The Rise and Fall of the Vegetation
Joseph N. Nicollet,Winter 1999, Minnesota Plant Press 18(2)

Brief Introduction

The following is a transcription of the English Translation of part of Joseph Nicollet's notes and journals that are available on microfilm. That I know, it has not been published as such and is one of the first semi-quantitative descriptions of prairies in Minnesota. Nicollet was a French scientist hired by the U.S. Government to produce a map of the area between the Mississipi and Missouri Rivers. He did this with great precision but his writings also display a real love for the people that lived in the area he surveyed (he recorded the Native American names for many lakes and rivers and other geographic features). His life and explorations are detailed by E.C. and M.C. Bray whose many works about Nicollet have been my introduction to this amazing man.

I have made some spelling and grammatical corrections to help the manuscript read more smoothly but have left it largely in its original form which means that it was a work and progress, and Nicollet never would have published it in its current form. Common names and current latin names are provided in square brackets. Nicollet's names for plants are based in large part on the work of his botanist Charles Geyer and in interpreting the names in Nicollet's manuscript I have relied heavily on Michael Heinz's unpublished (1973, provided courtesy of U of MN herbarium) work on the Geyer's Journal and MacMillans (1892) "The Higher Seed Plants of the Minnesota Valley, Botanical Series I".

Please notify me (ceumb@stolaf.edu) if you find this manuscript of use and/or you have questions. Work on this manuscript was made possible by a sabbatical leave provided by St. Olaf College. Any persons wishing to publish this transcription must seek the permission of the Author.

-Charles Umbanhowar Jr., Dept of Biology, St. Olaf College.

Rise and Fall of the Vegetation

by Joseph H. Nicollet

The first green which spreads over the woods and prairies are not so picturesque and rise as the remains of the visible as the remains of the different foliage in the fall or autumn, nor does the rapid progress of the vegetation in the spring leave us time enough to watch its variations in the different changes of color which it undergoes. Still we find the beautiful contrast of the young foliage of the Birch , White Oak, Red Oak, the flowering willows along the river banks mixed with early flowering undershrubs such as the Redbud [not clear what this is since out of range], the Dogwoods, and other every year again in a certain and almost the same beautiful contrast; but there is another more delicate contrast of strange and characteristic colors visible on the whole foliage of a Wood, which occur on most or every species of forest trees daily, up to the ultimate perfection and full size of its foliage. So turns the White Oak from a ferruginous Red to a Silky Silvery green and up to the full size and richness of its foliage, it becomes soft and dark green, and its ash-colored branches and stem is sharply exhibited, this change continues up to the middle of June, then a certain uniformity prevails over the rich foliage of the woods. The prairies however undergo more different changes, in consequence of the different distributions of plants, in different situations and soils. There on the heights and broken surface of the country at the Mississippi the beauty of the vegetable Kingdom surpasses the imagination, considering it as a northern country and no less beautiful and interesting are the spring flowering plants of the woods and its borders.

Taking a walk from the apparent barren tops of the prairie near the bluffs and broken bands close by the river down to the Shady Woods at the river banks, our eye would be first fixed at the beautiful nuances of colors on the Viola pedata Lin. [Bird-Foot Violet] it appears like a blue sky spread over the grounds, embellished with the golden Batshia hirsuta [Hoary Puccoon; Lithospermum canescens], the purplish Anemone Ludoviciana? [Pasque Flower; Pulsatilla nuttalliana] and Geum rivale [Prairie Smoke; G. triflorum] and the interesting Euchroma grandiflora? [Downy Painted Cup; Castilleja sessiliflora] Leaving this as the highest point of the surrounding country we step on the back slopes towards the prairies, here again we met the Viola palmata [Bird Foot Violet; Viola pedatifida] in abundance associated with the bronze-yellow abundant Pedicularis canadensis [Wood Betony] with the bright scarlet Callisteja coccinea [Scarlet Painted Cup; Castilleja coccinea], interrupted by the blue modest Phlox divaricata [Blue Phlox]. Along the Sandy side of the hill we met again the beautiful Viola pedata, but this time scattered through rich golden bushes of Batshia gmelini, [Hairy Puccoon; Lithospermum caroliniense]bordered with Polygala Seneca [Seneca Snakeroot; P. senega], which last is covered with its clear white spikes.

