Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Department ofBotany

Anigozanthos viridis, photo by R.A. Howard
The United States National Herbarium dates back almost to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Collections of plants resulting from various early government expeditions were first deposited in the National Institute, named originally in 1840 as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. Later these plants were turned over to the newly founded Smithsonian. Of particular interest among these were the large collections of the U.S. South Pacific Exploring Expedition, under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., which formed the real basis for a national herbarium. The earliest expeditions sponsored in part by the Smithsonian itself included the explorations of Charles Wright in Texas and New Mexico in 1848. The early Smithsonian plant collections, together with those gathered during government-sponsored expeditions to the new West, were turned over to Asa Gray, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution and Professor of Botany at Harvard University, and John Torrey, Professor of Botany at Columbia College. The assembled botanical collections were in the actual custody of Torrey and were kept at Columbia College in New York City.

The Smithsonian assisted with all the U.S. Government exploring expeditions, among others those of Emory, Whipple, King, Gunnison, Pole, Stevens, Hayden, and Powell. Especially noteworthy were the botanical collections of Charles Wright undertaken in conjunction with the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition under the command of Ringgold and Rodgers which provided plant specimens from the Bering Straits, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere [Some of these explorations are described in S. F. Baird. 1855. Report on American explorations in the years 1853 and 1854. Appendix to the (Ninth Annual) Report of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Beverly Tucker, Senate Printer. Washington, D.C.]. A great many botanical papers resulting from these expeditions were published in the reports of the U.S. Railroads Surveys. The Smithsonian Institution itself published several important monographs dealing with plants from these explorations, namely, Asa Gray's "Plantae Wrightianae Texano-neo-mexicanae" (1853 - 1854), John Torrey's "Plantae Fremontianae" (1854), and especially Professor William Henry Harvey's "Nereis Boreali-Americana", the first general account of our marine algae and still fundamental reference work.

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