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The Western PA Unit of the Herb Society of America has developed a section of their herb garden at the Phipps Garden Center where they tried to grow plants from the Lewis & Clark seed sampler kit marketed through the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello, just outside of Charlottesville, Peggy Cornett, Director. These heirloom plants commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition included: Lewis’ Prairie Flax, Clarkia, Blanket Flower, Snow-on-the-Mountain, and Skunkleaf Jacob’s Ladder and did not survive.  Related species and other varieties have also been included in development of this “historical garden” component.

One teacher participating in the PRCST study of the Lewis and Clark Commemoration developed a schoolyard garden with a Lewis and Clark component.

by Liz DePiero
(From a talk given at the National HAS meeting in 2004)

We have had an herb garden in Mellon Park, in the neighborhood called Shadyside, in Pittsburgh, PA, for more than 25 years.  When Jane Konrad, Ruth Rouleau, and Nancy Hanst, all members of our unit, started talking about the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, it seemed to be natural that we would establish a Lewis & Clark section in part of our garden.  The area designated as the Native American Garden had not been given much thought or work, and seemed to be available.  This area is about 10 feet by 3 feet, made up of hard Western Pennsylvania clay soil, unimproved, and sunny from morning until mid-afternoon when the sun goes behind the old brick wall and it becomes shady.

One of my first problems was finding out what plants Lewis & Clark saw, what those plants looked like, and to find modern varieties or old wild specimens.  In the journals there is only one drawing of a plant reproduced in my pictures, Mahonia aquifolia, Shiny Oregon grape.  Lewis and Clark did not take along an artist and photography was not yet available.  The word pictures in the journals are helpful, but not specific enough to help me find the right plants for our garden. (Ed.Note: The author maintains a full record of plants researched and planted in the Lewis and Clark garden.)

I researched the books available then, starting about 2 years before the big commemorative event year, when it would be 200 years after Meriwether Lewis set off from Pittsburgh in his newly finished keelboat, August 31, 1803.  There were various editions of the original journals of the expedition in libraries:
1.  Lewis and Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, (1969) by Paul Russell Cutright, which lists animals and plants which they encountered, in great detail, and 2. Only One Man Died, (1979) by Eldon G. Chuinard, M.D., which is about medical aspects of the trip. 
The original journals are full of counts and descriptions of animals that were killed for them to eat – but we were interested in a garden of plants. 

My first idea for the garden was to plant Lewis & Clark’s Medicine Chest.  Nobody has written this book yet – no, maybe someone has.  Bruce C. Paton, M.D. (2001):  Lewis & Clark:  Doctors in the Wilderness, published by Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.  I couldn’t get enough information in the other secondary sources.  There are references to some medicinal plants in the journals and some secondary sources, but not enough plants are mentioned for this kind of garden.  In Paton, Lewis’ list of medical supplies includes only a few botanicals, and most of them are tropicals.  These supplies were recommended by Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, one of the most prominent doctors at that time.  This didn’t include the herbs which Lewis’ mother probably used in treating people.  I couldn’t grow Lewis & Clark’s medicine chest in the garden.  That idea didn’t work.

New Books About the Lewis and Clark Plants by Botanists
As 2003 approached, any botanist worth his salt, who had studied the Lewis & Clark plants, published a book about the plants found on the Lewis & Clark expedition.  Most of these books have full color illustrations, some of modern varieties, some of the Herbarium specimens that were sent back.  Of course, some of these had different plants and different names, with some differences of opinion between different authors.

The Pittsburgh Regional Center for Science Teachers, which Jane Konrad directs, started bringing in speakers on the topic of Lewis & Clark’s plant finds.  Some of these speakers had written some of the new books.  Our garden started rolling along.  Finally, materials were available which helped me find appropriate plants for our garden.

Choosing the Plants for Our Garden
The trip was 75% on rivers.  Our garden doesn’t have a river, creek or even water (except rain) without hoses.  Many of the plants they found would not grow here.(Ed. Note: Seeds obtained from Monticello did not survive here.)  We also had a small area available, and had to eliminate trees, bushes and invasive, weed-like plants.  We also did not plant any poisonous plants in this mostly unattended garden in a public park.  The Voyage of Discovery went north, into much colder zones, and up into the Rocky Mountains.  Some of the plants they found would not survive in our climate or our soil.  I looked for plants from the books and planted what I could find: I found that some didn’t make it, or that some perennials didn’t come back after the winter. There is a small collection of pictures of plants which we tried, but they haven’t made it (yet).

Developing a Research Technique
I had to develop a research method.  I have never taken any courses or read any books about historic botanical research.  I started copying and enlarging the color pictures in the new Lewis & Clark plant books by all the scholarly botanists, and put them together.  Then I looked for pictures of modern varieties in catalogs and modern botany references and added them to the other pictures. 

Lewis had a background in plants from 1) living on his family plantation and 2) watching his mother act as herbal medicine/doctor to members of his family and others in the area.  As an experienced traveler throughout the woodlands.he had learned to recognize plants which were available in the East.  Some of these were native American plants, some had been brought from Europe as seeds in the pockets of settlers who didn’t have a grocery store or drug store at that time and some had to grow their own food and plants to be used as medicine. 

The Herbarium
It was a great help that then President Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to send back anything which was “new to science.”  By the time the group was near St. Louis, Lewis was collecting plants and forming the Herbarium.  He pressed and dried plants, collecting those which looked different from the ones he knew in the East.  As the Missouri River got narrower, they found they could no longer utilize the keelboat, so they sent it back with a load of scientific specimens.

