Pasque flower(Anemone patens). Photo courtesy of Robert H. Read.

This week in Wisconsin botanical history: the first week of May

May 14, 2015

The beginning of May is a wonderful time of year in Wisconsin. The long cold winter has finally thawed. The sweet smell of charred prairie grasses and wildflowers wafts across southern and western Wisconsin as prescribed fire season comes to an end. Spring ephemerals are exploding from forest floors across the state, a welcome sight for any botanist who has gone without for almost 6 months.

In 1917, the first week of May must have had a different tone. The US had entered World War I less than a month before and although Wisconsinites were being pulled off to Europe, the Badger State was hardly united behind the war effort. The large German population that had made Wisconsin home suddenly found themselves pulled between their roots in Europe and their roots in the Upper Midwest. Tension across the state was high.

But as any botanist knows, the pull toward the woods and prairies is strong this time of year, and not even the impending war was enough to keep botanists at home. One such botanist was Charles Goessl (known as Chas on his herbarium specimens) who worked for the Milwaukee Public Museum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the first week of May, 1917, Goessl made his first and only trip to Pepin County in the northern end of the Driftless Area. Here, near the towns of Durand and Arkansaw, Goessl collected spring ephemerals like wild ginger (Asarum canadense) rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) from the mesic forests, pasque flower (Anemone patens) and prairie buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) from the dry prairies, common whitlow-grass (Draba reptans) and common polypody (Polypodium virginianum) from rock outcrops and even common golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum) from wooded seeps. In total Goessl made 18 collections from Pepin County between the 2nd and 7th of May. Despite having more than 5,000 specimens stored in the Wisconsin State Herbarium, these 18 collections from the first week of May, 1917 represent Goessl's only excursion to this part of the state. Perhaps the immense botanical diversity of this area, hidden by snow and cold temperatures for so long kept his mind off the gloomy global crisis in the background.

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