Collection Connection: John Muir

John Muir is often called the “Father of the National Parks” for his tireless advocacy to preserve and protect America’s natural wonders. Tributes to his life and work can be found throughout the National Park System today. Muir Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park is named in his honor—as are Muir Woods National Monument and John Muir National Historic Site near San Francisco. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club, a non-profit organization that led efforts to create more national parks and pushed for construction of California’s John Muir Trail.

The crowning achievement of Muir’s legacy is Yosemite National Park. Muir first visited the Sierra Nevada mountains and Yosemite Valley in 1868. Struck by its natural beauty, he began publishing books and articles about his exploration of the area, and his desire to see it protected. Those efforts culminated in the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Botany was by no means Muir’s only pursuit. He also studied geology, glaciology, and was like many of his peers considered a “naturalist” who looked at multiple aspects of the natural world. But, through the plants Muir collected, we can today catch a glimpse of the Yosemite he first experienced more than a century ago.

The Garden’s Muir Collection

The Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium has at least 45 plants collected by Muir and cataloged in the online database Tropicos. There may be even more among the Garden’s collection of more than seven million herbarium specimens waiting to be discovered, digitized, and shared. The largest percentage of the Garden’s known Muir specimens were collected in the Sierras in 1875.

The majority of that set came from the herbarium of John Redfield, purchased by the Garden in 1897. Redfield wrote to Muir in hopes of adding to his collection in Philadelphia. Muir replied that he had been focusing more on geology than botany, but promised to head out in a few weeks to collect plants.

Among the specimens Muir sent to Philadelphia are a mountain lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium montanum), a giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), and a Washington lily (Lilium washingtonianum).

In March of 1875, Muir also sent several fern specimens to botanist David A. Watt asking, in exchange, for Canadian or European ferns from Watt’s collection. The Garden purchased the Watt herbarium and its Muir specimens in 1919.

The Garden’s Muir Connections

Aside from the acquisitions of these collections, Muir had a more direct connection to the Garden thanks to friendships with two prominent Garden figures, Dr. George Engelmann and Dr. William Trelease. These relationships not only netted additional plants for the Garden Herbarium, but the letters they exchanged also give us a glimpse at Muir’s personal side.

Tough as a Mountain Oak

George Engelmann was the St. Louis-based botanist who convinced Henry Shaw to build the Garden’s first herbarium, library, and museum. Dr. Engelmann had a particular interest in plants of the western and southwestern United States, and Muir was among several notable naturalists and botanists working in the west with whom Engelmann kept in contact.

A glimpse at their relationship can be seen in an exchange of letters in the spring of 1881. In addition to sharing pleasantries, Engelmann asks Muir to send him two specimens of oak. Two weeks later Muir would ship those plants to St. Louis, and the sheets are now part of the Garden Herbarium.


My dear Dr. Engelmann,

Your notice of your oak wants was a month too late for the flowers, the season here being very early. I at-once went to the hills however + procured you the young acorns which I now forward with this.
All goes well in the home. The mother is in good health. The young Miss Muir growing amazingly fast, tough as a mountain oak, + the grandparents happy as possible. With cordial thanks for your congratulations + for the abundance of hard good work that you have done + are doing for the world. I am very truly your friend.
John Muir

Do come again to California. You are much needed.

Letter from John Muir to George Engelmann, Missouri Botanical Garden Archives

There are other plants collected by Muir between 1878 and 1881 that were part of Engelmann’s personal herbarium. They are mostly plants in the pine (Pinaceae) family, and not just from Yosemite, but from other western states as well. There is a specimen of Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) collected by Muir in what is now Great Basin National Park in Nevada. There are also several specimens collected by Muir during his first visit to Alaska in 1879.

A Breath of Fresh Alaskan Air

On Muir’s fourth trip to Alaska he met who he would later refer to as “flowery Trelease.” Muir and the Garden’s first director, Dr. William Trelease, were among the nearly two dozen scientific minds who took part in the Harriman Expedition in 1899.

Muir and Trelease remained friends after the expedition, writing several times to reminisce. On more than one occasion, Trelease evokes a particular memory of a day with Muir on a mountain near Kodiak.

“It is like a breath of fresh Alaskan air to get a note from you in our summer heat,” writes Trelease from St. Louis in 1907. In that same letter, Trelease invites Muir to visit the Garden, although it is unclear if Muir ever took him up on the offer.

The correspondence from both Engelmann and Trelease to Muir is held in the Holt-Atherton Special Collections at University of the Pacific.

Dear Mr. Muir:

It is like a breath of fresh Alaskan air to get a note from you in our summer heat. Thank you for the congratulations: you know it was our alma mater, Wisconsin, that first did it. – much to my gratification, for it was there that my teaching life began.

I hope that the years are [illegible]sing you well. Some day you must visit us at Tower Grove / as Mr Shaw delighted to call the home that we now occupy in the Garden. Mrs. Trelease and I will take very great pleasure in making you feel that it is your home when you come.

Top most among Alaskan memories is that of a day on the mountain above Kodiak with you.

Cordially Wm. Trelease

July 11. 1907

[Letter from William Trelease to John Muir] John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust

The Garden’s Muir specimens are far from his only plant pressings. Other notable Muir collections include The University and Jepson Herbaria at UC Berkeley and the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University.

An entire book is dedicated to Muir’s botanizing—Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy. A copy of that work, containing several photographs of specimens from the Garden Herbarium, is held in the Peter H. Raven Library.

Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist

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