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The University of North Carolina
A Department of the North Carolina Botanical Garden


Collectors of the UNC Herbarium
Information compiled by Carol Ann McCormick

Albert Commons
23 January 1829 – 11 July 1919

The University of North Carolina Herbarium has catalogued about 35 vascular plant specimens collected by A. Commons.  Most are from Delaware, particularly New Castle County.  As only about 10% of the vascular plant collection is currently catalogued, it is likely additional specimens will be found in our collection.  NCU’s vacscular plants can be searched at  NCU is currently cataloging our fungi, and thus far have found several dozen fungi collected by Commons; these can be searched at  Most of the fungal specimens collected by Commons were identified by A. B. Seymour.  NCU has found no lichens collected by Commons in our collection. 

Commons’ fungal specimens that Sumstine examined at PH in 1949 numbered approximately 4,000 (1).   Dix examined 600 lichen specimens collected by Commons between 1885 and 1896 and deposited at PH (2).

W.W. Ashe named Panicum commonsianum in honor of Albert Commons, based on a specimen “collected in drifting sands along the coast, Cape May, N.J. June 1898” (commons #341).


          Albert commons, the son of John and Ann (Phipps) Commons, was born in the village of Doe Run, West Marlborough Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, January 23, 1829, the fifth on his father’s side, from Elizabeth Maxwell (a niece of Daniel Defoe) of London, England, who came over in 1725 and was married to Thomas Job, of Nottingham, Maryland.  On his mother’s side he is seventh in descent from Joseph Phipps, who came over with Penn’s Colonists in 1682, and who was elected a representative from Chester County to the first Assembly that met in Philadelphia in 1683.
          Owing to ill-health and a delicate constitution, the only education Albert Commons received was that obtained at the country district school, where he became interested in botany through an older half brother, Franklin Commons, who, while a student at the Academy in Unionville, in 1839, had purchased a copy of Darlington’s “Flora Cestrica,” and also had a tin collecting box made.  Thus equipped, the brothers made excursions to collect botanical and mineralogical specimens, until at the time of his brother’s decease in 1842, they had acquired a collection of about five hundred botanical specimens.  Albert’s first botanical trip in Delaware was in 1842, when, soon after removal to the farm, his brother took him along on one of his excursions around the neighborhood.  Ever since that he has taken an interest in botanical pursuits, and has now a larger collection of the plants of Delaware, perhaps, than any other in the state.  Having nearly three thousand species listed – of mosses, over sixty species; hepatics, forty species; lichens, 160 species, and of fungi, 1300 species.
 -- “Albert Commons” pp. 272-273  IN Harshberger, John William (1899)  The botanists of Philadelphia and their work.  T.C. Davis & Sons, Philadelphia.


Albert Commons (1829-1919) extended his botanical explorations throughout the state of Delaware, and assembled the most extensive collection of Delaware plants ever made.  This included not only flowering plants and ferns, but also mosses, lichens and fungi.  His herbarium was presented by two of his nephews to the Academy of Natural Sciences [PH].  It gives evidence of care and discrimination on the part of the collector in the identification of his specimens, and of his keenness in detecting new or rare material in the field. 
 -- Tatnall, Robert R. (1946)  Flora of the Delaware and Eastern Shore:  An annotated list of the ferns and flowering plants of the peninsula of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.  The Society of Natural History of Delaware, Intelligencer Printing Co., Lancaster, PA.


      All botanists’ dream of a day in the field when they discover a unique, pristine habitat that is full of rare plants! Considering the current state of the environment, days like these are hard to come-by. Many botanists are fortunate enough to have such special days during their careers, and one botanist who did is Albert Commons (1829 – 1919). Commons was a local botanist from the Centerville area of New Castle Co., Delaware, and was a very important figure in the history of Delaware botany and contributed much to our current knowledge of the flora of the state. Although Commons had many successful days in the field, there were two days that were particularly noteworthy, August 5, 1874 and September 10, 1875.

On August 5, 1874, Commons visited southwest and south-central Sussex Co. in and around the towns of Laurel, Pepperbox, Little Hill, and Gumboro. He explored habitats he described as “sandy swamps,” “ponds,” “wet sand,” “pine barrens,” “bogs,” “wet places,’ “dry sand,” and “dry woods.” On this day he collected 19 species, in addition to others that are today rare in the state and are considered to be of conservation concern by the Delaware Natural Heritage Program (see table below). One species is known today in the state from only a single population (Minuartia caroliniana). Two species have not been reported in the state since Commons collected them on this day 130 years ago, Lophiola aurea and Xerophyllum asphodeloides. One species, Rhynchospora knieskernii is today listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and two are considered to be globally rare by The Nature Conservancy (Eupatorium resinosum and Rhynchospora knieskernii). The majority of the species Commons collected on this day are at, or near their northern limits of natural distribution (12), and three are at, or near their southern limits of natural distribution.

On September 10, 1875, Commons spent time in southeast Sussex Co. in and around the areas of Baltimore Hundred, which includes the town of Frankford, and the areas of Indian River and Cedar Neck. He explored habitats he described as “salt marshes,” “sea beach’s,” “ocean shores,” “wet places,” “low and sandy pine barrens,” “pond,” and “swamp.” On this day he collected 27 species, in addition to others that are today rare in the state and are considered to be of conservation concern by the Delaware Natural Heritage Program (see table below). Two species are known today from only single populations in the state (Amaranthus pumilus and Polygonum glaucum). Five species have not been reported in the state since Commons collected them on this day 131 years ago (Eupatorium resinosum, Gentiana autumnalis, Oclemena nemoralis, Rhynchospora knieskerni and Triglochin striata). Two species (Amaranthus pumilus and Rhynchospora knieskernii) are today listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and five are considered to be globally rare by The Nature Conservancy (Amaranthus pumilus, Eupatorium resinosum, Gentiana autumnalis, Polygonum glaucum and Rhynchospora knieskernii). The majority of the species Commons collected on this day are at, or near their northern limits of natural distribution (17), and three are at, or near their southern limits of natural distribution.

