LEWIS AS BOTANIST (You are here)
|"Flowering Plants Lewis &
Clark Collected Along the Snake and Columbia River" by William
H. Rickard, Ph.D. Botanist
PDF 290 kb
|'Fish We Have Met With' Pacific Coast Fishes
of the Lewis & Clark Expedition by Dennis Dauble, Ph.D.
PDF 393 kb
The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was more than an attempt to
find the fabled "Northwest Passage" a navigable route to the Pacific
Ocean. The party was also instructed to scientifically observe and
collect plant and animal specimens, record, weather data, and observe
the native peoples and their culture. All of this information was to be
recorded in their journals. President Jefferson also instructed Captain
Meriwether Lewis to note when plants were in bloom and to investigate
their potential value in commerce. What remains of the collection taken
by Lewis are now housed in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium at the Academy
of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Members of the Expedition employed
a number of plants, using them for food and medicine, as well as
firewood, shelter, ax handles and dugout canoes. At the conclusion of
the journey, Lewis had mentioned 260 plants in his journals, and over
half of them were new to science.
Lewis’ Blue Flax "boo ah- nut sue" (Linum lewisii)
Lewis-"Perennial flax. Valleys of the Rocky Mountains, July 09, 1806."
On July 18, 1805, Lewis wrote, "the bark of the stem is thick strong and
appears as if it would make excellent flax." Because linen was an
important commodity during that time, Lewis thought the blue flax might
have great commercial potential in the east. The Native Americans wove
the tough stem fibers into fishing nets, ropes, and other cordage. Seeds
from a cultivated species are now sold in grocery stores, being valued
for their high fiber content and nutritional qualities.
Lewis’ Monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii)
Lewis- "the head spring of the Missouri, at the foot of Portage hill"
Marked with hairy yellow patches and red dots to attract insects, the
monkeyflower also attracts hummingbirds and sphinx moths.
Thin-leaved Owl Clover (Orhocarpus tenuifolius)
Lewis-"Valley of Clark’s R, July, 1806."
No relation to true clover, the owl clover’s bright colors are actually
special leaves that somewhat conceal the flowers. This annual root
parasite was mentioned by Lewis in the journal on July 2, 1806, writing
that he found "two species of native clover here, the one with a very
narrow small leaf & a pale red flower."
The Blackfeet used owl clovers to dye horsechair, feathers, and hides.
Pink Elephants "so-you-wund" (Pedicularis groenlandica)
"On the low plains on the heath of Clark’s R. Jul. 6th 1806."
Some Native American children enjoyed the sweet nectar, eating the
flowers like candy. The Cheyenne made a tea to relieve coughing.
Lewis Syringa (Philadelphus lewisii)
Lewis-"On the waters of Clarks R. July 4th 1806."
Some Native Americans used the hard wood for making bows, arrows, and
many other utilitarian pieces. Additionally, they found value in the
plant’s healing properties, making teas, poultices, and salves.
Common Chokecherry "doe-oh numb" (Prunus virginiana)
Lewis- "Prunus A cherry found near the beaver bents on the Missouri-Augst.
On June 11, 1805, Lewis was very ill. He boiled chokecherry twigs "until
a strong black decoction of an astringent bitter taste was produced."
Hours after drinking two doses of this, he felt completely well.
Golden Currant "oh-ah bo-gombe" (Ribes aureum)
Lewis- "Yellow currant of the Missouri, July 29, 1805."
On July 17, 1805, Lewis noted that, "there are a great abundance of red
yellow purple & black currants,…I find these fruits very pleasant
particularly the yellow currant which I think vastly preferable to those
of our gardens." The Shoshone ground the second bark, using it as a
Red False Mallow "see-go kund" (Sphaeralcea coccinea)
Lewis- "Plains of the Missouri, July 20, 1806."
The leaves of this plant are slimy. Native Americans rubbed the chewed
plant on their hands and arms to protect the skin from burns while
cooking. The whole plant was employed to relieve a myriad of
ailments, as well as to make a sweet tea with which to take medicine
Indian Basket Grass "woodah so-nip" (Xerophyllum tenax)
Lewis- "The leaves are made use of by the natives, to make baskets &
other ornaments. On high land, Rocky Mountains, June 15th, 1806."
