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NATURE HAPPENINGS - April 2006


April's Old Acquaintances
by Damian Fagan


As March rolls into April, I look forward to getting reacquainted with some famous individuals – even if they are long dead. These people - plant collectors, topographers and Civil War officers - all share one thing in common: they are associated with these desert plants that bloom in April.

Spectacle-pod (Dithyrea wislizenii) is a loose, lanky member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae). The white, four-petaled flowers are arranged in the shape of a cross; hence, the old family name Cruciferae. Borne in clusters, these flowers bloom in a ladderlike fashion, with the youngest flowers found at the top. The older, lower flowers that have already been pollinated will form rounded seedpods approximately ½” long. The pods are fused together along a midline to resemble a pair of spectacles.

The generic name Dithyrea means “two shields” in reference to these pods. The specific name wislizenii honors Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus (1810-1889) a German physician who immigrated to St. Louis in 1835. Wislizenus embarked upon a self-funded expedition to collect flora and fauna (mostly bugs and reptiles) in the Southwest. He ended up in Mexico in 1846. Unfortunately, this was the time of the Mexican-American War and Wislizenus became a POW. Fortunately, his captors did not see any harm in letting him collect plants around his prison. You can read about his exploits in his Tour through Northern Mexico for additional stories.

Fast forwarding to 1991, researchers from the USDA/ARS Northern Regional Research Center in Illinois isolated a sulfur-containing alkaloid, dithyreanitrile, from spectacle-pod seeds. This compound inhibits the feeding of fall armyworms and European corn borer larvae. Though this plant has beneficial uses, it was one of his other collections that is more noteworthy – the pinyon pine. He collected that in New Mexico.

Augustus Wilhelm Fendler (1813-1883) was a Prussian immigrant who landed in St. Louis around 1844. He gained an acquaintance with the famous botanist Georg Engelmann, who provided advice to the young German regarding plant collecting. Fendler applied this advice while collecting around St. Louis for Engelmann and Asa Gray. Eventually, Engelmann loaned Fendler $100 so that Fendler could travel to Santa Fe and collect plants enroute and in the Southwest.

After two years, Fendler returned to St. Louis and Gray named a shrub (and other plants) after Fendler. Fendlerbush (Fendlera rupicola) is a many-branched shrub that grows in rocky habitats (rupicola means “growing on rock”). The reddish twigs turn gray with age. Large white flowers grow singular or in small clusters; their four petals are elliptical in shape with a narrow base. The sharp woody capsules remain on the plant even in winter, long after the seeds have been shaken loose by the wind. Native peoples in the Southwest used the hard, straight wood of the shrub for digging sticks and arrow shafts.

Unfortunately, Fendler’s collecting career was cut short. He embarked on a second expedition to the Southwest in 1849, but lost all of his gear, including his notebooks and specimens, in a flood. Upon returning to St. Louis, a fire along the Mississippi River waterfront had destroyed all of his possessions.

Disheartened, he left the United States for many years and never collected again in the Southwest.

Whipple’s fishhook (Sclerocactus whipplei) honors the West Point graduate, Amiel Wicks Whipple (1818-1863) who served on several surveys in the East and West as a member of the Army’s Topographical Engineers. This stout, ovoid-shaped cactus has fishhook-shaped spines and pinkish-purple flowers borne at the top. Some specimens have straight spines or lighter colored flowers.

In 1853, he led an expedition along the 35th parallel, surveying to determine a practical railroad line to connect the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Later on, this route would include a rail line and Highway 66. When the War Between the States broke out, Whipple was reassigned as the North’s chief topographical engineer. In 1863, Whipple was mortally wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville. He died four days later in Washington, D.C. shortly after President Lincoln had promoted him to Major General.

Though these three men are long gone, their history lives on through their association with these desert plants. And each spring I look forward to getting reacquainted with them.

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