Any botanist would be envious of such days in the field, but any botanist would also be very impressed with the botanical field skills of Albert Commons. I would like to acknowledge Dr. Arthur Tucker and Dr. Norman Dill for the following publication which reconstructed Albert Commons’ field activities for the days discussed: Tucker, A.O., and N.H. Dill. 1993. The collections of Albert Commons on Delmarva, 1861-1901, with attention to August 4-5, 1874 and September 9-10, 1875. Bartonia No. 57: 9-15.


AUGUST 5, 1874

Cyperus compressus               poorland flatsedge
Cyperus dentatus                    “toothed sedge”
Eleocharis equisetoides           “horse-tail spike-rush”
Eleocharis melanocarpa           “black-fruited spike-rush”
Eupatorium resinosum             “pine barren boneset”
Hypericum denticulatum         “coppery St. John’s-wort”
Lophiola aurea                         “golden crest”
Minuartia caroliniana                “pine barren sandwort”
Najas gracillima                         “thread-like naiad”

Paronychia fastigiata                 “cluster-stemmed nail-wort”
Pityopsis graminifolia                grassleaf golden aster”
Quercus ilicifolia                        “scrub oak”
Rhynchosia tomentosa               “hairy snoutbean
Rhynchospora knieskernii           Knieskern’s beak-rush”
Rhynchospora torreyana              “Torrey’s beak-rush”
Schoenoplectus etuberculatus      “Canby’s bulrush”
Smilax pseudochina                      “long-stalk greenbrier”
Viola pedata                                   “bird’s-foot violet”
Xerophyllum aspholdeloides         “eastern turkeybeard


SEPTEMBER 10, 1875

Agalinis maritima                         “saltmarsh false-foxglove”
Amaranthus pumilus                     seabeach amaranth”
Aristida lanosa                               “woolly three-awn”
Asclepias lanceolata                       “smooth orange milkweed”
Centella erecta                                “erect coinleaf
Dichanthelium aciculare                 “needle-leaf witchgrass
Eriocaulon decangulare                  “ten-angle pipewort
Eryngium aquaticum                        “marsh rattlesnake master”
Eupatorium resinosum                     “pine barren boneset”
Gentiana autumnalis                        “pine barren gentian”
Lachnanthes caroliniana                  “Carolina redroot”
Myriophyllum pinnatum                    cutleaf water-milfoil”
Oclemena nemoralis                          “bog aster”
Paspalum dissectum                          “Walter’s paspalum
Pityopsis graminifolia                         grassleaf golden aster”
Polygonum glaucum                           seabeach knotweek
Polygonum ramosissimum                  “bushy knotweed”
Prenanthes autumnalis                        “slender rattlesnake-root”
Rhynchospora knieskernii                    Knieskern’s beak-rush”
Rhynchospora scirpoides                     “long-beaked bald-rush”
Salicornia bigelovii                              “dwarf glasswort”
Scleria muehlenbergii                           Muhlenbergsnutrush
Scleria pauciflora                                  “few-flowered nutrush
Spiranthes tuberosa                               “little ladies’-tresses”
Symphyotrichum concolor                     "eastern silvery aster”        
Triglochin striata                                   “three-ribbed arrowgrass
Utricularia inflata                                  “swollen bladderwort”

--William A. McAvoy, January 2010


In 1997 William A. McAvoy with the Delaware Natural Heritage Program collected Euphorbia purpurea (Raf.) Fern. From Kent County, Delaware; “this species was thought to be extirpated in Delaware and was known from only a single collection in the Piedmont of New Castle County (“swamps west of Hockessin,” 8 June 1881, A. Commons s.n., PH)” (3).  In 1996 McAvoy collected Lilium canadense in Kent and Talbot Counties, Delaware.  “Albert Commons first discovered L. canadense in Kent County, Delaware from “woods, Woodland Beach” in 1898 (s.n. PH)” (3).


The 1850 Census lists Albert, age 21, living in Christiana Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware with his parents and siblings, Caroline E. (age 19) and William Commons (age 16).    The 1870 Census lists Albert, age 41, still living in Christiana Hundred with his parents, but the other siblings have left the household.  The 1900 Census shows Albert living at 101 Dupont Street in Wilmington, New Castle County, Delaware and lists his profession as “science,” and the only other occupant of the rented house is Lydia A. Davis, age 55, “housekeeper.”  The 1910 Census lists Albert, 81, living as a border at 1019 West 11th Street in Wilmington.  Albert Commons died at age 90 on 11 July 1919 of myocarditis and senility, and the death certificate lists his profession as “retired farmer.”


1.      Sumstine, David R. (1949)  The Albert Commons collection of fungi in the herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Mycologia 41(1):  11-23.

2.       Dix, W.L. (1961)  The Delaware lichens collected by Commons.  The Bryologist 64(4):  371-378.

3.      McAvoy, William A. (2000)  Noteworthy native plant collections from the Delmarva Peninsula.  Bartonia 60:  23-36.


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University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Herbarium
CB# 3280, Coker Hall
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
phone: (919) 962-6931

Last Updated: 5 January 2017