Torrey and the Plant Collectors

Virtual Herbarium Image - LAPI Scan

Frasera parryi Torr., type specimen at NYBG; collected by C. Parry in California in 1850

At the end of the last post, I mentioned John Torrey’s efforts to obtain more specimens of the plant that would become Darlingtonia californica when he published a description in 1853. It was the only plant from the Wilkes Expedition that merited it’s own publication, and the California botanist Alice Eastwood (1945) deemed it the most remarkable plant that Brackenridge had collected. But it was only one of hundreds that Torrey dealt with over the years. In his letters from this time, he mentions several other collectors he was corresponding with and trying to get placed in exploring parties so they could travel to areas where little collection had been done previously. He was somewhat like a general attempting to position his troops most advantageously and also to use their spoils to the greatest advantage. Charles Parry, another former student, was one of his major contacts, and there are a number of letters to Gray where Torrey worries about Parry catching up with a contingent of the US-Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1852). At one point, Parry writes that he is stranded without transportation, and Torrey moans of his inability to correct the situation. At another point, Torrey writes to Darlington that he will send some 60-70 specimens Parry collected on the survey. He notes that Parry could only make six sets, and Darlington is getting one of them, a reminder of the high regard in which Torrey held the older man.

In earlier letters to William Brackenridge, at the time they were working on the latter’s fern book (1855), Torrey complains of competition from other botanists. While writing up some of Frémont’s plants on September 26, 1848 he notes: “Want to get a dozen descriptions out before they are anticipated by others now collecting in California.” He is naming a new plant after Frémont because the first he named turned out to be already published by Prince Maximilian (of Wied-Neuwied) who had followed up exploration of Brazil with a trip to the Great Plains in 1832. In the same letter, Torrey gives a litany of what various US botanists are working on at the moment: Moses Curtis on fungi, George Engelmann in St. Louis on cacti, Asa Gray on the collector Augustus Fendler’s New Mexico collection and Ferdinand Lindheimer’s Texan plants—both the result of border survey expeditions, Edward Tuckerman on lichens, William Sullivant on Wilkes Expedition mosses, William Oakes on New England plants but he “went overboard in a ferry accident,” and John Carey on mosses. The latter was British but lived in the US for 25 years, spending a good deal of time visiting Gray and Torrey while working on his descriptions of plants including the lamb’s quarters family. This list indicates the breadth of Torrey’s correspondence, and while he often complained of the stresses of his jobs at Princeton and Columbia, he still managed to work with his plants and write to those in the field.

This juggling came to an end when Torrey was given the job of assayer at the US Mint in New York in 1855, a position he held until his death in 1873. While it meant a decent salary and a more settled life that didn’t involve commuting to Princeton, it also meant that he was returning to his earlier field of chemistry and moving away from botany. Still, he managed to continue some work with Gray, but the excitement of the 1840s and early 1850s was gone. The Civil War exacerbated the situation. As Jeremy Vetter (2016) notes in his recent book on the post-Civil War natural history surveys, the military expeditions of the pre-war era were over. However, Torrey did have two opportunities to finally visit the West in the years before his death. He went on assayer business but was able to finally get into the field to do a little botanizing and to see some of the plants that he had named as well as his namesake, Torreya taxifolia.

I have enjoyed learning a bit about Torrey and also about the American history and the botanical history in which he participated. Today when social network theory is often used to describe the relationships among scientists and science ideas, Torrey would make a good case study for how botany in the 19th century moved forward. At this point I would also like to mention a more recent American botanist, James Reveal, who wrote a long article (2014) on Torrey’s life and work shortly before his death in 2015. It is a monument to both of them. Reveal was noted not only for his work in systematics and nomenclature but also for his extensive contributions to the history of American botany, including the classic Gentle Conquest (1992). When I was beginning my forays into botany I discovered his extensive web presence with a website on the botany of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was the beginning of my explorations of botany and American history.


Brackenridge, W. D. (1855). Cryptogamia, Filices, including Lycopodiaceae and Hydropterides,. Philadelphia: C. Sherman.

Eastwood, A. (1945). An account and list of plants in the Brackenridge journal. California Historical Society Quarterly, 24(4), 337–342.

Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.

Reveal, J. L. (2014). John Torrey: A botanical biography. Phytoneuron, 100, 1–64.

Torrey, J. (1853). On the Darlingtonia californica: A new pitcher-plant from northern California. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Vetter, J. (2016). Field Life: Science in the American West during the Railroad Era. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.