Historical perspective

I have recently been searching for early written accounts of anther color in trout lily (Erythronium americanum).  The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a tremendous  resource for (free!) electronic copies of these early texts.

To my surprise, none of the early (pre-1880) accounts that I turned up mention anther color variation — most don’t describe anther color at all. The texts are nonetheless a lot of fun to read, and the accompanying illustrations are lovely.  Below, I share some notes about what I’ve found. But let’s start with an illustrations gallery (click to enlarge).

Ker Gawler (1808). Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 28: plate 1113
Ker Gawler is the species authority for E. americanum.  The description is based on a single specimen with yellow anthers; no mention of red-orange anthers is made.  Interestingly, though, the accompanying image depicts a flower with red-freckled anthers.  A bit of poetic license?

Bigelow (1820). An American Medical Botany (V3). t. 58
It’s hard to tell what color of anthers are being depicted here, and the text doesn’t say either. People often ask me about the medicinal properties of the plants I study.  I am in no way knowledgeable on this subject — but Bigelow is. He remarks that even small amounts of all parts of the trout lily can induce nausea.

Barton (1821). A Flora of North America (V1). t. 33
Barton doesn’t mention anther or pollen color. He does comment on the generic name Erythronium, though, noting that it is derived from the Greek word for red, likely in allusion to the red(ish) flowers of the congener E. dens-canis, or “to the more unusual ‘blood stain’ marks on the leaves.”  I’ve encountered the flower-color explanation many times before, but the ‘blood stain’ idea is entirely new.

Rafinesque (1828). Medical flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America. No. 35.
Rafinesque prefers the name E. flavum (in reference to the yellow flowers) over E. americanum, arguing that the specific epithet americanum is “so often proposed, it [has] become absurd now.”  Like Bigelow (above), Rafinesque describes the nauseating property of the plant when eaten.

Gray (1876). Introduction to Structural and Systematic Botany and Vegetable Physiology (5th ed.). p. 494.
Gray’s text doesn’t actually say all that much about E. americanum, but the attention to detail in the illustrations is impressive. I especially like how the pistil (1250) captures the little kink near the base of the style. I see this all the time when working with the flowers, but probably never would have thought to draw it.  Gray also captures within-flower variation in stamen length (1249). Forty years later, Graff (1916, Torreya 16: 180–182) wrote a detailed description of this stamen length dimorphism, bemoaning that “Such a simple fact in regard to one of our very common spring flowers, it seems, should have been recognized before.”  Don’t worry…. Gray was on it!

Meehan (1878). The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States (Series II). p. 65
This is my favorite illustration of all. Most impressive to me is the way the illustration seems to glow.

Do you know of other early accounts I should check out? If yes, please leave a reply to tell me about it.


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