Carl Purpus, Plant Collector in Western America The Botanical Collections of C. A. Purpus in Mexico: The Years 1893 - 1925  

by Mario Sousa Sanchez

English translation by Lauramay T. Dempster  

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Literature Cited
Original Title:
Sousa, M., Las colecciones botanicas de C. A. Purpus en Mexico,
Univ. Calif. Publ. Bot., 51: 1-36, 1969.

Republished on the World Wide Web by Permission of
University of California Press

      His Life and Travels

The Botanist

Other Articles: On the Trail…: 0010  

One could say that Dr. Carlos Alberto (Karl Albert) Purpus, collector or, better, collectionist, was also a pharmacist, hermit, misogynist, a resister to social and political changes, with great adaptability and physical strength, a great sense of duty, and careless in regard to his reports and his person. His collectionist instinct caused him to lose his sense of proportion whether with plants, animals, archaeological objects, or even his cats.
      Species new to science were the rare pieces of the collection; his terra incognita was the mine of these specimens and he, Purpus, the absolute owner thereof. Isolated, alone, with no intellectual nor personal contact, he compensated for this isolation by maintaining an extensive correspondence with almost all parts of the world.
      His loves - meaning plants and cats, brothers and friends by mail - were a delicate fabric that eventually was broken.
      Thus we see in C.A. Purpus a man disposed to collect in quantitiy and quality, to whom economic remuneration and personal risk were not important, whether it were our Revolution, malaria, chiggers or gusts of passion to which he was constantly subject, being gravely wounded in one of these.
      Without any doubt, Carlos Alberto Purpus figures among the most productive of collectors who have been in our country. His collections in Mexico possibly exceed 17,000 examples, since in March of 1936 they were 16,692, and he continued collecting until his death.

Literature Cited:
- Boerner, F., March 14, 1962.
- Schmidt, E., 1961.    

Of his life before arriving in America, very little is known. Nearly all our information proceeds from a periodical edited in Darmstadt, Germany; the 9th of August, 1927, in which we are told that Karl Albert Purpus comes from a Dutch family. One of the ancestors of the family, the Dutch painter Pieter Pourbus, traveled in 1615 to France, and from there the family moved to the province of Pfalz, Germany; and here in the folds of the mountains on Hanweilerhof, near Kirchheimbolanden, in southwest Bavaria, Karl Albert Purpus was born, the 26 of February, 1851 (1853 as Ascherson and P. Graebner determined in 1913), son of a forester charged with the administration of the royal forests of Bavaria (Boerner 1962). Purpus, planning to be a pharmacist, was in Seriba, Escocia, as a pharmacist apprentice; later he studied in Giessen, Germany, where he always maintained special contact with the director of the University of Giessen, Prof. H. Haupt (letter from C.A. Purpus to T.S. Brandegee, Zacuapam, July 14, 1921). Nevertheless, at present no data exist in this University by which it can be proved that he ever studied in Giessen, but neither can his studies be denied, since the library was destroyed in 1944, with the loss of a great quantity of information (Schmidt, 1961).
      But his spirit, longing for open spaces and travel, did not adjust to the sedentary life of a pharmacist, wherefore he soon desisted from his intention of following that road. In this way, C.A. Purpus, probably under the influence of his father and his brother Joseph Anton, launched himself in botany. Joseph Anton, nine years younger than Carlos Alberto, studied gardening in Frankfurt. Later, in 1882, he went to St. Petersburg, Russia, where, under the direction of Dr. V. Regel he worked in the Botanic Garden of that city until 1887, the year in which he left in company with Carlos Alberto on a dendrological expedition to Canada and northwestern United States. While Joseph Anton spent one year in a commercial garden in Ohio, in order to gain ideas about gardening in this country, Carlos Alberto emigrated definitely to this continent.
      In 1888, Joseph Anton returned to St. Petersburg where he undertook large botanical excursions, some of which embraced St. Petersburg, Minsk, and Smolensk, but for political reasons he found himself obliged to leave Russia. Again in Germany, Joseph Anton was called by Dr. Dippel to work in the Botanical Garden of Darmstadt, where he served 40 years until his death, the 5th of December, 1932.
      Regarding Carlos Alberto Purpus, one encounters him as a botanical collector in the United States since 1887. His collections were made mostly in the Rocky Mountains, and in general in the west of the American Union.
      During the years of 1890 and thereabouts, when we find him collecting in the coastal mountains of Mendocino Co. in California, he knew Dr. Charles A. Keeler, an ornithologist well known for his extensive publication on "Evolution of Color of North American Birds" Keeler advised him to send his botanical specimens for identification to Mrs. Katharine Brandegee of San Diego, California, and Purpus did so, sending all of his collections from the coastal mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, etc.

Literature Cited:
- Moran, R., January 23, 1967.    

In his letter to Dr. W.A. Setchell of April 4, 1926, Purpus gives a brief review of the beginnings of his relationship with the Brandegees, which he mentions date from about 30 years; Purpus describes his first contact with them, as follows: "I had just returned from a botanical trip in Sequoia Park when I found a letter from Mrs. Brandegee.... in which she invites me to come to San Diego to be with them and collect Cactaceae and succulents in Baja California." Apparently Purpus lived in the same house with the Brandegees in Redwood Street, or at least he used that house as a postal address (Moran, 1967).

Literature Cited:
- Purpus, Carl Albert, 1899b.    

In the winter of his first year of residence in San Diego, in 1897, Purpus sailed in the galley Walberg. His first impression of Mexico occurred in the Bay of Ensenada, Baja California, of which he tells us: "The town is beautifully situated at the base of steep mountains, covered with low vegetation and crowned with pines" (Purpus, C. A., 1899b).

Literature Cited:
- Anonymous, March 22, 1998.    

Continuing his journey, he stopped in the Islands of San Martín and San Jerónimo, arriving at the Bay of Santo Domingo, where the vessel ran aground (east of Cedros Island, latitude 28N) on the 15th of December, making possible various excursions for exploring and botanical collecting. Two weeks later he crossed the peninsula in a wagon to Calmallí, a task that took him two days, stopping the first night at a watering place named "Borenda" (Berrendo). From Calmallí, a mining camp, with his first massive Mexican collections, made from January to March of 1898; in February he spent two weeks in the deep canyon near San Pablo, about 60km southeast of Calmallí. Purpus also went to the old Jesuit mission of Santa Gertrudis, located 35km southeast of Calmallí, situated in a broad valley surrounded by volcanic mountains. Scaling the crest of the peaks to the east of the mission, Purpus was able to see the Gulf of California and return again to Santo Domingo by way of Calmallí. At the port of Santo Domingo, C.A. Purpus shipped on the steamer "Carlos Pacheco," headed toward San Diego, carrying with him 15 boxes of Cacti and other succulents, which for the most part would be sent to Germany (Anonymous, 1898).
      Purpus returned to San Diego in order to collect again in the desert regions of Nevada, Utah and northern Arizona during the month of April, a project that he pursued until 1900. In that same year, after collecting in the San Francisco Mts. of Arizona, he traveled to Guayman, Sonora, and from there in a steamer to San José del Cabo, Baja California, where he collected all that winter and part of the summer, returning finally to Arizona.
      In a letter to W.A. Setchell in Zacuapam, April 4, 1926, Purpus relates that "The following winter (1901) I traveled again to the Cape region." Shortly after this trip, Purpus publishes his only species Erythea brandegeei in Gartenflora 52:11-13, 1903, a species of palm that Ira L. Wiggins recognizes in 1964 in his Flora of the Sonoran Desert.
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Date and time this article was prepared: 6/7/2002 7:32:26 PM