Missouri's Unsung Green Giant

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Julian Steyermark's "Flora of Missouri", published in 1963, was the first comprehensive book on the state's plants. The book described and classified more than 2,400 species.

Although naturalists and botanists had gathered and classified Missouri plants dating back to the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s, the book firmly established Steyermark as one of the most important figures in botany in Missouri.

One of the virtues of Flora of Missouri is that a reader with only a basic knowledge of plants could understand it. Steyermark wrote his book for the public, not just for other botanists.

In the opening pages of Flora of Missouri, Steyermark included a simple dedication to Ernest J. Palmer. The dedication is a clue to a story of two men bound by their devotion to botany and a drive for scientific achievement.

Palmer and Steyermark did not have much in common. Nearly 35 years older, Palmer was born in England, while Steyermark grew up in St. Louis. Palmer, for the most part, learned botany on his own, but Steyermark attended Harvard University and went on to complete his doctorate at Washington University.

Yet for many years Palmer served as Steyermark's mentor. Both were avid collectors, and the two corresponded regularly.

Palmer was born in 1875 in Leicester, England, but his family immigrated to the United States. The Palmers first stopped in Warrensburg, but in 1889, the family relocated to Webb City in southwest Missouri.

Palmer studied Latin, Greek and other subjects at Missouri Baptist College. When he was in his mid 20s, he discovered some of the botanical writings of Benjamin F. Bush, another important figure in Missouri botanical history. Palmer and Bush began corresponding. In 1901, Bush stayed at the Palmer house while collecting samples of Crataegus, the hawthorn genus, for Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. Palmer later collected plants for the Arnold Arboretum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. He eventually became his generation's foremost authority on hawthorns.

In 1921, Palmer moved to a position at the Arnold Arboretum at Jamaica Plain, Mass. Palmer and Steyermark likely met at Harvard. Palmer was working at the arboretum around 1930, when Steyermark was studying at the university.

Scores of letters the men exchanged during the course of 25 years are housed among Steyermark's papers in the archives at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. They reveal much about the men and their relationship. One aspect is the

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