Liriodendron tulipifera flower

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


Collectors of the UNC Herbarium

Albert Ruth
(November 1844 -- 17 December 1932)

The following information was compiled by Carol Ann McCormick,
Assistant Curator, University of North Carolina Herbarium.

The University of North Carolina Herbarium has databased approximately 560 specimens collected by Albert Ruth. Many of these came to NCU in 2002 from Jesup Herbarium of Dartmouth College (HNH). As NCU's collection continues to be databased, no doubt more of Ruth's specimens will be found.  Kevin Chuang, the 2011 Charles T. Mohr Herbarium Intern, is actively accessioning Ruth specimens obtained from HNH.

Albert Ruth

Photo courtesy of the Texas Women's University Herbarium website

Other herbaria holding significant numbers of Ruth specimens include:
* The Albert Ruth Herbarium at Texas Christian University (FW) was transferred to BRIT in 2001;
* Ruth's specimens formed the basis for the herbarium at Texas Women's University (TCSW);
* Arnold Arboretum (A);
* New York Botanical Garden (NY) has several hundred of Ruth's specimens, including many types;
*The Smithsonian Institution (US).

The Fort Worth Public Library has Albert Ruth's correspondence, notebooks and papers relating to the Ruth Herbarium.

Milton Podolsky, Jr, of Fort Worth, Texas contacted the UNC Herbarium in 2006 concerning some items of Ruth's in his possession. He was a good friend of Albert Ruth's daughters. Gertrude Ruth (died ca. 1966) owned a record store on Main Street in Fort Worth. In her later years, Edith Ruth (died ca. 1969) moved to California to live with her niece, Annette Mott.


Albert Ruth was born in Delaware in November 1844 (1900 US Census).  


Looking for Linnaea: The high Smokies still protect some secrets on their rugged slopes

by Peter S. White
The Tennessee Conservationist vol. XLVII, September/October, 1981, No. 5, pages 14-16

On August 13, 1892, Albert Ruth, an educator and amateur botanist, rounded a bend on a mountain woodland trail in Sevier County, Tennessee. It was a perfect day for collecting in the mountains -- the weather was fair and the temperature cooler than the 85 degrees recorded back in Knoxville, where Ruth worked as superintendent of city schools. As he walked, his eyes scanned the ground. He hesitated for a moment to examine a flower which had caught his eye. Twin pink flowers rose from a plant with a prostrate stem and roundish opposite leaves, each leaf with a few indentations near the tip. He collected a representative piece of the plant, put it in his vasculum (an old-time botanist’s tin collecting box) and continued up the trail. It was one of some 50,000 collections Ruth would make during his 85 years of life, but it is of special interest to Tennessee botanists. August 13, 1892, was the first and last time Linnaea borealis, twinflower, has been seen in Tennessee.

Linnaea is a far northern plant which is known, except for Ruth’s record, only as far south as West Virginia, where it is quite rare. It is frequent in northern New England and farther north – occurring in spruce-fir woods and in and around bogs. The plant holds a special significance for all botanists. It was one o the favorite plants of Linnaeus and is, of course, named for him. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist who is the father of modern plant classification. As a young student of plants, Linnaeus encountered twinflower in Finland (Linnaea borealis is a “circumpolar” plant; that is, one which is found both in North American and Eurasia in the far north). Portraits of Linnaeus often show the botanist holding a sprig of Linnaea borealis or the plant is shown as a twining border on the canvas.

Amateur botanists like Albert Ruth have made significant contributions to our knowledge of plant distribution and classification. Ruth himself made many important finds during his 30 years of collecting in East Tennessee. He collected the first specimen of Trillium luteum in Knoxville – and hence Knoxville is the “type locale” and Ruth’s specimen is the “type” of that species (plant names are based on “types” – the actual plant from which an official scientific description is taken). Asarum ruthii [Hexastylis arifolia (Michx.) Small var. ruthii (Ashe) Blomquist], the rare Heterotheca ruthii [Pityopsis ruthii (Small Small] and Carex ruthii are among the plants named for the Knoxville botanist who made the first collections of each species.

So we know that Albert Ruth had a good eye and was a dedicated field man – exploring many parts of east Tennessee at a time when transportation was less easy than today. Like all amateur botanists, a pure love of botany drove him on. Like some amateurs (and professionals), Ruth had his quirks – we know from an old newspaper clipping that he pressed plants with an old printing press with a large iron wheel. The dedication of amateur botanists is seen today in such organizations as the Tennessee Native Plant Society and the efforts of amateurs in mapping rare plants of Roan Mountain last year.

But what of Ruth’s record? The lack of verification in the last 90 years, and the frustrations of looking for the plant in the past couple of years tempt one to conclude that perhaps it has become extinct in Tennessee or even that it was never here. Ruth’s herbarium label is vague – it reads only “Sevier County – in mountain woods.” That phrase describes a rugged area of over 100,000 acres. Today, rare plant botanists often find themselves puzzling over maps and wondering about the most likely spots to check. Where was Albert Ruth on August 13, 1892? In my current research on rare plants in the Smokies I have tried out dozens of scenarios and then discarded them, after fruitless searches. If we can complain about Ruth’s vague label, we must also realize that some old labels are even worse, bearing such phrases as “mountains of North Carolina.”

