People Behind the Names of Eastern Sierra Native Plants

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Bigelow's Monkey Flower, Mimulus bigelovii (A. Gray) A. Gray var. cuspidatus A.L. Grant (Scrophulariaceae)

by Larry Blakely

References and Notes

(First Posted 2017.11.20 with updated text; Text appeared originally in the newsletter of the Bristlecone chapter, CNPS, July, 2000/Vol. 20, No.4)

Bigelow's Monkey Flower

Bigelow's Monkey Flower, Mimulus bigelovii (A. Gray) A. Gray var. cuspidatus A.L. Grant Photo and © by Larry Blakely

The devastating Division Creek fire of 1999 was followed this spring by a remarkable display of annual wildflowers and the exuberant rebirth of perennials. Blue phacelias and gilias covered broad swaths of land on the upper alluvial fan, the bright blue carpets speckled with black twisted stems of bitterbrush - their tops destroyed by the fire, but their crowns resprouting with vigor. Along the edge of an adjacent lava flow to the north, different species appeared including a fine display put on by robust colonies of Bigelow's monkey flower. While contemplating their striking beauty one was prompted to inquire, "Who, by the way, was Bigelow?"

John Milton Bigelow, MD (1804-1878) was born in Vermont, but later made Ohio his home; he obtained his medical degree from a Cincinatti college. In his late forties he left the comforts of his home in Lancaster, OH to become surgeon-botanist on two major government-sponsored western surveys: the Mexican Boundary Survey commanded by Major William H. Emory, and the Pacific Railroad Expedition along the 35th parallel under the command of Lt. A. W. Whipple. Several collectors accompanied the former (though Bigelow and C. C. Parry did the bulk of the collecting), while Bigelow was the sole botanist on the latter. Most of his survey collections were made east of California, but he collected extensively in California during the late winter and spring of 1854, at the conclusion of the Whipple Expedition. He found many new genera and species in his four years in the southwest and California. His collections were worked up by John Torrey and Asa Gray mainly, but he collaborated with George Engelmann of St. Louis on his extensive collection of cacti. In his late fifties he became professor of botany and pharmacy at Detroit Medical College.

The artist on the Whipple Expedition, H. B. Möllhausen, described him as a congenial colleague in the field, "a general favourite and by far the oldest of the party. ... [with] a pattern of gentleness and patience ... not only a zealous botanist, but also an enthusiastic sportsman. ... To his patients he was most kind and attentive, and of his mule, Billy, he made an absolute spoiled child." Bigelow stood up for his rights, though; he admonished Torrey to give full credit to his collectors: " ... the humble collector who undergoes much fatigue & privation as well as danger should not be forgotten or neglected in the roll: for if we cannot make the music we are necessary in raising the wind so essential in successfully playing the organ of fame."

Torrey did right by him. Among the native plants of California, 17 species and one variety bear Bigelow's name. In addition, 11 species, mostly cacti, were named by Bigelow. If you thumb through the Cactaceae in the Jepson Manual you'll notice that many of the species names were authored by "Engelm. & J. Bigelow". Among these are our common Mojave prickly-pear, Opuntia erinacea, and the great beauty, the Mojave fish-hook cactus, Sclerocactus polyancistrus, which Bigelow collected near "the headwaters of the Mojave ... one day's journey ... [east of] the Cajon Pass". Seven of our Eastern Sierra native plants are named for Bigelow; in addition to the monkey flower beauty, our charming Bigelow's four o'clock (or wishbone plant) is another common spring sight; the pretty Bigelow's helenium may be found along Big Pine Creek (in his initial description of it, Asa Gray said "This handsome and well-marked species is dedicated to the discoverer.").

Bigelow wrote two introductory chapters for the report volume on the botany of the Whipple Expedition. In the first he described conditions encountered along the route from the Mississippi to Los Angeles. After so many wearying miles of desert from Texas to eastern California, the party must have given a sigh of relief as they crossed over to the LA basin. Bigelow wrote: "Immediately on passing the crest of the Cajon, the vegetation changes like magic. ... [we passed] through a beautiful valley ... well wooded and watered. ... Nature has peculiarly favored this region, and adapted it to grazing ..." He praised the oranges and grapes at San Gabriel, concluding, "We could say nothing more favorable of the climate of this delightful region."

He was one of the first botanists to see the Big Tree in nature (then known only at the North Grove in today's Calaveras Big Trees SP). He arrived in the year after the strong men with their augers and wedges had labored 26 days to topple the "Discovery Tree", near the location of the current State Park headquarters. He gives his interesting observations in the second introductory chapter, about trees seen on the Expedition. Since there were so few Big Trees, it appeared to him that they were a relic of the past, "soon to become extinct". "Indeed these giants of the forest are so marked in their rusty habit from their present associates, ... that they seem but reminiscences of an eternal bygone." The convoluted process of the naming of the Big Tree was well underway at the time of his writing. Bigelow feared the generic name would be Wellingtonia, not Washingtonia as he preferred; he lamented, "we must now be contented with the possession of the tree, as England must be with the empty name." Proponents of George Washington and those of the Duke of Wellington fought it out well into the 20th Century. Today, the British graciously accept the current scientific name of Sequoiadendron giganteum, while using the common name Wellingtonia for the many Big Trees growing on country estates and arboreta, many planted soon after their discovery in the 1850s. Bigelow probably wouldn't feel too bad about that.

REFERENCES and NOTES (Added 2017.11.20)

1. Some works by or about John Milton Bigelow:

Waller, A. E. 1942. Dr John Milton Bigelow, 1804-1878 An Early Ohio Physician-Botanist, Ohio History Journal, 51: 313-331. Online

Natural History Museum, Global Plants. Bigelow, John Milton (1804-1878). jStor Biography. Online.

Wikipedia. German, Spanish, Russian

Bigelow, John Milton. 1856. Volume IV, Part V, No. 1. General Description of the Botanical Character of the Country, No. 2. Description of Forest Trees, and No 3 (co-authored with Engelmann, George). Description of the Cactaceae. IN Reports of Explorations and Surveys [35th parallel, Director Lt. A. W. Whipple, 1853 and 1854]. pp. 1-58. U. S. War Department, Washington, D. C.

A painting of the Petrified Forest by Balduin Möllhausen in his Tagebuch einer Reise vom Mississippi nach den Küsten der Südsee, 1858, p 361. On Archive.org.

2. German artist, naturalist, and writer Balduin Möllhausen was also a member of the Whipple party. He had been mentored by Alexander von Humboldt, and it was Humboldt who had recommended Möllhausen for the position with the expedition. Möllhausen and Bigelow became close, and often took side trips of discovery along the path of the expedition. The Whipple party rediscovered the Petrified Forest of (what is now) Arizona. A specimen, taken back to Germany by Möllhausen, led to the naming of the fossil tree it came from Araucarites mollhausianus (a name no longer valid) by a botanist there.

A search of the literature and the internet has revealed no likenesses of John Milton Bigelow. It is tempting to imagine that one of the characters in the painting at the right, e.g., the one standing atop a petrified tree, may be Bigelow (and his beloved mule behind him). (2019.04.11 note: Möllhausen gives the names of two companions on the Petrified Forest trip, but Bigelow is not named.)

Möllhausen's exciting Diary of a journey from the Mississippi to the coasts of the Pacific with a United States government expedition (English translation) frequently mentions John Milton Bigelow.