Roses are red, violets are, well, sometimes yellow. Nuttall’s violet, or yellow prairie violet is flowering on the prairies now. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers. Seeing it just makes me smile. It’s small, usually less than four inches high, and has bright yellow petals with purple veins. It’s an attractive and diminutive plant. But that’s not the only reason it’s one of my favorites. It’s also because it is named after Thomas Nuttall.
Nuttall was born in England in 1786 and gave up the life of a printer to collect and describe plants in America. He arrived in Philadelphia in1808 and went on to become one of America’s most adventuresome and respected botanists. He was even appointed curator of the botanic garden and lecturer at Harvard, but gave it up twelve years later to go back to collecting plants.
Nuttall collected the first specimen of what would become Viola nuttallii while accompanying the Astoria expedition in what is now South Dakota during 1811. Nuttall was in his twenties at the time, and must have been consumed with finding and describing plants. In a skirmish with some Indians on the Astoria expedition, his gun wouldn’t function, apparently because the barrel was either plugged with mud from digging plants or stuffed full of seeds. On more than one occasion during his travels, he wandered away from his expeditions in search of plants only to be safely returned unharmed by Indians. Apparently they though he was “touched.”
Nuttall must have been a likable, but perhaps eccentric person. He also didn’t seem to be particularly concerned about getting credit for his work. Other botanists, particularly Fredrick Pursh, purged many of his collections. Even at that, Nuttall discovered and described many plants new to science, and many bear his name. It’s particularly ironic that Pursh ended up with this particular violet, and proceeded to formally describe and name it after Nuttall.
If you have the opportunity, find some prairie near you and do a little botanizing. As you enjoy the profusion of wildflowers, give a little thought to those early botanists that first collected and described these plants. It may have been Nuttall himself!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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