Some of the specimens they found on the trail westward and some of the equipment they brought were cached, buried in holes near the rivers and covered, to keep for their use on the way back.  This was not completely successful as some of these cached things were flooded and lost (including some herbarium specimens).

The Lewis & Clark Herbarium specimens, along with taxidermy-stuffed animals from this expedition and plants, animals, rocks and fossils from several other trips West were on display at the White House during Jefferson’s presidency.  Later, these scientific specimens were dispersed.  Eventually, most of the herbarium specimens were collected at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Today, 226 plant specimens are housed there including many type specimens (the plants which were first used to describe a species. These are, even today, the initial reference for scientists studying the flora of the United States.) In March, 2005, a group from Phipps Garden Center was able to go into their archives and see some of these original specimens.

For easier access, Volume 12 of the Gary E. Moulton edition of the Lewis &  Clark Journals (1999) has black and white pictures of the Herbarium specimens.  Color pictures of the Herbarium specimens are available on the Internet, through the Academy of Natural Sciences  It is possible to print out these color pictures from the Internet. This site also has a brief history of the circuitous route of the specimens before reaching the Academy of Natural Sciences. Most of the plants we considered for our garden have Herbarium specimen with their color pictures.

About 200 years ago, there was a vast increase in interest in science in the United States.  Books were published about all sorts of topics, including botany.  Some incredible advances were made in botanical illustration.  The illustration of Lewisia rediviva, Bitterroot, from Ambrose:  Lewis & Clark:  Voyage of Discovery is said to be the finest example of 19th century botanical art.

More plants are mentioned in the Journals than exist in the Herbarium today.  These may not have been “new to science” or their herbarium specimens have been lost.  Some of these plants were foods, found by Sacajawea, on days when the hunters were not successful in finding food for the group. Some of these plants mentioned by Lewis but not represented in the Herbarium have been planted in our garden.
Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea angustifolia
Jerusalem Artichoke, Hellanthus tuberose
Jerusalem Artichoke
Hellanthus tuberose
J. Artichoke Flower, Hellanthus tuberose
J. Artichoke Flower
Hellanthus tuberose

Organizing the Material About the Plants

All the plants have common names and scientific names.  The Herbarium specimens each have a number.  The Lewis & Clark botanists organized their materials in various ways:
  • Some followed the trip geographically, putting the plants in order from East to West.
  • Some were organized by common names, but most used botanical names.
I chose to put the plants in alphabetical order by their current botanical

Botanical names are changed from time to time.  If the wildflower newsletter announces 2 changes in one year, how many changes have taken place in 200 years?  Some of the confusion and varying information in the new botanists’ books may be due to changing botanical names.

Information About Specific Plants
In reading and in attempting to grow some of the plants, we found out some specific information.  This is included in our collection of color pictures of the plants.

Starting Your Own Lewis and Clark Garden
Do a lot of reading first, with your site in mind.  Try to locate your garden in a sunny place (at least 6 hours of direct sun a day), with access to a hose connection available.  Remember that some plants are dormant part of the year, so not everything you plant will be up and blooming at the same time.  Most of the Lewis & Clark plants are perennials (once planted, come up every year), but a few are self-sowing annuals (annuals grow and bloom, then form seeds before the next winter comes – self-sowing annuals form enough seeds to replant themselves).  Unless your garden is in a prairie, in the Rocky Mountains, or beside a river, there will be plants which won’t make it for you. 

There are maps of the United States in many plant books and catalogs, with the Zones.  These are areas with similar coldest temperatures in an average winter.  In Pittsburgh, we live in Zone 6 (with some Zone 5 microclimates), where it gets to about -10 Fahrenheit during the coldest part of an average winter.  When you read in plant books or catalogs about specific plants, they may not be suited for your zone.  If you still want to plant them, you may need to treat them as an annual, either letting them die when it gets cold in the fall, (and replacing the dead plant with a new one in the spring), or digging them up and keeping them indoors for the winter.

There are other reasons why a plant may not be suited for your garden.  The plant may need to live in a wet area, and your garden isn’t wet enough.  The plant may want different soil – Pittsburgh does not have mountain soil.  Another problem may be that our summers are too hot for certain plants.

If you are planting a school-yard garden, and the school is closed for the summer, try to focus on plants which will be in interesting parts of their life cycle during the school year.  Also try to grow plants which don’t need much care or weeding, as nobody may be around when school is out.

When you go shopping for specific plants, it is very helpful to have common and botanical names and a color picture of the plant you are looking for.

Come to Visit Our Lewis & Clark Garden
If you are in Pittsburgh, come to Mellon Park to see our garden.  It is the Elizabethan Herb Garden, maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Unit of the Herb Society of America (HSA).  Our garden is about in the middle of the park, which is at the corner of Fifth and Shady Avenues.  The Lewis & Clark bed is toward Fifth Avenue, beside the steps going up to the next formal garden. Some of the plants mentioned will not be up or blooming, depending on what time of year you visit the garden.
Most of the beds have a sign in them, so you should be able to find the Lewis & Clark bed which you are looking for.

Liz DePiero, Garden Chair, The Elizabethan Herb Garden in Mellon Park
Western Pennsylvania Unit, The Herb Society of America
Questions? Contact me at


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