Carl Purpus, Plant Collector in Western America C. A. Purpus: His Collecting Trips in the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley, California, 1896 - 1898  

Barbara Ertter
University and Jepson Herbaria
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720  

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Literature Cited

Mary DeDecker Symposium

Plant Biology of Eastern

University of California
White Mountain Research Station



Carl Albert Purpus was a pioneer plant collector in southeastern California whose chronicles and collections are of historical interest. His collecting trips in this area began in 1895 near Mt. Whitney. The following year he left his winter home near Springville and travelled up the Middle Tule River to the headwaters of the Little Kern River and down Cottonwood Creek into Owens Valley, returning by much the same route. In 1897 he collected first in the Piute Range of Kern County before crossing Walker Pass enroute to the Argus Range, after which he collected at the headwaters of the Kaweah River. In 1898, a drought year, he crossed Walker Pass again and proceeded north through the Argus Range and Owens Valley to Westgard Pass. He spent the rest of the summer in Nevada and Utah before returning through Fish Lake Valley and Sonora Pass. During these trips he collected the types of over 30 new taxa from southeastern California.

Literature Cited:
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1896a.
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1896c.    

One of the most significant but least known of the early collectors in the southern Sierra Nevada and desert ranges to the east was Carl Albert Purpus, a German born botanist who first came to the United States as a collector of winter-hardy plants for the Darmstadt Botanical Garden, where his brother Joseph Anton Purpus was head gardener. During the years 1895-1898, he collected nearly 2000 numbers, including the types of over 30 taxa, from the southern Sierra Nevada, adjacent mountain ranges, and the Owens Valley. He became a "freelance" collector, depending for income on sales of seeds, cacti, pinecones, and anything else the German market would pay for. Sets of his herbarium collections were also available for sale, resulting in the wide distribution of his specimens. In addition, he wrote numerous articles on natural history that were published in popular and technical German magazines, covering topics as diverse as rattlesnakes [Purpus, 1896c] and redwoods [Purpus, 1896a].

Literature Cited:
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1896b.
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1896d.
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1897a.
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1898.
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1899c.
- Sousa, M., 1969.    

Although Purpus's later years in Mexico and that itinerary have been studied and published elsewhere [Sousa, 1969], his United States travels have been relatively unknown. This is the first in a series of presentations to fill the gap. Most of the following information is derived from my translations of a series of articles describing his journeys from 1895-1899 [Anonymous, 1896; Purpus, 1896b, 1897, 1898, 1899], mostly published by the German Dendrological Society, and from his field notes and letters to Katharine Brandegee (archives of the University Herbarium, University of California, Berkeley).
Full Size Image South entrance to Potter Valley, California, May 1988.  

Locations: Daunt. Potter Valley. Springville.

Letters: 12/4/1896  

Purpus apparently first moved to California in 1894, where he probably stayed initially with his cousin Nettie in Potter Valley, Mendocino County. He soon acquired a winter residence in Daunt, on the outskirts of Springville, Tulare County. During this period he made contact with Katharine and Townshend Brandegee, with whom he maintained a close interaction. He sent them the first set of his collections, refusing to accept payment even though he depended on the sale of specimens for his livelihood. Townshend described most of the new species he collected, including the genus Purpusia in the Rosaceae, while Katharine was apparently a partner in his cactus-selling venture.
Full Size Image Foxtail pine on Tawny Point, Bighorn Plateau, California.  

Locations: Mount Whitney.  

Purpus's first summer in the Sierra Nevada was 1895, spent in the area around Mt. Whitney. The article [Anonymous, 1896] describing the area to his German audience is full of the superlatives that characterize Purpus's writing:

Other Articles: Purpus' Introductions: 0130  

One feels overwhelmed, as if placed in another world, when viewing these gray-white giants. . . . All these toothlike peaks drop precipitously to the east in every sense of the word, the easternmost more than 3400 meters straight down into the Owens River Valley. The view from this precipice is truly terrifying.
Full Size Image Carl A. Purpus, with a Sequoia and a dog.

Other Articles: Purpus' Introductions: 0160  

The sight of the giant trees of Sequoia gigantea is truly awesome. One feels completely overwhelmed, in another world, when seeing these monuments to ages long past for the first time.
Full Size Image Abronia alpina.

Other Articles: Purpus' Introductions: 0280  

In granitic gravel below the volcano, I encountered a low mat-forming Allionia unknown to me, which was completely covered with rose-red flowers, providing a lovely sight beyond all description.
      This last was in reference to a new species he collected on this trip, Abronia alpina Brandeg.
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Date and time this article was prepared: 6/7/2002 7:32:32 PM