Pioneering Botanists

The landscapes of Denali National Park and Preserve have attracted the attention of scientific researchers for over a century. The Park was widely known as a wildlife preserve and is located in a relatively accessible region, along a train route between Alaska’s two largest cities, with a 90 mile dirt road leading into the heart of the wilderness. While there are many early scientists to recognize for their contribution, here we highlight just a few of the prominent botanists and plant collectors who laid the groundwork of Alaska’s rich botanical history.

Ynes Mexia

(May 24, 1870 – July 12, 1938)

During the summer of 1928, Ynes Mexia, botanical collector and explorer, accomplished the first large and systemized plant collection within the boundaries of what was then Mount McKinley National Park. Mexia spent her early life as a social worker before first becoming intrigued by the botanical field at the age of 51. Within 4 years, while enrolled at the University of California Berkeley, she went on her first botanical expedition to western Mexico in 1925. This experience led to her being hired for the Park plant survey where she made some 365 species collections along sites throughout the road corridor from Headquarters to Savage River, and Polychrome Pass to Wonder Lake. Her results from this collection are published in the journal Rhodora.

Aven and Ruth Nelson

(1859 – 1952) and (1896 – 1987)

The Nelsons were already prominent American botanists when they arrived in Mount McKinley National Park in 1939 to conduct one of the Park’s early botanical studies. Travelling the length of the Park Road from Headquarters to Wonder Lake, the Nelsons collected over 800 specimens that summer. These collections resulted in the formal documentation of hundreds of plants within the Park, and in some cases interior Alaska, for the first time.

Edith Scammon

(November 30, 1882 – Unknown date 1967)

Plant named after Scammon- (Claytonia scammaniana)
NPS Photo / Jacob Frank

Edith Scammon collected extensively not only within what was then Mount McKinley National Park but throughout Alaska. Like Ynez Mexia, Scammon also joined the botanical field later in life, after earning a B.A. and M.A. in literature and dedicating decades to the church and caring for her ill mother. After her mother’s death in 1935, Scammon’s life took a dramatic shift when she enrolled in her first botany class— taught by none other than the famous American botanist M. L. Fernald. Under Fernald’s mentorship Scammon became interested in plant distributions in unglaciated areas of Alaska. The following summer she made her first collection trip to Alaska and over the next eight years would return over nine times. In total she provided over 5000 identified specimens to the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. Of the countless new plant species Edith collected in Alaska, two are named in her honor— Claytonia scammaniana (shown here) and Oxytropis scammaniana.

Adolph Murie

(September 6, 1899 – August 16,1974)

Couple standing in front of cabin: Adolph Murie and Wife
NPS Photo / Denali National Park & Preserve Museum Coll. 0022543)

Adolph Murie is widely known as a wildlife biologist and conservationist. Murie worked for the National Park Service for thirty-two years, and was truly a well-rounded naturalist who observed and recorded  many biological organisms and ecological patterns, including plants. Murie profoundly influenced Mt. McKinley National Park management philosophy and policy through his controversial studies of predator-prey relationships. What made his approach to wildlife management so controversial was that he took into account whole ecosystems; an approach contrary to the then current opinion that focused only on a single organism. Murie took hundreds of photographs of plants during his time in the Park, perhaps at the request of his wife Louise Murie MacLeod who was a trained botanist and worked for many years on a “McKinley Flora” manuscript. Most of his plant photos are served on species account pages in this Atlas, as well as a few botanical drawings by his daughter Gail.

Leslie (Les) Viereck

(February 20, 1930 – August 31, 2008)

Les Viereck on Mt Eielson 1956
Photo courtesy of William Weber

Leslie (Les) Viereck, dedicated his life to understanding boreal ecology. His contributions laid the foundation for our understanding of the role of wildfire, flooding, and glaciers in plant succession and community diversity. Viereck made his first plant collections in the Park during the summer of 1950, while working as a seasonal park ranger during college. After graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in botany, Viereck returned to Alaska and in 1954, along with three other climbers (including George Argus, a fellow botanist and willow expert), made the first ascent of the South Buttress of Mount Denali. Having grown quite an affinity for the Denali area, Viereck earned his doctorate at the University of Colorado through research on plant succession near the Muldrow Glacier, making extensive plant collections in early- to late-successional habitats there. By 1959, Viereck was teaching at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where his research, environmentalism, and strong criticism of Project Chariot (a plan to make a harbor in Point Hope using nuclear bombs) resulted in a forced resignation. Viereck went to serve as the principal plant ecologist for the Institute of Northern Forestry from 1963-1999, inspiring and educating many other Alaska botanists along his way. He is also well known for the cherished field guide Alaska Trees and Shrubs and the widely used Alaska Vegetation Classification.

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