Book Review: Common To This Country

Common To This Country:  Botanical Discoveries Of Lewis & Clark, text by Susan H. Munger, illustrations by Charlotte Staub Thomas

Although the people of the Pacific Northwest are justly proud of the achievements of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the botanical discoveries the group that they led may not be as well known.  This book brings to light a few aspects of that expedition that many potential readers are not likely to be familiar with, including the role of Lewis as a skilled amateur botanist who ended up with several species (and one entire genus of portulaca plants which contains the bitterroot) named after him, while Clark himself also had a plant named after him.  As the Louisiana Purchase had recently been made and the United States had inherited a solid claim on the Pacific Northwest as a result, Jefferson had wanted to have an accurate cartographic and scientific understanding of the United States’ new lands, especially given that there were widespread hopes of a passage to the ocean that were  dashed when the group reached the Rockies.  Clark handled the maps, and Lewis handled the scientific exploration of plants that were new to science, and in the process gathered hundreds of specimens, many of which became viable and increased the knowledge of the plants of the West within Western Civilization.

The contents of the book are straightforward, and follow the path of the expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast of Fort Clatsop and back, pointing out some representative plants that were new to science but native to the region.  Each chapter not only discusses a particular plant, its habitat, uses as food or medicine for human beings and other species, drawings, appearances in the diaries of Lewis or Clark, specimen collection and the fate of those specimens, as well as the uses of the plants for ornamental purposes, along with other plants of the same genus that Lewis and Clark found and discussed, summing up to a little more than 100 pages of material.  Included in the selection of plants are the Osage Orange, the Bur Oak, Lewis’s Prairie Flax, the Prickly Pear, the Snowberry, the Camas, the Bearberry, the Ragged Robin, the Shrubby Penstemon, Bear Grass, the Ponderosa Pine, and the Gumbo Evening Primrose, among others.  The end result is a lovely and entertaining book that contains beautiful drawings, a lot of excerpts from Lewis’ detailed diary, and some fascinating stories about how botany worked in the early 19th century, where talented and hardworking amateurs were still able to contribute to essential understanding among scientists.

The target audience for this book is perhaps an unusual one, but those people who have an interest in botany or gardening [1], are interested in American history, and have a fondness for ethnographic studies or reading diaries will find much to enjoy in this little book.  The book is amply illustrated in gorgeous watercolors and contains maps that help the reader understand the geographical context of where the plant specimens were collected.  The book not only gives credit to Lewis and Clark, but also to the other members of their party as well as their native guides, and is thoughtful in discussing both the commercial viability of some plants and the fragility of others with a plea to avoid overcutting.  The book therefore combines a sound cultural and ecological approach with an intriguing focus on both history and botany, for an audience that finds the scientific terms and the historical context to be worthy of reading.  For many readers, this book will likely encourage further reading about the expedition, such as the diaries of Lewis and Clark, as well as interest in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium that was filled with the specimens that they found on their epic journey of exploration.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Common To This Country

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Essential Lewis And Clark | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Journals Of Lewis And Clark | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Becoming Oregon | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Physics: A Short History | Edge Induced Cohesion

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