Carl Purpus, Plant Collector in Western America Purpus among the Peaks  

Richard Beidleman and Barbara Ertter  

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      The specimens are venerable, more than a hundred years old. The large labels are printed, with species information written in fading brownish ink. What begins to catch the eye are some of the words used in describing the collecting localities -- "Berge," "felsige," "Abhange," "Felsen," "Wiesen," "Hugel," ... And then there are the elevations: 7400', 8700' 9300', 11,500', 13,000'. Obviously some German botanist had been collecting in the Alps. But where oh where in the Alps are "Black Canon bei Sapinero" and "Mesa Grande", not to mention "Engineer P." and "Uncompahgre Mt."?
      In truth, these particular dried plants were actually collected in western Colorado, less than twenty years after statehood, by Carl Albert Purpus. Although a native of Bavaria, Purpus would indefatigably botanize across the United States, Canada and Mexico from 1887 until his death at 90 years of age in El Mirador, Mexico (on January 17, 1941).
      Today, in a white metal cabinet at the University of California's Herbarium (Berkeley), on dozens of herbarium sheets on loan from Chicago's Field Museum, are plants which Purpus collected in 1892 and 1893 on Colorado's Western Slope. These represent part of an ongoing project focusing on Purpus's contributions to North American botany.
      During 1892, from April into August, Purpus was mainly doing field work on the south side of Grand Mesa, in the vicinity of present-day Cedaredge, from 6000 feet elevation along Surface Creek to the rimrock at 10,000 feet. This is petran brushland (including Amelanchier, Purpus No. 586) and scattered pinyon-juniper woodland, then ponderosa pine (No. 420) and Douglas-fir up to boreal conifers (Subalpine Fir, No. 281) and moist glades, with riparian vegetation dense along the many creeklets (Adobe, Dry, Milk, Kiser, Surface, Tongue). His collections included Primula parryi (No. 233) in a wet meadow atop Grand Mesa, each species label inscribed with the Germanic habitat description, elevation, collector and date.
      The next year proved more exciting from the locale standpoint, since most of August and September, speaking of the Alps, was spent in the "Alps of America," the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, incidentally Denver high school teacher Alice Eastwood's favorite haunt. Here was the great mining country surrounding Ouray. And Purpus covered this wild mountainous terrain on trails and mining roads, some of which can still be found and traveled along. He collected Parry's clover (Trifolium parryi, No. 678) at 12,000 ft. near the summit of Engineer Mountain, Arctic Gentian (Gentianodes algida, No. 633) on Uncompahgre Peak, and Rocky Mountain Juniper (No. 670) near Ouray. On and off he lived "in luxury" at Rose's Cabin, a stage stop northeast of Engineer Mountain which not only included a hostelry but a restaurant, grocery store; and most important for mountain men, liquors and cigars. The remains of Rose's Cabin settlement still exist; and flowers which Purpus collected there so many eons ago, such as Lupinus argenteus (No. 610), still blossom thereabouts during the Colorado summer.
      The account of "Purpus Among The Peaks" still has a long ways to go, until all of Purpus's Colorado plants and peregrinations can be fitted together. And then there is the sparring between John M. Coulter and Katharine Brandegee over identification of the Purpus specimens; not to mention Purpus shipping Colorado plants (including cacti) for European consumption. Watch the literature and the future Purpus website for further details, with color illustrations!
      Mailing Address:
Dr. Richard Beidleman
Dr. Barbara Ertter
University & Jepson Herbaria
1001 Valley Life Sciences Bldg. #2465
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2465
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Date and time this article was prepared: 6/7/2002 7:32:24 PM