hasty in matters like this....I think it would be wrong to refuse such an offer as yours, so I accept it, although I do not see what I can do to earn the $125 a month, if I go to your college for some time to work on some of my material. However, you must know. ... It will surely be pleasant to work with Prof. St. John, who has received, no doubt, a good botanical education, which can not be said of myself. ... Give my regards to the members of your family, and to Dr. and Mrs. St. John. Very sincerely yours, W. N. Suksdorf."

In the end, Suksdorf worked in the herbarium for three or four months during each of the winters of 1924-25 and 1925-26, and during this time, near the end of his life, it seems he once again found a botanist with whom he could be friends as he had been with Asa Gray so many years before. The young Dr. Harold St. John became Suksdorf's confidant while the elderly collector worked over his specimens at Washington State College. St. John had come to Pullman from Harvard where he had been trained in the Gray Herbarium. He was Curator of the Herbarium at Pullman from 1920 to 1929, and was 29 years old when Suksdorf arrived at WSC. He and Suksdorf worked closely together and he later recalled the time Suksdorf spent in Pullman:

One of these winters [Suksdorf] lived in my guest room, and during both he shared my office. For the first fortnight he did nothing but browse in the botanical books in the college library and in my personal library. Eventually he was ready to continue his botanical researches. In turn, he took one after another of his unknown plants and made careful comparisons with the known related plants in the large college collections. Daily he settled down for study at the long table near my window, where there was ample space for the specimens, books and microscopes. During these months I came to know him very well. He was shy and reticent, but often toward the end of a long day he could be drawn into general conversation. Questioning would stimulate reminiscences of his youth and his early experiences. These recollections could not be recorded at the time, for he would have lapsed into silence. Each evening when alone, I recorded these tales, ...

In 1928, St. John nominated Suksdorf for an honorary Master of Science degree. Here is the younger man's recollection of that time. " ... Wilhelm Suksdorf was awarded, in June, 1928, the honorary degree of Master of Science in Botany by the State College of Washington. Knowing Suksdorf and his diffidence well, I fully expected him to refuse the honor or decline to come to Pullman to receive it. I thought of going to Bingen by auto and, as a last resort, kidnapping the man in order to bring him to the ceremony. To everyone's delight, he accepted gladly and came to Pullman in fine new clothes. ... When called, Wilhelm Suksdorf stood erect. He walked to the rostrum with the easy swing of limb of the outdoor naturalist, giving little hint of his seventy- eight years. His hair was thick, but snowy white, and his lean face showed sterling character and a quiet dignity in its myriad lines. ...The colored hood was placed over Suksdorf's shoulders, and the audience applauded heartily in tribute to the sturdy old man ..." A photo taken that day shows Suksdorf standing with other botanists after the ceremony. After the awarding of the degree, Suksdorf proudly placed the letters "M. S." following his name as editor on the masthead of his journal, Werdenda.

During the last four years of his life, Suksdorf lived quietly in his small house in Bingen. He put in a full collecting season close to White Salmon and Hood River in 1928, but in 1929, his last year in the field, he collected only until July and only in Bingen. His health began to fail. His heart was weak, his eyesight grew poor and he required a trip to the hospital in Portland for prostate surgery. Mostly he puttered over his specimens in the attic of his house, and in his wild plant garden. At some time in this period, he wrote a will leaving his personal herbarium, books, and papers to WSC.

Early in the dark morning of Monday, October 3, 1932, Suksdorf walked to the Bingen depot to catch the train to Portland. He set the signal and stepped on the track to flag the train. It did not stop, and he was hit and thrown against the station wall, dying almost instantly. He was 82 years old. A brief non- religious memorial service was held in Portland, and his remains were cremated. I am not sure if or where they were scattered, but would like to think it may have been in his beloved Falcon Valley.

Although virtually no one in Bingen realized it at the time of his death, Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf was a world-renowned collector. Approximately 70 species of plants and one genus were named for him. His beautifully prepared specimens were in all the great herbaria of the world. At the time of his honorary degree, an editorial about him had appeared in the New York Times. The Portland Oregonian obituary was entitled: "Famed Botanist Killed." Several of the major botanical journals published respectful eulogies. An exception was one written by acid-penned botanist Marcus E. Jones. In his own journal, Contributions to Western Botany, in 1935, Jones wrote, in part: "[Suksdorf] recently made himself odious by publishing 100 new species carved out of Amsinckia intermedia ...One would expect to find more sense than that in a field botanist, but some people are hard to convince without a club. ... He was always a hopeless splitter."