Going on down to the wooded and high banks of the river on rocky situations we met with the elegant Aralia nudicaulis [Wild Sarsaparilla] with Smilax peduncularis [ Greenbriar; S. herbacea] stretching their deep green foliage through the broken rocks hid by the Ribes 3florum [Missouri Gooseberry?;R. missouriense] and Cynosbati [Prickly Gooseberry; R. cynosbati], and Ribes floridum [Wild Black Current; R. americanum] in full foliage and blossom, hardly visible on the naked rocks and Smilacina bifolia [Wild Lily of the Valley; Maianthemum canadense ] shows its beautiful pair of leaves -- So we leave the Rocky place and follow the banks of the woods, throwing before a glance on the everywhere abundant Aquilegia canadense [Wild Columbine] with its brilliant parrot-colored pendulous flowers -- Viola canadensis [Canada Violet] in dense clubs with its stem considerable elevated seems to look around for her more humble relation on the same place the Viola cucullata -- Hepatica acutiloba [Liverleaf], with its tinged leaves and blue flowers over large space of the beautiful carpet associated the evergreen and hardy Pyrola rotundifolia [Round-Leaved Pyrola] and here we step to a damp rocky and low shady spot and see the Cypripedium parviflorum [Small Yellow Lady Slipper; C. calceolus var. parviflorum] from the prairies hid in the woods, among the glossy green young leaves of Adianthum capillus [Maidenhair Fern; Adiantum pedatum] and the beautiful blossoms of Trillium erectum [either T. flexipes or cernuum] with its large flowers like Alabaster and Rubin melting in each other diffused richly through the woods with the light green and curious twisted Uvularia perfoliata [Bellwort; U. sessilifolia] so common on most all the banks of the western rivers with its most common companion the pale purple Geranium maculatum [Wild Geranium].

Here we stop looking at the beautiful young foliage of Tilia americana, at the flowering Xanthoxylon fraxineum [Prickly Ash; X. americanum] in blossom, at the brownish growing seeds loosely and richly suspended as Negundo fraxinifol. [Boxelder; Acer negundo] the flowering shrub Cornus alba, on the flowering hazel on ridges mixed also with the flowering Rosa parviflora Ehrh. [R. arkansana or blanda] -- Here we also notice some dull green Cedar on the distant Sandstone formation, we go and visit it when we discover the verge of the declivity embroidered with Artemisia frigida? and with it the delicate Arenaria lateriflora [Sandwort] with Thesium umbellatum [Bastard Toadflax; Commandra umbellata]. The swamps in the Prairies are filled with flowering Carices and the elegant Eriophorum vaginatum [Cotton-Grass; E. spissum] waving in the Wind.

So has the most beautiful season arrived the beginning of June, where the colors of the plants are the brilliant composition. The high prairies however unfold their beauty not before the beginning of July, it is strikingly different from the lower Situations its green is most thoroughly glaucous, and those most characteristic glaucous plants are very abundant, and give a great uniformity to its appearances, which is only a little interrupted by the dark green foliage of Ceanothus americanus [NewJersey Tea] and very few smaller plants of a dark green color.

Before reaching the glaucous heights we two plants abundantly distributed over the more fertile plains it is the Zizia cordata [Golden Alexander; Zizia aptera] and Helonias dioica [Death Camas; Zigadenus elegans] and the white fragrant clusters of Galium Septentrionale [Northern Bedstraw;G. boreale], associated with the beautiful azur blue Tradescantia virginica [Spiderwort; prob. T. bracteata] and the small Hypoxis erecta [Yellow Star-Grass; H. hirsuta]. At the rising hights we notice the Amorpha nana [Fragrant False Indigo] sparingly scattered and parading with its conspicuous purple violet spiked panicles not seldom among the most dense grasses. -- reaching the tops of the gravelly ridges Amorpha canescens [Leadplant] and Psoralea (glauca?) [Silver Scurf Pea; P. argophylla] give the glaucous green color to the foliage filled with its Indigo blue flowers towards the middle of July, but before this time the most of the beautiful Astragalus have laid down their ornaments as Astr. adsurgens? Hook , Astr. caryocarpus [Ground-Plum; A. crassicarpus], Astr 172. Astr 198. So the abundant Heuchera americana [Alumroot; H. richardsonii], the Batshia longiflora [Narrow-leaved Puccoon; Lithospermum incisum], and many other plants not always on the place together but of the same association. Stipa avenocea [Porcupine Grass; S. spartea] and Hordeum jubatum [Squirrel-Tail Grass] generally abundant together are already in ripening fruits before Amorpha canescens [Leadplant], Rudbeckia purpur. [Purple Coneflower; Echinacea angustifolia], Coreopsis tripteris [Tickseed; C. palmata], Linum rigidum [Flax] and the splendid Oenothera canadensis [Calylophus serrulata], Potentilla bipinnatifida [P. pensylvanica], Acerates longifolia? [Milkweed; perhaps Asclepias hirtella], Penstemon pumilum [may be one of several native species] Aster albus [Solidago ptarmicoides] and Lilium Catesbaei [Wood Lily;L. philadelphicum] complete the meagre carpet of those ridges, but give it such a striking brilliant color which is the more seldom as it is besides that on the rough gravelly soil scattered over a sloop covered with masses of large and small boulders of granite and others; appears sterile in the highest degree-- but everywhere displays nature its grandeur and the eye of the minute observer of the beauties of nature rests with higher admiration on such simple scenery, which is of so short a duration that the destructive frost sometimes even touches them before their proper time for their ripening their seed passes by.

