published: March 2015

Gray & Hooker’s Blanca Peak expedition: The Asian connection

by David Lee

Behind the accompanying photograph by the celebrated photographer William Henry Jackson, is a story connected to Crestone and the Baca.

The photo was taken at La Veta Pass on July 25, 1877, about 30 miles southeast of Crestone as the crow flies.  The party had been assembled by Ferdinand V. Hayden, who was the head of the Rocky Mountain region of the United States Geological Survey, part of a series of summer expeditions he led to document the geography and geology of the Rockies.

The two most notable among those photographed are Asa Gray (1810-1888) the leading expert on the North American flora, professor at Harvard and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1872; and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1910), Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, President of the Royal Society 1873-1877, and a leader in the classification of plants—particularly of Asia.

They had become friends in England 1838-39 as young men just starting their scientific careers. Both were close friends and supporters of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English naturalist and co-discoverer with Alfred Russel Wallace of the theory of natural selection.

In the photograph, they are holding plant presses, essential for preserving plants collected in the area. Boughs of the sub-alpine fir rest at Hooker’s feet, ready for processing.

Others in the photograph include Dr. Robert Lamborn (1836-1905), a metallurgist and mining engineer.  Lamborn, a friend of Hayden and an officer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, later became a generous philanthropist of the arts and sciences in the United States.  Captain James Stevenson (1840-1888) was Hayden’s chief assistant.  General Richard Strachey (1807-1908) was a friend of Hooker’s and an eminent naturalist with extensive experience in India and Tibet, also interested in the technology of narrow gauge railways. Jane Loring Gray (1821-1909), Asa’s wife, was a respected naturalist in her own right, known to Darwin. Lady Jane Strachey (1840-1908) was an author and suffragette.

Behind them was the expedition leader, Ferdinand Vandemeer Hayden (1829-1887). Trained as a physician and serving as a surgeon in the Civil War, his passion for geology led to his exploration of the west and eminent position in the Geological Survey.  There was competition among surveyors and explorers, particularly with John Wesley Powell and George Wheeler, so perhaps Hayden’s distinguished party gave him an advantage over his rivals.

Hooker and Gray had their own reasons for being at La Veta.  The next day the party travelled to Fort Garland, and early the following morning they began their ascent of Blanca Peak.  After camping at 13,000’, they ascended the peak (14,345’), collecting plants and returning to Fort Garland and then back La Veta—exhausted.  Hooker collected 180 species of plants on the mountain.  Later on, they ascended Pike’s Peak and Gray’s Peak further to the north, continually collecting plants along the way—some 500 specimens from the Rockies.

Why they were interested in these plants requires a little explanation.  Hooker had earlier explored the sub-Antarctic region (1839-1843) and spent several years exploring northeast India.  He puzzled over the relationships of these plants to those in other regions of the world.  Gray had become the expert on North American plants, and noticed the strong affinity between the floras of the east coast and temperate east Asia.  This seemed to not be the case for the poorly studied plants of the Rocky Mountains, and they intended to investigate their geographical affinities.

The whole endeavor was inspired by the earlier work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who with Aimé Bonpland had completed an epic five-year voyage of exploration in tropical South America.  His discoveries and writings based on that voyage established the new field of plant geography.

Humboldt’s ideas strongly influenced Charles Darwin, who had five of Humboldt’s books in his library of 136 volumes on the Beagle.  Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory of natural selection provided the mechanism that could explain the riddle of relationships among floras, how closely related plant species in different locations could have evolved from a common ancestor.  Thus, Hooker and Gray, both avid Darwinists, puzzled over the relationships of this enigmatic mountain flora.

When the expedition was over, they wrote an analysis of their collections for the Bulletin of the Geological Survey. They attempted to compare the major floras of North America, including the Rocky Mountain alpine flora, with other regions and also considering the last 60 million years of geological history.

It is not certain that Gray was much involved in the collection of plants, certainly Hooker was quite astonished to find an Asian connection (from the Altai Mountains) very different from the east Asian connection with the Atlantic coast flora in the United States.  The Altai is a range of mountains north of Tibet, in Central Asia.  Thus, he saw a particular Asian connection with the alpine flora of the Southern Rocky Mountains.  Hooker probably found a sympathetic response to these views from Strachey, who knew the Himalayan flora well.  Hooker’s conclusions were not included in their joint paper, and they would’ve been lost to history if not for the work of a remarkable American botanist.

William Weber (born 1918) grew up in New York City, fascinated by the natural history of the region.  During the depression, he took advantage of educational opportunities offered by Iowa State University in Ames, receiving his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Botany (1937-1945).  He became well-acquainted with the flora of the United States, especially Colorado, and moved to the University of Colorado in Boulder, in 1946.  He is still there as an emeritus professor, 68 years later.

Over that time, he learned and wrote about the local flora and made the herbarium an important research facility.  It was his discovery of the richness and beauty of lichens in 1951 that awakened his interest in the Asian connection.  He found many examples among the lichens of these two regions.  To fill in the details, he travelled to many alpine regions of the world, including central Asia, and visited researchers and herbaria.

He summarized over 50 years of research on the Asia question in a long article (Weber, William A.  2005.  The middle Asian element in the southern Rocky Mountain Flora of the Western United States: a critical biogeographical review. Journal of Biogeography 30:649-685).

Crestone and the Baca had a strong Weber connection for many years through the presence of Jim Erdman.  Jim was a retired botanist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Weber was his Ph.D. mentor at the University of Colorado.  Anyone who uses a contemporary guide to local plants in the San Luis Valley, or elsewhere in Colorado, indirectly receives a Weber influence; he is the expert on local plants.

Important figures in the tracing of the plant connection between Asia and the Southern courtesy of Wikimedia, except that of Weber, Colorado Native Plant Society

It seems appropriate to share this story of the scientific link between the plants of the high peaks of the Sangres with those of Central Asia, as we live in a community with similar connections, cultural and spiritual, to Asia as well.

The voyage and the legacies of many of the people in the photograph—mentioned in this article—are commemorated in the names of peaks in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada:

Mount Hooker (Wind river Range, Wyoming, 12,509’); Gray’s Peak (Front Range, Colorado 14,278’); Hayden Peak (near Aspen, Colorado, 13,561’); Mount Jackson (Northern Sawatch, Colorado, 13,676’); Humboldt Peak (Sangres, Colorado, 14,070’); Mount Darwin (Sierra Nevada, California, 13,837’); Mount Lamborn (San Juans, Colorado, 11,402’); and Mount Stevenson (Yellowstone National  Park, Wyoming, 10,230’).

David Lee is a botany professor retired from Florida International University, known for his work on the function of plant color.