The Grasses of George Washington Carver

The Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium is more than just a research tool for botanists; it’s also a window into history. Each specimen tells a story—connecting people, plants, and places. With more than 7 million specimens, the Garden Herbarium has some amazing stories to tell.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was born into slavery in southwest Missouri, near Diamond Grove, around 1864. Little is known about the early life of this trailblazing botanist, but he would later recall a fond connection with plants.

“…strange to say all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the country would be brought to me for treatment. At this time I had never heard of botany and could scarcely read.”

George Washington Carver

In 1891, Carver became the first African American to enroll in Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now Iowa State University). He would earn his bachelor’s degree in 1894 and was then appointed the school’s first African American faculty member, as assistant botanist at the College Experiment Station.

After earning his master’s degree from Iowa State in 1896, Carver joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute, where his research brought him national prominence. Carver helped pioneer the practice of crop rotation, advocating the use of alternative crops such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes to restore nutrients to depleted cotton fields.

Carver also published dozens of informational bulletins promoting additional uses for crop alternatives. His 1916 bulletin How to Grow the Peanut, and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption was his most popular publication.

The Carver Grasses

Carver’s contributions to botanical science, agriculture, and education extend far beyond the popularity of peanuts. The Garden’s herbarium gives us a glimpse of his botanical training before that breakthrough. The Garden has digitized nearly three dozen specimens collected by Carver in Iowa between 1894 and 1897. Each herbarium voucher reveals clues to his work, such as where and when it was collected.

Thanks to dates on the labels, we know more than half these plants were collected in 1895. Some were collected on or near the Iowa State campus in Ames, others in nearby towns. Some specimens reveal Carver spent July 4th of that year botanizing in Jewell Junction, about 30 miles north of the Iowa State campus.

Several of Carver’s specimens in the Garden Herbarium  are in the grass family (Poaceae). These vouchers represent about two dozen species across 14 genera—there is bentgrass, Junegrass, lovegrass, and wild rye to name a few. So why was Carver collecting so many grasses?

That’s one question the clues on the herbarium sheets don’t answer. All of the dated specimens were collected while Carver was on faculty working toward his master’s degree. One of Carver’s professors at Iowa State, Louis Pammel, had a documented interest in grass research, even publishing an article on grasses around 1895. With more than 200 species, Iowa has no shortage of grass to collect for any number of botanical inquiries.

The St. Louis Connection

A pair of student-teacher relationships is likely how Carver’s plants made their way to St. Louis and the Missouri Botanical Garden, with Louis Pammel serving as the conduit.

Pammel was a former student of Garden director Dr. William Trelease—first at the University of Wisconsin and again at the Henry Shaw School of Botany at Washington University in St. Louis, where Pammel also served as Trelease’s assistant.

Pammel left St. Louis for Iowa State in 1889, just two years before Carver would join the program. Trelease, who would become Garden director in 1890, mentioned Pammel and his work several times in the Garden’s Annual Report.

It is common practice for botanists to send plants to their peers. Sometimes it is to fulfill a specific request, or for help with identification, or simply to share duplicate vouchers. Carver’s plants were most likely included in batches of specimens sent by Pammel to Trelease. Pammel is also well represented in the Garden Herbarium with more than 1,000 specimens—800 of which are grasses.

Carver’s pressing of a black maple (Acer nigrum) was once part of William Trelease’s private herbarium. Maples were one of Trelease’s areas of research. The notation “From Pammel” appears in the lower left-hand corner.

Honoring the Carver Legacy

The Missouri Botanical Garden opened the George Washington Carver Garden in 2005 to pay tribute to the contributions of this trailblazing botanist. Today, the Carver Garden is not just a place for quiet contemplation, but also a living example of botanical research in the spirit of Carver’s own work.

George Washington Carver statue surrounded by plantings in the Carver Garden. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

The Global Inventory Project—a partnership between the Garden, St. Louis University, and the Land Institute—is working to identify wild perennials that might be good candidates for future crops. The large-scale study is looking at wild grasses, oilseed plants, and legumes. Similar to Carver’s revolutionary work with peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, the project’s objective is more sustainable agriculture.

“The work of pioneering botanists like George Washington Carver and many others is invaluable,” says Dr. Allison Miller, one of the investigators on the project. “Their contributions provide the foundation for understanding plant diversity in the wild, and allow for careful evaluation of how we might use wild plant biodiversity to develop more sustainable agricultural systems.”

A small-scale representation of this research is on display in the Carver Garden. Among the plantings on display is Elymus canadensis, Canadian wild rye. A variant of that very species sits in the Garden’s herbarium, collected in Iowa by none other than George Washington Carver.

The Garden Herbarium is brimming with stories similar to Carver’s. Moments in history preserved through plants—highlighting the places they grew or the people who collected them. And, of course, serving as an invaluable record for the researchers who study those plants today. You can explore this unique resource for yourself, and meet the plant scientists who use it, at the Garden’s annual Science and Sustainability Open House.

Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist

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