Carl Purpus, Plant Collector in Western America Report By C. A. Purpus On His Expedition To The Desert Areas Of Southern and Western Nevada, Northern Arizona, And Western Utah  

C. A. Purpus

Translated from German by Barbara Ertter  

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Original Title:

Bericht des Herrn C. A. Purpus uber seine Tour in das Wuslengebeit des sudlichen und mittleren Nevada, nordluchen Arizona und westlichen Utah.

Mitteilungen der Deutschen Dendrologischen Geselischaft Nr. 7. 1898

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Size Image Joshua Tree Woodland near Walker Pass.  

Locations: Greenhorn Pass. Springville. Walker Pass.  

I departed San Diego near the middle of April travelling on the railroad to Springville in Tulare County. On the 28th of that month I left Springville via wagons on an expedition to the region described in the title. The route first led southward along the same course I had taken the previous year [across Greenhorn Pass and Walker Pass] and which I shall discuss in due course.
Full Size Image Larrea tridentata. Full Size Image Argus Range across desert. Full Size Image Maturango Peak from Coso Range, California.  

Locations: Argus Range. Junction Flat. Madurango Range.

Letters: 5/9/1898  

The beginning of May found us at the Argus Mountains, which this year were exceptionally dry due to very meager precipitation, so that the flora had not fully developed. We halted briefly, primarily to collect the lovely Echinocactus polycephalus Engelm. & Bigel., which appeared to be abundant here, as well as the fascinating Echinocactus [Sclerocactus ] polyancistrus Engelm. & Bigel., a relative of E. [Echinocereus] engelmannii. We then made our way over Junction Flat to the foot of the Madurango Range, a ridge of marvelously formed, steep, red-brown peaks that extends northward all the way to the Inyo Mountains. The northern extension of this remarkable range is almost totally barren and treeless. Only here and there did I see an occasional Pinus monophylla Torr. & Frem., which is the indicator tree of the southwestern desert region. Ephedra nevadensis abounded on the volcanic mesas on our left, whereas the sandy plains and mountains slopes were covered with Larrea mexicana Moric., Artemisia tridentata Nutt., Purshia glandulosa [P. tridentata var. g.], Bigelowia, etc. Intermingled were the detestably spined Opuntia echinocarpa Engelm. & Bigel. and the smaller Opuntia basilaris Engelm., which are common throughout the entire southwestern desert region.
Full Size Image Looking south to Darwin, California.  

Locations: Coso Mountains. Darwin.  

Around noon we arrived at Darwin, a small mining town lying in an arid waterless region between the Inyo, Cero, and Argus mountains. We then proceeded over the northern edge of the Coso Mountains toward the bitter, alkaline Owens Lake. Our route traversed sparsely vegetated volcanic mountains, dark brown or burnt red, with various extinct craters. We made camp facing broken volcanic rockpiles on top of the pass.

Full Size Image Owens Lake, looking north, from south of Keeler.

Other Articles: Collecting in the Sierra Nevada: 0330 On the Trail…: 0444

Locations: Inyo Mountains. Keeler. Owens Lake. Owens Valley.  

The next morning we traveled through an exceptionally sandy region to Owens Lake, where we camped for a day next to a warm sulfur spring. The following day our journey continued to Keeler, situated in the center of a dry lake bed. To the east of Keeler rose the deeply carved ridges and crater of the Inyo Mountains, with Pinus monophylla on its highest peaks. To the west the snow-covered teeth of the Sierra Nevada ascended, blanketed in clouds. Between the two ranges lay Owens Valley, a sandy valley rising to 4000'. Through it flowed the river of the same name and a number of smaller streams that descended from the steep slopes, mostly through canyons or deep valleys. Owens Valley was partly desert, partly full of meadows. In the sand grew the typical desert shrubs previously mentioned. Various willows and Populous fremontii S. Wats. occurred along the river.
Full Size Image Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Creek.

Other Articles: Collecting in the Sierra Nevada: 0340 On the Trail…: 0450

Locations: Independence. Lone Pine.  

The next day we arrived at Lone Pine, a small town at the foot of Mount Whitney. This mountain rose like a gigantic tooth amidst a row of lesser peaks of similar shape, dropping vertically into a small valley. From Lone Pine we proceeded along the valley and arrived the following day at Independence, the seat of Inyo County. Independence was situated at the very base of the steep eastern face of the Sierra, which drops into the valley nearly without foothills.
Full Size Image North up Owens valley to the White Mountains.  

Locations: Big Pine. Inyo Mountains. White Mountains.  

