Carl Purpus, Plant Collector in Western America Report on My Journey to the La Sal Mountains  

C. A. Purpus

Translated from German by Barbara Ertter  

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Original Title:

Bericht uber meine Tour in die La Sol-Mountains

C. A. Purpus, San Diego, Kalifornien

Mitteilungen der Deutchen Dendrologischen Gesellschaft. 8: 142-146.

      C. A Purpus, San Diego, California

Locations: Mount Tamalpais. Ukiah.  

One fine day in May [1899] I left Ukiah in northern California to go to San Francisco. From here I thought to set out on a journey to the La Sal Mountains in eastern Utah, which were still completely unexplored botanically. I stayed in San Francisco for a short time. On one of the following days several associates of the [California] Academy of Sciences and I visited Mount Tamalpais, famous for its magnificent view and marvelous flora. Here for the first time I saw the splendid Rhododendron californicum Hook. growing in great abundance in damp, rocky places. At this time of year it presented an incomparably glorious floral display with its large, deep rose-red flowers and leathery, glossy, dark green leaves. There was also Rhododendron occidentale A. Gray, whose creamy white flowers were tinged with rose-red, growing along small streams.
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Locations: Book Cliffs. Thompson Springs.  

The next day I took the train across the Sierra, through Nevada, to Ogden in Utah. From there we continued through a fascinating region bounded by the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, still covered with snow. We then crossed a rather high mountains pass into the desert, which extended from here to Colorado with hardly a break. By evening of the same day I arrived at Thompson Springs, a small green spot in the waterless waste, lying at the base of the steeply ascending Book Cliffs. To the south rose the immense, tapered peaks of the La Sal Mountains, the goal of my journey.

Locations: Thompson Spring Canyon.  

I remained in Thompson Springs for eight days and undertook several forays to the Book Cliffs, very interesting because of their cacti. Here I saw for the first time the splendid Echinocactus whipplei Engelm. var. spinosior, which grew not only at the base of the mountain at 5000 feet (Thompson Springs is at 5100 feet), but also on the mountain itself to 7000 feet, as we were later to learn. In Thompson Spring Canyon I found the fascinating Berberis fremontii Torr. partly in bloom, partly laden with still-green fruit. The remaining woody flora consisted exclusively of Chenopodiaceae, including Sarcobatus vermiculatus Torr., Grayia polygaloides Hook. & Arn., and Atriplex confertiflora Nutt. On the cliff faces I found Fraxinus anomala Torr., Amelanchier utahensis Koehne, Fendlera rupicola Engelm. & Gray, Cowania mexicana D. Don, and, as solitary trees, Juniperus monosperma Sarg. (J. occidentalis var. monosperma) and Pinus edulis Engelm., the dominant trees of this region. In the upper reaches of the canyons I came across isolated specimens of Cercocarpus ledifolius Nutt.
      Wide, flat plains called "mesas" stretched out atop the steep-faced cliffs, thinly forested with the aforementioned conifers and covered with masses of Opuntia, primarily O. polyacantha Haw. In between were clusters of Echinocereus phoeniceus Engelm. with blood red flowers, which approached E. mojavensis in that its flowers were considerably larger than in the typical species. Now and again I encountered more specimens of Echinocactus whipplei Engelm.

Locations: Courthouse Cliffs. Grand River. Moab.  

On the first of June I continued on toward Moab, at the base of the La Sal Mountains. My route led through a desolate, waterless desert. Large stretches lacked any vegetation, while other parts were covered with shrubby Chenopodiaceae. Toward the middle of the day, I reached the base of the Courthouse Cliffs. A small creek issued from the sand and then disappeared again after a brief existence. Following a two-hour hike from here I reached the Grand River, or "Rio Grande", bordered by massive rock walls. Here began the wonderful canyon that further downriver becomes the Grand Canyon, after the Grand River joins with the Green River. It is then called the Rio Colorado. I encountered a shrubby Labiatae in the sandy canyon. On the slopes grew a large-jointed Opuntia, probably O. tortispina Engelm. I reached Moab in the evening. The town lay in a wide valley bounded on two sides by immense red rock walls (Triassic). It is truly an oasis in the desert.
      On one of the following days I explored the canyon downriver. On the cliffs grew Berberis fremontii, Cowania mexicana D. Don., Rhus trilobata Nutt., a subshrubby white-flowered Gilia with spiny leaves, Opuntia histricina Engelm., and Echinocactus whipplei Engelm. var. spinosior. I noticed Rhus toxicodendron in shaded spots. Along the river grew Salix spp., Populus fremontii S. Wats., and isolated patches of Celtis reticulata Torr. There were also Baccharis salicina T. & G. and Forestiera neomexicana Gray, which I had not expected to find here, since Moab is at an elevation of over 4000 feet and the thermometer falls below -10 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.

