It was not a particularly remarkable birth in the village of Dransau, Germany on September 15, 1850. No bands played; there were no parties. And much of life of Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf would be equally unremarkable.
Who could know that the new baby would become one of the three leading pioneer botanists of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps its greatest botanical collector?
There is no clear beginning to Suksdorf as a botanist. He was shy, with delicate health, and he enjoyed wandering the meadows and fields whenever he could get away from farm chores.
Like many other children he was a natural collector. Unlike many other children he learned to carefully identify, label, and organize his collected items.
When he was eight, his family moved from Germany to Iowa. Life was harsh. His father was known for being proud and stubborn. Suksdorf had seven brothers and two sisters, but little is known about his mother.
During a few winter months of each year Suksdorf attended school. He acquired enough education to get into the Iowa State Teacher’s college.
His entry into college is intriguing, considering that most farm families needed their sons’ labor in the fields. With Suksdorf’s health so often poor, was college an attempt to make him a teacher—and off the family dole?
After a short time at IowaState, he transferred to the botany program at the University of California, Berkeley. The reason for his move is not clear, but his was moving from Iowa to Bingen, Washington, around the same time.
It is difficult to imagine the shy, plant-loving farm boy in Berkeley, which must have been pretty developed even in those days. During his second year, typhoid fever forced him to terminate his studies, and he joined his family in Washington.
In Bingen, the Suksdorfs homesteaded on the rich, fertile flood plain of the Columbia River. As early settlers in the area, they both named the town and acquired water rights to a nearby creek. The family settled down to dairy and stock farming.
The Jewett family established a homestead upstream from the Suksdorf homestead and frequently ignored the water rights and dammed the creek. The Suksdorfs protested, and the families worked out an agreement about who was to get water when.
But the Jewett family chronically failed to “remember” to turn the water back on when their turn was up. After numerous altercations, Suksdorf’s father sent him up the creek to take out the dam permanently.
The Jewett matriarch, Jenny, had anticipated the move. She had a hired hand waiting with a shotgun. Suksdorf was in a really bad spot. But he apparently decided that facing the shotgun was preferable to returning home without completing his father’s orders. So he dismantled the dam.
Jenny Jewett was not through yet. Later that night she showed up with the sheriff, who arrested Suksdorf for trespassing and vandalism and hauled him off to the county jail in Goldendale.
A sympathetic judge released Suksdorf the next day—but this was only one incident in the long feud between the Jewetts and the Suksdorfs.
His family started to pressure Suksdorf to settle down and quit all this botanical nonsense. If anything, this only increased his desire to be out botanizing.
Suksdorf made meticulous notes about his collections. But frequently he would find wildflowers he could not identify. He began to correspond with other botanists and to ask for help with identifications.
One of the people he wrote to was the leading botanist of the day, Dr. Asa Gray of Harvard. The elderly Gray was so impressed with the quality of the drawings and specimens that he offered Suksdorf a job. The offer included a generous starting salary of $500 per year with a $100 per year increase if he worked out.
The shy Suksdorf turned Gray down at first. Gray persisted, and at last Suksdorf agreed to join the Harvard staff in 1887.
The two botanists bonded deeply, which almost allowed Suksdorf to overcome his social isolation and to compensate for the lack of his beloved mountain wildflower meadows.
Unfortunately, after two years the elderly Gray died from a stroke. Suksdorf became deeply distraught and depressed, and he did not get along well with Gray’s successor, Sereno Watson.
Suksdorf returned to the family farm in Bingen, Washington. To his neighbors, in a small town that prided itself on knowing everybody’s business, Suksdorf was considered an eccentric—a quiet, reticent bachelor who preferred to avoid society.
He would often go off alone into the mountains for weeks at a time. When home he spent days working with his dried plants or in his garden.
Suksdorf collected extensively, and kept detailed records of each of his collecting trips. His itineraries are both amazing and exhausting to think about, considering that he travelled mostly on foot, sometimes by horseback, and occasionally by train.
During his lifetime he made 19 trips to Montana, 43 to Oregon, and 19 to California. On his 280 documented trips in Washington he covered much of the entire state.
He made several trips to Bellingham, and to Mt.Baker. He collected down to the mouth of the Columbia. He traveled east to Pullman and on to the IdahoState line. He did a good deal of collecting around Spokane. But his favorite collecting areas remained the wildflower steppes and plateaus that bordered the mid-Columbia and around the shoulders of MountAdams.
There are some surprises about where he seems not to have gone. While he collected in Montana and all the way to the state line in eastern Washington, there is no record of his collecting in Idaho. Nor does he seem to have collected in the central interior of Washington.
Conspicuously absent from his carefully recorded trips are the Lewis River area below Mount Adams, the entire area around Mount Rainier, the wild lands of the Chelan area, and the areas east of Mount Baker.