North of Independence our route was mostly through volcanic areas, partly hilly, partly level. Around Big Pine, I saw the beautiful Prunus andersonii A. Gray in moderate abundance, as well as Forestiera neomexicana A. Gray [F. pubescens Nutt.] and the lovely Dalea fremontii Torr. From Big Pine we turned and climbed gradually uphill toward the Inyo Mountains. We were presented with a magnificent view of the freshly snow-covered high peaks of the Sierra Nevada, shoved together like the side wings of a theater. To the east were the equally snowy and jagged White Mountains, the northern continuation of the Inyo Mountains, ascending to about 11,000 feet.
Full Size Image Chamaebatiaria millefolium. Full Size Image "Tollhouse" sign, White Mountains, California. Full Size Image Spring and hills north of Tollhouse, Westgard Pass, California.  

Locations: Toll House. Westgard Pass.  

Near the "Tollhouse" in the vicinity of the high pass we halted for two days so that I could undertake several forays into the adjacent mountains. The subsequent day I explored the steep limestone and slate mountains to the left of the pass. These were covered with Pinus monophylla from 5-7000'. On the slopes grew Opuntia rutila Nutt. And Opuntia basilaris Engelm., whereas in the limestone and slate cliffs there was an Echinocereus growing in clumps covered with blood-red yellow-centered flowers. It is one of the species closely related to and is probably only a variety of Echinocereus phoeniceus Engelm. On the mountain to the right of the "Tollhouse," I encountered for the first time Cowania mexicana D. Don., a shrub belonging to the Rosaceae, but without flowers or fruit. Around 6-7000’ I found Chamaebataria [Basilma] millefolium Max. and the lovely Lewisia rediviva Pursh, as well as Prunus andersonii and Purshia glandulosaP. tridentata var. g.] Curran.
Full Size Image Deep Springs from Westgard Pass, White Mountains, California.

Other Articles: Collecting in the Sierra Nevada: 0360 On the Trail…: 0460

Locations: Deep Springs Valley.  

On May 19, a magnificent day, we descended into Deep Spring Valley. The route was at first rugged, then relatively flat through stands of Pinus monophylla, and then over a high plain beyond which we descended gradually into the valley. Deep Spring Valley is a meadow-filled valley enclosed by mountains, with a small lake located at its lower end. The lake is feed by strong springs [Buckhorn Springs] on its southern banks. Here I rested a day and found at the lake's outlet the beautiful Philadelphus microphyllus which up to now had not been found in California. It was growing on granite outcrops with Spiraea (Holodiscus) dumosus Nutt. On the mountains south of the valley I found Echinocactus [Sclerocactus] polyancistrus, here as elsewhere occurring only in isolation.
Full Size Image Looking down at Oasis, California.

Other Articles: Collecting in the Sierra Nevada: 0370 On the Trail…: 0470

Locations: Fish Lake Valley.  

The next day I continued over the volcanic southern branch of the White Mountains to Fishlake Valley. This is a beautiful valley situated at an elevation of 5000 feet. The southern end is for the most part desert, but the northern end is well watered and covered with grassy flats. The Palmetto Range and Red Mountains [Silver Peak Range] are to the east, and to the west are the White Mountains, the highest point being White Mountain Peak at 11,000 [actually 14,246] feet. The shrubby vegetation consisted largely of Artemisia tridentata Nutt., Bigelowia [Chrysothamnus], and Sarcobatus vermiculatus Torr. Intermixed, and occasionally the low-growing Sarcobatus baileyi.
Full Size Image Palmetto, Nevada.  

Locations: Palmetto Range.  

In the evening a strong wind arose. It rained in the valley and snowed in the mountains, so that the landscape had a wintery appearance the following day. In the morning we crossed over the border of California and entered Nevada at the base of the Palmetto Range, which I had thought to explore. Our route led gradually uphill to where Yucca brevifolia Engelm. reappeared; I had not seen it since leaving the Argus Mountains. The slopes and canyon through which we travelled were covered with flowers, mostly belonging to the genera Eriogonum, Phacelia, Oenothera, and so forth. Around noon we arrived at the Palmetto Mountain Mine, located on a 6000-plus foot flat near Mount Magruder and Mount Gabb.
Full Size Image Looking west to Sylvania Range ("Mount Gabb") from Lida Pass, Nevada.  

Locations: Mount Gabb.  

The next morning I climbed Mt. Gabb, the highest peak (ca 10-11,000') in a beautiful mountain range [Sylvania Range?]. On my ascent I saw excellent examples of Echinocactus [Sclerocactus] polyancistrus. The dominant trees were Pinus monophylla and Juniperus californicus Carr. var. utahensis, the latter occurring throughout the central desert region all the way to Colorado. The tree attaining the highest altitude was Cercocarpus ledifolius Nutt., ascending to 10,000 feet; Pinus monophylla occurred up to 9000 feet. The view from the peak, over which an icy wind swept, was magnificent, looking out over a large part of the desert region and the Sierra Nevada to the west. On the highest point I found a new Opuntia, apparently related to O. rutila but not yet further identified.
 

