From Plant Press, Vol. 19, No. 4, October 2016.
By Laurence J. Dorr
With presidential politics dominating the news I began to wonder whether or not a president had ever visited the U.S. National Herbarium. Sitting presidents have visited the National Museum of Natural History but as best I can tell none has ever toured Botany. I cannot remember any presidential candidate visiting the museum which is a shame because certainly the museum and herbarium would make a great “photo op” if one wanted to address compelling environmental issues such as biodiversity, extinction, climate change, etc. We have had high ranking officials appointed by the president visit Botany. I remember one sitting cabinet member visiting the herbarium and I know that one retired Supreme Court justice has been given a tour. My complaint about lack of attention from the president or presidential candidates is not an argument that the U.S. National Herbarium lacks connections to the presidency. We in fact have several interesting connections.
Onagraceae is one of the plant families recently digitized as part of our “conveyor belt” project (see The Plant Press 19(1): 1, 13-15. 2016) and when the label transcriptions were reviewed I was reminded that we have a specimen (US01361622) of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium (L.) Scop.) collected by President Chester A. Arthur in Yellowstone National Park in 1883. The label is typewritten and probably not original. The specimen does have a separate printed annotation that certainly is original. It states simply “Executive Mansion, Washington.” Arthur was suffering from nephritis and the trip to Yellowstone was intended to improve his health. Firewood in bloom would catch anyone’s attention but why President Arthur, who had no particular interest in Botany or natural history, would collect just one herbarium specimen and donate it to the Smithsonian is beyond me. His time away from Washington may have given him a respite but his health did not improve and Arthur died in 1885 after completing his sole term in office. It appears that this Yellowstone fireweed is the only herbarium specimen that we have collected by a sitting American president.