A Novel Discovery by an Accidental Botanist: Aven Nelson

The rugged high country of the northern Laramie Mountains is home to a rare columbine that grows nowhere else in the world.  Equally noteworthy, this plant was discovered by a young man embarking unexpectedly on a botanical career, an accidental botanist who would become the “Father of Wyoming Botany” -- Aven Nelson.

 Nelson had come to Laramie in 1887 to teach English at the new University of Wyoming.  But there was a problem; the administration had inadvertently hired two English professors.  Nelson had only a Bachelor’s Degree, from the Missouri State Normal School, whereas W.I. Smith had a Master’s Degree from Dartmouth College.  Smith got the job.

 Fortunately the University needed an instructor for botany, zoology, physical geography, hygiene and several other subjects.  The 27-year old Nelson presented his credentials, including a love of natural history, several wildflower collections, attendance at six lectures on plants, and an undergraduate assistantship in biology.  He was appointed Professor of Biology, University Librarian, and was assigned to study the flora (native plants) of Wyoming.

 Wyoming was a wonderful place to be a botanist in Nelson’s day, for so little was known about the state’s flora.  There were endless opportunities for exploration and adventure and it was likely that “novelties” (species new to science) awaited discovery.  Nelson had to have been excited about his new career.

 Research began in the summer of 1893.  Nelson collected plant specimens in the vicinity of Laramie and spent the following winter identifying them.  Resources at UW were limited, so he sent his specimens to academic experts for verification.  That was a learning experience for the novice botanist.  He was told that too many of his pressed plants were inadequate and that his collection information was incomplete.

 During the next two field seasons Nelson traveled across Wyoming by horseback and wagon with a guide, an outfitter and a “diligent student assistant.”  They camped out for the most part, and though they carried a tent they rarely used it, the weather being fine for sleeping under the stars.  Plants were carefully collected, pressed and dried, and all necessary information noted.

 It was in 1895 that Nelson found the unusual columbine.  The party was traveling along the east side of the Laramie Mountains, stopping periodically to collect.  On a side trip to Laramie Peak on August 4, Nelson collected a plant from “dry crevices in abrupt cliffs” in Cottonwood Canyon.  It was a columbine, but not the common one of the Rocky Mountains; this was a small delicate plant with white flowers.

 That winter Nelson learned that the columbine was indeed a novelty.  He named it Aquilegia laramiensis.  Over a century later his choice of names would prove prescient when surveys confirmed that the Laramie columbine grows only in the Laramie Mountains.

 If Aven Nelson could somehow watch today’s botanists searching for the Laramie columbine, he probably would be quite entertained, for it’s no easier to find now than in his day.  There are only 51 known locations, with scattered plants growing in hard-to-get-to rock outcrops where few people go.  Perhaps this is a blessing.  Perhaps inaccessibility will ensure that the Laramie columbine thrives in its rugged rocky home for many years to come.

 From his rather inauspicious beginnings, Aven Nelson went on to a long and distinguished career.  He received his Ph.D. in botany from Harvard and became UW president. By the time he died in 1951 at age 93, he had described numerous novelties, published over 100 academic articles, and mentored many students who would become prominent botanists themselves.

 By Hollis Marriott

Caption:  This dried specimen is Aven Nelson's first collection of Aquilegia laramiensis, the rare columbine of the Laramie Mountains, which he discovered in Cottonwood Canyon near Laramie Peak in 1895.  Thousands of Nelson's plant collections are housed at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming.  Inset photo of the plant was taken in 2004.  Courtesy photo from the UW Rocky Mountain Herbarium and (inset) Hollis Marriott