Saturday, June 22, 2013

A.C. Anderson's Letter to Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew


Years ago I learned that Alexander Caulfield Anderson had written a letter to Kew Gardens.
I emailed them for more information, and Claire Daniel (who was an Archives Graduate Trainee in 2003) sent me a letter that included a copy of A.C. Anderson's letter.
Talk about being floored!
It is easy to be ignored by an archives, especially one of this size and importance.
But they did anything but ignore me.
Thank you, Kew Gardens, and Claire Daniel.

Many fur traders communicated with Sir William Jackson Hooker of Kew Gardens over the years, and the man who referred A.C. Anderson to Hooker, as a correspondent and plant collector, was Fort Colvile's Archibald McDonald.
From Jean Murray Cole's book, "This Blessed Wilderness," we have McDonald's letter of reference, written 20th April 1844:
"Until this moment I was rather angry that my letter & small package of last year was too late at the mouth of the river for the Cape Horne vessel of the season. By that communication it could not be inferred that I was myself speedily quitting the Columbia, but I fear the state of my health now will oblige me to rise camp and once more recross the R[ocky] Mountains. I have however succeeded in constituting in my stead a very good correspondent, Mr. Alexander Anderson of New Caledonia. By a letter I lately had from this Gentleman he seemed delicate about intruding himself upon your notice, Sir, until he had heard from you, scruples I soon removed, directing him by all means to write forthwith with the very first collection he could make himself, or get in from the young Gentlemen whom I commissioned myself."

So Anderson overcame his scruples: Here is his letter, written from Fort Alexandria, 30th September 1845, to Sir William Hooker:
"Sir; At the suggestion of our mutual friend Archibald McDonald, Esquire, I have during the past summer been engaged in collecting some seeds and botanical specimens with the view of forwarding them to you.
"The collection, unsatisfactory as I fear it may prove, is accordingly now sent, and will, I trust, reach you in safety.
"The package is well secured; and will be shipped at Vancouver under the care of my friend, Dr. Barclay, there.

"For the poverty of my collection let me plead that circumstances have in some measure interfere with my own endeavours, while I have been sadly disappointed in the assistance which I had expected from divers quarters.
"Forty-six varieties of seeds are however sent......

"Our New Caledonia fields have already, I believe, yielded their humble treasures very [fully] to poor David Douglas, who, if my memory fail me not, visited them in 1833, when I was stationed elsewhere.
"Thus I cannot hope that my little collection will possess much novelty to you.
"The Tza-chin or edible Bitter Root of New Caledonia (which by the way appears to me to be nearly identical with the Tiger-lily of our gardens) might perhaps be entitled to some little notice as a bonne-bouche if cultivated in England.
"The mode of preparing it is either in small subterranean kilns, or by steaming until soft and mealy.
"It is easily raised from the seed, of which I have sent a supply; there are also some bulbs, but I fear their germinating principle will be destroyed before they reach their destination.
"A deep, light, black soil, similar to the bog earth used in gardens, is what it delights in; and it thrives best in humid situations.....

"The Broue (Fr), or Froth-Berry -- seeds of which are sent -- is a fruit having some peculiar properties, and meriting notice for the agreeable bitter which it possess.
"No-ghoos is the name by which the natives distinguish it.
"It is with them an article of luxurious entertainment at their occasional banquets.
"The mode of using it, after it is prepared by boiling and drying in cakes, is by soaking a small piece in a little water, and afterwards whisking the mixture until it froths up.
"By this means a large vessel will after a while [be] filled with a viscid froth of considerable tenacity.
"This product when free from the detestable accompaniment of grass with which the natives frequently incorporate the berries for the convenience of drying, is nowise unpalatable.
"Of this substance I have sent you a cake, as prepared by the natives, by way of specimen.
"There is likewise a small bag containing the dried roots of the Spet-lum.
"Some of these last which have [not] been entirely desiccated in the process of drying might possibly germinate if planted; as from the nature of the plant I should imagine the most to be rather tenacious of life.

"As my acquaintance with Botany is extremely limited, I have avoided on all costs the endeavour to apply names at random, which could add no possible value to my collection of seeds or flowers.
"Thus they are undistinguished by name or reference, save where necessity has constrained me to be more particular.
"I trust, however, my collection may prove acceptable and shall content myself with hoping that a future day I may be enabled to forward a contribution more worthy of your acceptance.
"I have the honor to be, sir
"Your most obedient & humble servant,
"Alex C. Anderson."

I have already written about Indian Potatoes and other Native Foods, on Sunday, October 2, 2011.
From that page, I take these descriptions, and please note that they come from Nancy J. Turner's book, "Food Plants of Interior First Peoples," published by the Royal British Columbia Museum.

This is what she says of the bulb Anderson thought resembled the English Tiger Lily:
"Tiger Lily is a tall perennial with a white ovoid bulb, up to 5 cm in diameter, composed of thick fleshy scales like garlic cloves.
"The stem is slender, the flowers are bright orange, dark spotted near the centre.
"The Natives used the large bulbs of the Tiger Lily wherever they could find them.
"The flavour of the bulb was strong, peppery and bitter, and they were used like pepper or garlic to flavour foods.
"The Tsilhquot'in [Chilcotin] called the bulb 'beaver-stick,' and harvested the bulbs in the early spring; the Okanagan and other southern Natives harvest them in the fall."

