Plant found by Thoreau launches fall lectures

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
David Robinson and William Rossi

I never saw such a pleased, happy look on his face as he had that day,” a friend wrote after seeing Thoreau return from a walk with a rare fern coiled up in his hat. A hundred and sixty years later, the same plant collected by Thoreau pleased—and surprised—friends of the Center attending a program in early October.

The program, which opened the 2011-12 lecture series, was unusual in a number of ways.  It was the first in Center history to tie the lecture—in this case two short talks on Thoreau’s essay Autumnal Tints—to the current art exhibit, “The Colors of Autumn,” which features richly colored images of fall leaves by Ron Jeffers.  It also brought a touch of natural history into a humanities topic, for in addition to Thoreau’s fern, the exhibit includes a poster created by forest ecologist Duncan Thomas that explains the basic biology of color change in leaves.

The fern was collected by Thoreau, probably around 1851. After he died, it passed through the hands of various friends and at length was sent by Mrs. E.S. Rolfe to Albert Sweetser, founding director of the University of Oregon herbarium.  Mrs. Rolfe’s note concluded: “You may have it if you care for it, or if not maybe you know of someone who would; if not then the waste basket may come into service once more.”

The fern, Lygodium palmatum, is not only rare but unusual among ferns in that it grows like a vine.  Thoreau’s specimen was one of many inherited by OSU in 1993 after the UO herbarium closed. It was discovered in the collection last year by taxonomist Stephen Meyers, whose article about it appeared in a recent Oregon Flora Newsletter.  Herbarium Director Aaron Liston and Curator Richard Halse generously agreed to lend it to the Center for the program and the exhibit (for details on the art show, see page 6).

The speakers who shared the program on Thoreau’s essay Autumnal Tints were Center Director David Robinson and William Rossi, professor of English at UO. Robinson is the author of numerous books, including Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism, and a long-time author—a position now held by Rossi—of the annual assessment of scholarship on Emerson and Thoreau published in American Literary Scholarship by Duke University Press. Rossi is an expert on Thoreau’s massive Journal, and editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Thoreau’s Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings.

Thoreau was a self-taught botanist and a keenly observant naturalist whose observations of flowering times near his home in Concord, Mass., were accurate enough to be used in some current studies on global climate change. A 2008 paper published in Ecology compared Thoreau’s data with later observations, and concluded that from 1852 to 2006, Concord temperatures rose by 2.4 degrees C, while plants there now flower seven days earlier than in his day.

The climbing fern was one of about 900 plants Thoreau collected from 1850 until his death in 1872. “It is a most beautiful slender and delicate fern,” he wrote, “twining like a vine about the stem of the meadow-sweet, panicled andromeda, goldenrods etc. to the height of three feet or more, and difficult to detach from them. . . Our most beautiful fern, and most suitable for wreaths or garlands. It is rare.”