The declination of the vegetation power is first visible on these height about the middle of August or a little before that time, when Rudbeckia purpurea [Purple Coneflower; Echinacea angustifolia] has thrown off its purple ornament; here and there begins the Gerardia purpurea [Gerardia;Agalinis aspera] and Solidago nemoralis? [Grey Goldenrod] and stricta? [Rigid Goldenrod; S. rigida] but they are generally on some lower situations and the hilltops show only the widely spaced and common Artemisia vulgaris [probably not the introduced species of this name, may be White Sage; A. ludoviciana] and canadensis. [A. campestris]

Lower down in the more level prairies the Rudbeckia pinnata [Grey Headed Coneflower] is in full bloom and the beautiful Petalostemon violaceum [Purple Prairie Clover; P. purpureum ] and candidum [White Prairie Clover] are in perfection, associated with the (doubful) Helianthus strumosus?, Lechea major [Rockrose;Helianthemum bicknellii] and Liatris scaricosa [L. aspera] and ciliaris [L. punctata?] sometimes occupying a wide plain or hill for themselves always in high perfection they form a very imposing effect. Scattered through the wide level prairies in great profusion are several grasses (the a,b,c,d of these alike situations in the collection) particularly 296 and 301. Particularly abundant everywhere is the 328 and 329.

In the low prairies and bottoms is a high luxuriance and beauty -- Silphium conatum [Cup Plant; S. perfoliatum] with innumerable golden yellow flowers, bushes of Monarda clynopodia [Bergamot; M. fistulosa] covered with rose-colored flowers and the Labiata plants 318 [Fragrant Giant Hyssop; Agastache foeniculum] abundant in every bottoms along the foot of hills and borders of woods, its beautiful blue whorled spikes gives the completion and a grandeur of the prevailing golden yellow masses.-- But the more golden yellow colors reign and prevail over the prairies, the nearer is the time of their destruction by the frost and a short time before it this color prevails on every situation above the beautiful genus Aster which generally bear lilac and purple violet flowers except the white Aster foliosus [Heath Aster; A. ericoides] of the elevated prairies and Aster Salignus [Panicled Aster; A. lanceolatus] of the swamps add the only variation to this uniformity and the last of all the Flora gifts, the Gentiana quinqueflora [Gentianella quinqefolia], G. Saponaria [Bottle Gentian; G. andrewsii] from the lower situations, the Gent. ochroleuca [Yellowish Gentian; G. alba] and fimbriata [Fringed Gentian; Gentianopsis crinita] and Pneumonanthe [Closed Gentian; G. rubricaulis] which last two are the most beautiful flowers of the autumn, if not of the whole seasons. soon the frost destroys most all the remaining beauty, on high or low, and scarcely any plant remains alive after the second week of September save the hardy flower of Gentiana angustifolia [Prairie Gentian; G. puberulenta] and Aster Salignus [Panicled Aster; A. lanceolatus] on the borders of Swamps embracing the still flowering golden Utricularia vulgaris; the borders of Swamps then are the only remaining vivid green-- the defoliation comes suddenly all over the country -- the acorns of the overcup white oak fall rapidly, which remained until then, even fully grown in their cups and only a few days elapse and they are covered with leaves and the tree stands deprived of his awning ready for a stern northern winter, not so the red oak, the leaves turn to that well known brown in which awning they remain not seldom through the whole of November -- and this is the last of the many variations which vegetation in the open country undergoes before the defoliation by Snow and strong frost.

The lower woods along the bottoms of the Mississippi are so much sheltered tha t the defoliation takes place much later. Often we see what white maples in the fullest green besides a naked white oak or Ulmus fulgida [Red Elm; Ulmus rubra]. The last of all is the Smilax rotundifolia [Greenbriar; S. hispida] which remains green late in the winter covered with it s bunches of black spheres of berries in a fine contrast with the scarlet or ornamental fruit of Euonymus americanus [Wahoo; E. atropurpurea]. Along the Sandstone escarpment on the sandy banks of the Mississippi the evergreen trees and shrubs produce a very picturesque effect. Pinus Strobus (the white pine) covers the Tableau of the rocky heights intermixed with the Juniperus virginiana [Eastern Red Cedar]. On the sandy table heights the Pinus rigida [Jack Pine?;P. banksiana] with Juniperus communis var depressa Pursh [Ground Juniper] Arbutus uva ursi [Bearberry; Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi] and (457) is the only green remains. In soils with the white pine the Chimaphila umbellata [Pipsissewa] with its beautiful foliage mingled with the variegated silver veined Goodyera pubescens [Rattlesnake Plantain]. Asplenium rhizaphyllum [Walking Fern; Camptosorus r.] neatly covers the naked cracks of the rocks with Polypodum [Common Polypoidy; P. virginianum] (458) and the Vaccinium Corymbasum [not clear what species this actually is] in blossom this is the variety of the subalpine regions generally more composed of evergreen plants than others, flowers may be found to the latest part of November and the first beauties of Spring may be found on the same place, generally solitary and the most romantic ones of Nature.

Disclaimer