Locations: Mount Magruder.  

One of my next forays brought me to the southern slopes of Mount Magruder‚ (10-11,000’ [actually only ca 9000']) as far as the western edge of Death Valley. Here I encountered an extremely fascinating region, partly volcanic, partly sandstone. Immense red and yellow, fantastically shaped sandstone formations rose to a height of 3-4000 feet. At their base was a very poisonous spring containing alum, arsenic, and iron. I collected here Celtis occidentalis, a Ceanothus (C. greggii?), and a splendid Penstemon with violet-red flowers that has been described by Mrs. Brandegee as P. floribundus Brandeg. [Actually P. floridus T. S. Brandegee].
Full Size Image Lida, Nevada. Full Size Image Gold Mountain area from north end of Death Valley, California.  

Locations: Gold Mountain. Lida.  

On one of the subsequent days we traveled to the small mining town of Lida, and from there to Gold Mountain, an arid partly volcanic, partly plutonic and sedimentary mountain. Only on the highest peak, a lustrous dark red, did a sparse forest of Pinus monophylla occur.
 

Locations: Oriental.  

On a foray to Oriental‚ I found a singularly attractive Penstemon with dark blue flowers that eventually proved to be a new species: Penstemon [roezlii var.] violaceus Brandegee. Many of the flats on the mountain were covered with Opuntia basilaris Engelm., while others were filled with Calochortus aureus S. Wats. [probably actually C. kennedyi] interspersed with the beautiful flowers of Aster [Machaeranthera] tortifolius A. Gray.
Full Size Image Playa at the north end of Sarcobatus Flat, Nevada.  

Locations: Ralston Desert. Sarcobatus Flat.  

After a brief sojourn we left the Oriental-Gold Mountain region and proceeded downhill to the waterless Sarcobatus Flat, a part of the Ralston Desert [obviously not the one near Belmont, but perhaps in reference to the old stage station NW of Stonewall Mountain]. The northern portion contained what is called a "dry lake". The ground itself is dazzling white, full of alkali, salt, and borax, and is as hard and flat as a barn floor. We were deceived by the marvelous mirage that made the "lake" appear to be full of water. Upon coming nearer, what appeared to be water always receded, so that we soon realized the true nature of this remarkable phenomenon. On the flat of this "dry lake" there grew mainly Chenopodiaceae, including an abundance of Sarcobatus vermiculatus. To the west arose the Grapevine Mountains, whose highest peak was quite well forested with Pinus monophylla. The mountains were noteworthy on account of their dark brown volcanic rock composition. Behind this mountain range stretched the ominously named Death Valley, lying 300 feet below sea level. To the east were fantastically shaped reddish-brown volcanic ranges [Pahute Mesa] that are either barren or sparsely forested.
Full Size Image Beatty, Nevada, at the south end of Oasis Valley.  

Locations: Amargosa River. Oasis Valley.  

Rather late in the evening we reached Oasis [Valley, NE of Beatty], a green oasis in the desert, wherein are the springs of the so-called Amargosa "River". The entire valley was scattered with springs that trickle away into the sand. Around the meadows I found for the first time Prosopis juliflora DC., the mesquite of Mexico, which is characteristic of the entire Nevada desert area. It grows here mainly on sandhills in the neighborhood of the springs and usually forms a low shrub with twisted thorny stems and decumbent branches that become half-buried in the sand. No less characteristic of the region is the unusual Prosopis pubescens Benth., a lovely graceful shrub or tree with out-stretched branches. On the cliffs of the mountains east of the meadows I found more shrubby Compositae new to me, probably belonging to the genera Haplopappus, Aster, and Tetradymia, as well as Vitis arizonica Engelm.
      [The following two paragraphs have been reversed from the original to allow the more feasible sequence. A comparable switch has been indicated on the annotations on the original.]
      [INCERTAE SEDIS] Around the grassy flats grew masses of Bigelowia, Tetradymia, Sarcobatus, Populus fremontii, and Salix. These were bordered by barren reddish-brown and black mountains.
Full Size Image Dunes in Amargosa Desert, Nevada.  

Locations: Amargosa Desert.  

We stopped for two days rest and then proceeded through the extensive Amargosa Desert‚ to Ash Meadows. Larrea mexicana, intermixed with Chenopodiaceae in many places, was the dominant vegetation en route. Amargosa Desert is a completely waterless area 40-50 miles across, bordered on both sides by mountains. To the west were the parched ominously named Funeral Mountains, in reference to a large party of emigrants from the East who perished there one year.
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Date and time this article was prepared: 6/7/2002 7:32:15 PM