Locations: Black Nigger Canyon. La Sal Mountains.  

On one of the next days I set out for the La Sal Mountains. My route went along a slope on which I noticed Coleogyne ramosissima. It then led through a marvelous canyon across a rocky flat where Pinus edulis Torr., Juniperus monosperma Sarg., assorted shrubby Chenopodiaceae, and Ephedra nevadensis Wats. grew. At the spring where I stopped for a rest I found Berberis fremontii, Fendlera rupicola, and Rhus trilobata. From here I continued along a deep canyon called "Black Nigger Canyon". Amid the conifers grew Echinocactus whipplei var. spinosior and a variety of Cereus phoeniceus. Opuntia polycantha and the variety trichophora soon appeared as well.
      Toward evening we had reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Along the route rose wonderful sandstone formations forming towers, walls, and spires, creating a totally enchanting picture. Entire flats were covered with Artemisia tridentata Nutt., a splendid Penstemon, and the conifers mentioned earlier, including Pinus ponderosa Dougl. var. scopulorum. I stopped to spend the night in a small grove of Pinus edulis.
      I continued my ascent early in the morning. Oaks gradually made an appearance, low shrubs barely four to six feet tall that formed dense thickets. Between these grew the beautiful Amelanchier utahensis with its white, reddish-striped flowers, a lovely sight to see. Higher up, at over 7000 feet, Symphoricarpos oreophilus A. Gray, Rosa sp., and an Artemisia sp. were scattered under the oaks. The oak thicket, formed of Quercus gunnisoni, extended to over 8000 feet, exceeding the first zone of Populus tremuloides Michx. Even above 9000 feet one can sometimes find specimens barely two feet tall, intermixed with a large-flowered Rosa that is likewise only one to two or at most three feet tall.
      We reached the Populus tremuloides zone that lay between 7-8000 feet before noon. The species forms large or small groves here and ascends nearly to treeline; that is, to about 11,000 feet. Isolated firs soon appeared as well, including a beautiful form of Abies subalpina Engelm. with very long, broad, hoary needles, very similar to Abies concolor violacea. This tree, along with Picea engelmanni and Pseudotsuga douglasii, ascended as solitary individuals nearly to tree line. Above 9000 feet Populus tremuloides and the blue-gray form of Pseudotsuga reappeared. In addition to the long-needled, blue-gray form of Abies subalpina, there also occurred the typical form with hoary, blue-white needles. It is a very noteworthy phenomenon here that the majority of Picea, Abies, and Pseudotsuga douglasii exhibit an intense blue-white coloration.
      At about 9000 feet elevation we halted in a grove of Populus tremuloides that was in its first magnificent flush of spring foliage. A small creek that plunged down a ravine led us up a neck-breaking path to a cabin, where I decided to establish my basecamp and stay for awhile. Along the small creek grew a beautiful Ribes with white flowers, as well as a Cornus that was new to me, assorted Rubus, and the attractive Pachystima myrsinites Raf. in the shade of the firs. Along the creek near the cabin I found Lonicera involucrata Banks. and a second Ribes sp. with edible red berries that I had earlier seen in the Rocky Mountains.
      We reached the cabin around the middle of the day after traversing a small snowfield, into which our pack animals sank deeply. This lay in a picturesque narrow valley at the edge of a fir forest that to the left abutted a grove of Populus tremuloides. Beyond it and extensive talus field had accumulated, interlayered with Pseudotsuga and Abies subalpina. Alpine meadows covered with flowers in July such as I had never seen before ascended above the ash [?!] groves. In the talus grew Ribes cereum, a Rubus, and, in the shade of the firs, Pachystima myrsinites and the Cornus mentioned previously. Along with these shrubs I found a yellow-flowered Sambucus barely 3-4 feet high that later in August was completely covered with scarlet (less often orange or golden yellow) berries, of great horticultural potential. On the rocks near camp I noticed solitary specimens of Pinus flexilis, a climbing Clematis, Cercocarpus ledifolius Nutt., and a shrubby form of Juniperus monosperma.
      Behind the cabin was a wonderful blue-gray Picea engelmannii that proved on closer inspection to be a form with drooping branches. I had previously observed a pendant green form in the Uncompahgre Range. Later I found solitary, blue-green, non-drooping forms of this lovely spruce, which I also found at tree line. The most beautiful specimen I saw was near the creek in association with the undeniably marvelous, drooping, blue-white form of Pinus pungens Engelm., the first time I had seen one with hanging branches. Both of these pendant forms would make valid display plants. It is a wonderful sight when the wind blows through their small hanging branches, causing them to swing back and forth. I later found the blue-white form of Picea pungens at 8-9000 feet with fewer hanging branches, as well as a splendid bluish drooping form of Pseudotsuga douglasii.
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Date and time this article was prepared: 6/7/2002 7:32:23 PM