This following is, perhaps, the identification of the plant that Anderson called the "Spet-lum."
The bitter-root "is a low stemless perennial arising from a branching deep-seated fleshy taproot, which is grey-skinned with a white inner core that may turn pink on exposure to the air.
"The plant grows in the driest areas of the B.C. Interior, and is now considered rare.
"But to the Okanagan and the Thompson River Natives, this plant was the most important of all the edible roots."
However, it does not grow in the Chilcotin district, and might not be the plant that Anderson knew.

However, I can go to Anderson's own writing for a description of these plants and the others mentioned in this letter.
Here is how he describes the "Froth Berry," mentioned above:
The "Froth-Berry" is the Cornus Ferruginia or Shepherdia Canadensis (La Broue of the [French-] Canadians) is described in his unpublished essay, "British Columbia," in this manner: "The Berry is dried for winter use. In its fresh or prepared state it is thus used: A small portion is placed in a large vessel, and a little water added. Then being whisked with branches it gradually expands and becomes converted into a very palatable substance resembling Trifle."
[Sounds good: Today they call this Indian Ice-Cream!]

Anderson's son, James Robert, gave a better description of the Froth Berry in his book, Trees and Shrubs, Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia:
"Soapberry: Brue [Shepherdia canadensis, Nutt]
"This is one of the two representatives of the natural order Elaeagnaceae (which is allied to the Olive family) in this Province. It is a shrub from 3 to 10 feet high. The leaves, from 1 to 2 inches long and half as wide, pointed and quite smooth on the edges and of a dull-green colour, are covered on the under-sides, in common with the young branches or twigs, with shiny reddish specks, giving them a distinctly rusty-red appearance when viewed from underneath.
"The flowers appear very early in the spring, before the leaves, and are of a dull-red colour, very small, and borne in clusters, usually two clusters at the end of a short stem, divided by a small leaflet or bract and with two leaves at the extremity. The buds form in the summer previous and may be seen at any time in the shape of small reddish globules. The fruit is usually red, sometimes orange in colour, resembling a red currant in size, but more elongated. This peculiarity renders it objectionable to some, but very agreeable to many. The juice, when beaten up, forms a beautiful salmon-coloured froth, which when mixed with sugar is greatly esteemed by the natives, and by whites who have acquired a taste for it. It is from this peculiarity that it obtains the name of Soapberry or Soap Oalalie, in the Chinook jargon. The range of this shrub is very wide, inasmuch as it is to be found in all parts of the Province where suitable conditions exist. Its habitat is the hilly and mountainous parts of the Province, usually in rather open situations, and on dry soil. It is common in the vicinity of Victoria and on the Saanich Arm, and very abundant in the Rocky Mountains."

Nancy J. Turner also identifies this plant as the Soapberry, and gives it the Latin name of Sheperdia canadensis [Nutt.] It is of the Oleaster Family, and might also be called the Russet Buffalo Berry or Foamberry.

Here's what James Robert Anderson says about the Tiger Lily, from the same source as before mentioned:
Tiger-Lily (Lilium columbianum, Hanson)
"The bulb is used in its fresh state and is cooked by boiling. It is slightly bitter and quite glutinous... Then James quotes from his father's manuscript:
"The Tiger-Lily is found abundantly in the fertile bottoms and extends considerably to the north of Alexandria on the upper Fraser. Under the name of Tza-chin the natives of the latter place use the root as an article of food. Carefully steamed it is an excellent substitute for the potato, its flavour somewhat like that of a roasted chestnut, with a slight bitterness which renders it very agreeable."

Here is what James Robert Anderson has to say of the Spet-lum mentioned in A.C. Anderson's letter. It is also called the Bitter-Root.
Bitter-Root; Spetlum; Sand-Hill Rose (Lewisia rediviva,  Pursh)
"This plant, belonging to the Portulaca family, has its habitat in the arid regions of the Interior in open plains. The thick leaves, some 2 inches in length and shaped like those of Portulaca, come up in bunches in the early spring and are followed later on, when the leaves die down, by the flower, which is a beautiful pink blossom resembling a rose. In places they appear in great profusion and present a lovely sight. The Bitter Root Valley (in Montana, I believe) is named after this plant. When the leaves appear, the women dig up the roots, which are thick and generally bifurcated, with the digging-sticks ..., and after stripping off the skin throw them into a basket. They are then dried and kept for future use. They may be eaten in that state or boiled into a pinkish jelly. As its name indicates, it has a bitter taste, somewhat aromatic, and is, I believe, quite nutritious; personally, I never cared much for it, although it is generally much appreciated. It is well named L. rediviva, as it is most tenacious of life, and I have known herbarium specimens to show flowers developing months after having been pressed."

As you can see, these fur traders kept active, and like others of their time they learned about the plants and flowers that surrounded them.
Many collected botanical specimens for Dr. Hooker, of Kew Gardens.
We Andersons, of course, went one step further: my cousin, a direct descendant of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, married a woman who was the direct descendant of Sir William Jackson Hooker, of Kew Gardens.

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