Suksdorf died during the depths of the Depression. Fermen Pickett, and before him, Rolla Kent Beattie, had, in the past, suggested to Suksdorf that the State College at Pullman might be willing to purchase his private herbarium if and when he wished to sell. However, it seems clear from subsequent events, that in 1932 the College was no longer willing or able to provide funds for such a purchase. On the day of Suksdorf's death, his brother Theodor wrote to Pickett giving some details of the accident and disclosing the contents of the will. However, in his next letter a few days later, Theodor mentioned Wilhelm's debts for hospital bills and funeral expenses, and asked for payment for the herbarium and books. By October 26, WSU President E. O. Holland was writing to Theodor offering to find buyers for the Suksdorf books and to donate the $200 - $300 dollars in expected proceeds to the family. At this point Theodor wrote threatening to sell the collection elsewhere. Pickett replied at once expressing dismay and threatening court action to uphold the will. Theodor responded by hiring a lawyer and claiming debts against his brother of at least $1,000. By November 16 there was a stalemate while the lawyers calculated. Pickett wrote pointing out that his own numerous trips to Bingen cost him $20 each. Meanwhile the collection continued to sit in an unheated attic in Suksdorf's wooden house in Bingen. Pickett wrote cautioning that nothing be moved and mentioning rodents and fire. On January 16 Theodor's lawyers announced that the debt totaled $1,142.27, but that the family would settle for a third of that, or $358.52. Pickett countered with the argument that Suksdorf had received total salary payments of $1,000 from WSC between 1924 and 1926, with the understanding that the college would receive the herbarium. Finally, Pickett broke the stalemate by offering $200 from his own pocket. Theodor agreed, and signatures were obtained. Pickett wrote again to ask that nothing be moved and made plans to travel to Bingen to remove the herbarium during the coming spring break. He made the trip in April, 1933, and personally took charge of packing and moving the valuable collection to WSC.

Botanist Lincoln Constance saw the Suksdorf collection at WSC the following year and reminisced a decade later: "Dozens of bundles of specimens (wrapped and unwrapped, labeled and unlabeled) were piled on top of old wooden herbarium cases, on chairs, on and under tables and on the floor. A thick coating of black dust covered them and the dingy basement room. ... Inside the packages, however, the specimens were still in the beautiful condition they had been left by their meticulous collector. ..." Those approximately 30,000 beautiful sheets are the backbone of the WSU herbarium today.

The irascible M. E. Jones was right. Suksdorf was often a splitter. Like a great many field botanists, Suksdorf was keenly aware of the differences between populations of plants growing in varied habitats. St. John reports that before Suksdorf did any splitting, however, he generally grew plants from different habitats in the one-acre experimental garden behind his house in Bingen to verify that the observed differences were indeed heritable. Not all of Suksdorf's species and varieties are accepted today, but he nonetheless did a service to the modern science of botany by drawing attention to the range of variability within taxonomic groups. He was a shy but stubborn man. He walked by himself and in his own direction, but his contribution to western botany cannot be minimized. His estimated 150,000 beautiful sheets in herbaria around the world will forever stand as a memorial to the lifetime love of plants of this quiet German who for 57 years tramped the hills and valleys of the Mount Adams country.


I wish to thank John F. Guido, Lawrence Stark, Frank Sciamanda, Carol Lichtenberg and Robert N. Matuozzi of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Holland Library, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, for their extreme helpfulness and courtesy in making the Suksdorf papers and photographs available to me. I also wish to thank my husband Glen Love for helping me with my researches at Washington State. I thank William Harmon of the University of Oregon Knight Library Special Collections for scanning letters in the Sweetser collection. Lisa DeCesare of the Botany Libraries, Harvard University was very helpful. I also thank Professor Emeritus William Weber of the University of Colorado at Boulder for reading a draft of this manuscript and offering helpful suggestions, as well as providing the photograph of Suksdorf's house. Scott Sundberg of the Oregon State University Herbarium took the photos of the Suksdorf herbarium sheets and Werdenda. Readings by A. R. Kruckeberg, Kenton L. Chambers, Robert Ornduff, Lawrence Stark, Peter Lesica, Stuart Chapin, Thomas Cox, Jerry DeSanto, and readers at PNQ improved the manuscript.

I also thank Suksdorf's grand-nieces, Mrs. Frieda Suksdorf Herman of Eugene, and her sister, Mrs. Irma Suksdorf Gourley of Santa Rosa, California for their valuable information about Wilhelm and the Suksdorf family.

Contributor's Note:

Eugene botanist Rhoda Moore Love was born in Seattle and earned BS and MS degrees from the University of Washington and a doctorate from the University of Oregon. She and A. R. Kruckeberg are editors of a work in progress on Northwest botanists to be published by the University of Washington Press. She has published two previous essays on plant collectors and is currently editor of the Oregon Flora Newsletter.

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