Some Native Americans used the tough evergreen leaves to weave
watertight baskets & garments. It is not uncommon for it to bloom only
once every seven years.
Mountain Death Camas "dah-sego (Zigadenus elegans)
Lewis- "On the Cokalaiskit R., July 7, 1806."
This foul-smelling plant was placed around the perimeter of some Native
American encampments in the belief that it would repel evil spirits.
The entire plant, including the nectar, is poisonous even to introduced
honeybees, but not to our native bees.
Serviceberry duh-umb (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Lewis-"Serviceberry. A small bush, the narrows of the Columbia R. April
On August 16, 1805, Whitehouse wrote, "Our interpreters Wife went on
Shore & found great numver of fine berries, which is called service
Balsamroot "ah-kun" (Balsamorrhiza sagittata)
Lewis- "The stem is eaten by the natives, without any preparation. On
the Columbia. April 14th,1806."
Mariposa Lily "doe-sa sego" (Calochortus sp.)
Lewis-"A small bulb of a pleasant flavour, eat by the natives. On the
Kooskooskee. May 17, 1806."
Blue Camas "pah-sego" (Camasia quamash)
Lewis- "Near the foot of the Rocky Mountains on the Quamash flats. June
Clark wrote on September 23, 1805, that "the woman were busily employed
in gathering and drying the Pas-she co root of which they had great
quantities dug in piles."
Upon seeing it on June 12, 1806 Lewis wrote, "the quamash is now in
blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles
lakes of fine clear water, so complete in the deseption that on first
sight I could have sworn it was water."
Rubber Rabbitbrush "sah-nah ko-ah" (Chyrsothamnus nauseosus)
Lewis- "Big Bend of Missouri, September 21, 1804."
Lewis also noted that "The goat or antelope feed on it in the winter, it
is the growth of the high bluffs."
Some Native Americans chewed the latex sap like gum, used the branches
to smoke hides, and the yellow flowers to make a dye for their wool,
leather, and baskets.
Pink Cleome (Cleome serrulata)
Lewis- "August 25, 1804, growth of the open Prairies."
This plant has a somewhat distinctive smell that disappears after
cooking. The nourishing seeds were ground into flour, and the boiled
leaves and flowers were eaten.
Mountain Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium montanum)
On June 30, 1806, Lewis wrote, "I also met with the plant in blume which
is sometimes called the lady’s slipper or mockerson flower. It is in
shape and appearance like ours only that the corolla is white, marked
with small veigns of pale red longitudinally on the inner side."
This plant was favored by Native Americans for its medicinal and love
Purple Prairie Clover "so-nee donzuip" (Dalea purpurea)
Lewis- "found September 2ed the Indians use it as an application to
fresh wounds. They bruise the leaves adding litter water and apply it."
Some Native Americans also brewed a tea from the leaves and ate the root
uncooked, which is said to be sweet.
Indian Blanket (Gaillardia aristata)
Lewis- "Rocky Mountains dry hill. July 7th , 1806."
To many Native American people, the Indian blanket is a gift of
liveliness and sunshine from our Mother, the Earth. It also represented
the health, earthiness, and wholesomeness of the common people.
The seeds of this wildflower were either eaten raw or dried over a fire.
Dried seeds were ground into meal or flour for small cakes. These
light-weight, high-energy cakes were carried on the Indian’s travels.
Many medicines were made from this plant as well. Today, herbalists use
this plant as an anesthetic and diuretic.
Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)
On May 08,1805, Clark wrote, "In walking on Shore with the Interpreter &
his wife, Geathered on the Sides of the Hills wild Lickerish & the white
The Native Americans who lived along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers
knew this plant well. Fifty times sweeter than sugar, the Indians used
the root for food, medicine, and ceremonial purposes. Lewis and Clark
purchased a great deal of licorice from the Indians during the