The history of Ruth’s specimen and how his discovery came to light is a fascinating one and gives us both case for hope and despair in terms of our belief in his find. In 1907 Albert Ruth moved to Fort Worth, Texas, (he was forced into “unwilling retirement”) taking many of his collections with him, including the Linnaea specimen. In Texas he continued to collect prolifically until his death in 1932, but as one Texas botanist wrote, “unfortunately he rarely put exact localities or information about the plants on his label.”

Then, back in Knoxville, a tragedy for Tennessee botany occurred – in 1934 Morrill Hall [at the] University burned to the ground (it is perhaps unfair to suggest that the fire spread from the zoology end of the building), destroying the herbarium that contained the best documentation of the state’s flora in 30,000 to 50,000 pressed plants. It represented the sweat and struggle of years of botanizing, including important collections of Augustin Gattinger, author of the state’s first flora. In an earlier day, Albert Ruth himself had worked as a volunteer in the university herbarium and had corresponded with Gattinger concerning the state’s flora. Tennessee was suddenly without the collections on which all plant identification is based. It was without the documentation necessary to produce a state flora. Years of work were gone.

It is a tribute to Tennessee’s botanists that they were able to summon the energy to begin again. They organized communal work nights when they would all gather together, regardless of rank, to mount pressed plants on herbarium paper. They organized collecting expeditions. And they wrote letters to botanists all over the country requesting donations of pressed plants that had been collected in Tennessee.

It was Dr. A. J. “Jack” Sharp (he has been at the University since 1929 and is now professor emeritus there) who decided to write to the daughter of Albert Ruth in Texas. Could any of her father’s pressed plants be purchased? By return mail, Dr. Sharp received a shipment of Ruth’s collections. He began to go through the pile and he soon came to a plant that caused him to stop in amazement. Before him was a distinctive plant never reported from Tennessee. The plant had been misidentified by Ruth as Mitchella repens (a low plant which also has roundish opposite leaves), but Jack Sharp immediately recognized its significance. Above Ruth’s label he wrote in the correct name: Linnaea borealis. It is now clear why Ruth never brought his collection to the attention of Tennessee botanists – it had been the subject of mistaken identity for 40 years and lay buried in his extensive collections.

But the label with the pressed plant also gives us some cause for doubt. Ruth apparently wrote the label in Texas – for the label is printed with “Flora of Texas” across the top and Ruth then crossed out “Texas” and wrote in “Tennessee” with a hurried script. Hence, the label was written at least 15 years after the collection. Errors may have occurred if Ruth was simply relying on memory. On the other hand, he may have been copying notes he made on the newspaper in which the plant had originally been pressed and stored. And if he did not collect the plant in Tennessee, where did he get it? It does not occur in Texas. Did he receive it in a trade with a northern botanist?

For rare plant botanist of the modern day, the tale related above is all too familiar. Intriguing collections from an earlier day and a more unspoiled landscape come to us through the haze of time. If we feel the frustrations, however, at the same time there is a mystery that adds to the excitement of the search.

There is currently an important effort underway to assess the state’s rare plants – such botanists as Robert Kral of Vanderbilt; Paul Somers of the Department of Conservation’s Heritage Program in Nashville; Leo Collins, Bob Farmer and Dave Webb of TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority]; Tom Patrick, Gene Wofford and Murray Evans of the University of Tennessee [Knoxville]; Vernon Bates, Wayne Chester, John Wanden and other professionals and amateurs are trying to come to terms with concepts of rarity and endangerment with regard to the plants of this diverse and rich state.

My own work in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was initiated two years ago when park service personnel realized they needed more information to adequately protect the park’s flora. The park’s flora contains some 120 species that are listed on either the Tennessee, North Carolina or national rare plant lists. The National Park Service, through its mission statement, is dedicated to the ideal of protecting the species within its borders and thus is an important regional and national refuge for rare species, both plants and animals. Since 1979 we have been creating a data bank on all the rare species in the park. For the top priority species – the rarest of the rare – we are establishing population monitoring. Of course, one of the difficulties in assessing change in rare plant populations is the lack of a good data base. We are trying to remedy that lack now. To date, many old records have been verified, but Albert Ruth’s long-lost record of Linnaea has not yet been confirmed. Is it here? The mists of the high mountains still protect some secrets on the rugged, rhododendron-tangled slopes.


Photo caption page 15:
The plant that Albert Ruth had in his collection was labeled as Linnaea borealis. If his records are correct, his discovery of the plant in 1892 was the first and last time the plant was seen in Tennessee. The twinflower is pictured on a note card designed and distributed by the Tennessee Native Plant Society. The cards, to support the conservation of Tennessee’s wild flora, may be ordered through the Department of Botany, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 37916.

Photo caption page 16:
The mountain paper birch was not discovered in Tennessee or in the Smokies until 1977. John DeLapp, Cindy Mitchell and Fred Huber, by their discovery, helped support the theory that there are more plants to be discovered there.

Editor’s Note: Peter S. White is a research botanist at the Uplands Field Laboratory in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. [Dr. Peter S. White is currently the Director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden and Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2006).]

UPDATE: Peter White and a band of intrepid hikers set out in 2006
to re-find Ruth's Linnaea borealis in Sevier County, Tennessee.
View a powerpoint slideshow of the expedition. 
While we did not find Linnaea, we enjoyed our adventure…


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University of North Carolina Herbarium
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University of North Carolina
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Last Updated: 24 June 2011