Close to MountAdams, Suksdorf homesteaded a farm in what he called Falcon Valley, about five miles southwest of Glenwood, Washington. His very favorite collection spot was a small area located on the southeastern slope of MountAdams, an area he named Wodan’s Vale (the valley of the god).
So how did Suksdorf make a living? At the time in Europe, many wealthy country gentlemen wished to establish botanical gardens on their estates. They paid good money for plants from foreign countries.
Suksdorf became known as a quality supplier, distinguished by his intimate knowledge of plant and their habitats. He took great care with his shipments, enabling the plants to survive their long trips to distant shores.
Gradually he became an internationally respected botanist, but he was by no means wealthy. In fact, he eventually lost the farm in Glenwood to a forced sale to pay irrigation debts.
He returned to Bingen, where his brother Theodore helped him build a house on the family farm. Suksdorf turned one acre into his new botanical garden. He continued botanizing in Bingen for the rest of his life.
Over that lifetime he pressed, mounted, and identified over 150,000 wildflower specimens. He collected some 374 plant specimens that were considered new to science. Seventy were named for him by his colleagues.
At age 74, Suksdorf began working during the winter months for the herbarium—a collection of dried plant specimens—at what was then Washington State Teacher’s College in Pullman, Washington. His salary was $125 per month.
At some point during his association with the college, he wrote a will, which his family later contested, leaving his entire personal collection of plant specimens, sketches, books, and papers to the college.
The college awarded him an honorary Master of Botany degree on June 11, 1928. In his graduation photo, the 78-year-old Suksdorf is about average height, a little thin, and slightly stooped.
In many ways Suksdorf was a paradox. The shy, gentle man was hardly known by his neighbors in Bingen. Yet he was internationally famous among botanists.
He was commonly described as humble and self-deprecating. Yet in some of his work and correspondence there is a hint of arrogance.
He spent a great deal of time away from his home base, tramping. Yet somehow he maintained an extensive botanical garden on the one acre behind his Bingen home.
He spent a great deal of time outdoors studying and collecting plants. Yet he had time to study, identify, and sketch thousands of them.
His primary education was basic and part-time. Yet somehow he finished two years of botany at University of California, Berkeley and received an honorary Master’s Degree in botany.
At age 82 both Suksdorf’s eyesight and health were deteriorating. On October 3, 1932, he walked to the Bingen station to catch a train to Portland. He set the signal for the train to stop. When the engine failed to slow he began waving his arms. The engineer allegedly failed to see either the signal or Suksdorf’s waves. The train slammed into him at full speed, killing him instantly.
Here are words of Theodore Suksdorf, describing Suksdorf’s beloved Wodan Vale:
Two glacier streams, one on either side, run the full length of the valley; there is a drop of a hundred feet, creating two pretty little waterfalls. The valley was covered with clumps of small trees, a little placid lake, meadows, and all kinds of flowers. On both sides, the mountain rises to a thousand feet; on the upper end is the Mazama Glacier, and above towers Mt. Adams.
When I first saw this valley in 1881, it looked to me like a little paradise. Here we found the marmot and other alpine animals, also the mountain goat, the mazama near the snow line. I was there again in 1888 but saw little change.
My brother Wilhelm, a well-known botanist of the northwest, camped here every year when he went to Mt. Adams to gather botanical specimens. When camping here at night, he heard the breezes whisper in the tall trees, the waters of the stream murmur, the mild roar of the waterfall, a thundering from the mountain, crashing, cracking, the gushing of water—the Mazama glacier at work reducing the mountain that was built by fire.
My brother heard and saw all these beauties and he named this little valley ‘Wodan’s Vale’–‘the valley of the god.’
A few years passed. These valleys and hills were invaded by sheep and their herders; this valley was no exception. The flowers disappeared; the grass and plants were cut short; the marmot and other animals could not find vegetation enough to supply them during the long winter and starved; the mazamas were killed off; desolation and destruction everywhere; and the little valley at the foot of Mt. Adams, once called the valley of the god, is now called ‘Hell-Roaring Canyon.’
The Botanical Collections of Wilhelm N. Suksdorf, Research Studies, State College of Washington, Vol. XII, 1944, page 117-118.
Thanks to the efforts of many environmental groups, Wodan Vale is now part of protected lands. Sheep and cattle grazing is no longer allowed. The wildflowers are back. The natural beauty has largely been restored.
Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf never achieved the recognition during his life that he deserved. The local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, “Suksdorfia,” is honored by the life of this distinguished botanist.
St. John, Harold. 1955. Biography of W. N. Suksdorf, Research Studies, State College of Washington, Vol. 23: 228.
Guay, Kevin H., 1983. White Salmon-Bingen Beginnings. Western Washington University: Historical Research Project 409.
Lowe, Rhoda M. 1998. Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf (1850-1932), Pioneer Botanist of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Fall: 171.
Weber, William A. 1944. The Botanical Collections of Wilhelm N. Suksdorf, Research Studies, State College of Washington, Vol. 12: 51.