Liriodendron tulipifera flower

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


Collectors of the UNC Herbarium
Information compiled by Carol Ann McCormick,
Curator of the University of North Carolina Herbarium

Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf


The University of North Carolina Herbarium has catalogued to date a single vascular plant collected by Suksdorf: Atropis tenuifolia Thurb. (now called Poa tenuifolia Buckley), collected in Klickitat County, Washington Territory, on June 6, 1891. How this specimen came to be in the University of North Carolina Herbarium is not known.  In addition, we have cataloged half a dozen fungi, many with the locality of “Falcon Valley, Wash. Terr.” [Washington Territory].  William A. Weber interpreted Falcon Valley to be “The fertile plateau near the south-eastern base of Mt. Adams, in northwestern Klickitat Co.  It includes the town of Fulda, Laurel, and Glenwood, and is bounded on the northeast by the deep canyon of the Klickitat River.  Suksdorf’s farm was on the east half of the northeast quarter of section 12, near Fulda.”1

WS (State College of Washington, now known as Washington State University in Pullman) holds approximately 30,000 of Suksdorf's specimens. According to the Harvard Herbaria Database, other institutions holding Suksdorf's specimens include A, B, BM, BR, BUF, C, CAS, CM, CORD, CUP, DBN, E, F, GH, GOET, K, L, LD, M, MANCH, MICH, MIN, MO, MPU, MSC, NA, NY, NYS, ORE, OSC, P, PH, US (2,000 specimens), WRSL, WSP, WTU.

Wilhelm N. Suksdorf at 78 years 
Photograph taken at the State College of Washington in 1928
(Frontispiece to William Weber’s M.A. Thesis on Suksdorf, 1942)


“Few of the resident botanists of the Pacific Northwest have become as widely known through the extensive distribution of their collections as did Mr. Wilhlm N. Suksdorf of Bingen, Klickitat Co, Washington.  For over 50 years, Mr. Suksdorf collected and studied the varied vegetation of the Columbia Gorge and the rugged Cascade Range, particularly in the region around Mt. Adams.  He had the privilege of exploring this region at a time when it was still practically undisturbed and to him was given the opportunity of discovering for the first time many mosses, fungi, ferns, and flowering plants thitherto unknown to Science.  His private collection is one of the largest and most important in the Northwest.  Its size has been estimated at 30,000 specimens.  Duplicates of these are filed in nearly every large herbarium in the world. 

Before his death in October, 1932, Mr. Suksdorf willed his entire personal collection to the State College of Washington.  During the last few years of his life, he had worked feverishly, hoping to label the specimens completely before turning them over to the College.  The task was so great, however, that very little had been accomplished at the time of his death.  As a result, considerable difficulty was encountered in preparing the specimens for use.

The particular problem which the collection presented arose from Mr. Suksdorf’s use of symbols and abbreviations of place names to indicate the localities at which he collected.  The fact that his notes were in German script, and that many of his place names were not to be found on maps further complicated the problem.  The plants had been pressed in newspaper-size manila folders with the field data written on the lower left-hand corner of the folded sheet.  The latter consisted of one or more serial numbers, the date of collection, and a symbol.   Specimens from Oregon bore the letter “O” before the serial number; Montana specimens, the letter “M”.  Washington specimens bore no identifying letter. 

At first the symbols seemed to defy translation.  As more of the specimens were examined, however, it was found that Suksdorf occasionally had written a locality name in full, sometimes even with a hint as to the whereabouts of the station.  A short list of symbols with their meanings was secured by Dr. F. L. Pickett from Mr. Suksdorf before the latter’s death.  This, together with the Suksdorf correspondence, notes, and diaries, was sufficient to make possible the translation of all the symbols. 

After having obtained the names of Suksdorf’s localities, the next problem was that of applying these names to geographical features.  Most of the stations caused no difficulty whatsoever, but some did.  Many of the mountains, lakes, and streams in the region did not possess accepted names in Suksdorf’s day, and in such cases he had to invent descriptive names of his own or use names borrowed from the Indians.  Thus such names as “Kuhlblumenquelle” (Cowslip Spring), “Schmetterling-See” (Butterfly Lake), “Yiebach” (Beargrass Creek), “Schonberg” (Beautiful Mountain), “Prachtwald” (Magnificent Forest), and many others are frequently encountered in his notes.  Valuable aids in placing these names were several sketches on which Suksdorf had indicated the positions of some of his localities with reference to others. A running itinerary of Suksdorf’s travels was compiled from the data in the available manuscripts and notes. This was found to be a reliable method for checking the accuracy of all other sources of information, and for locating approximately those stations which otherwise could not be placed. When localities were indicated by the names of farmers at whose homesteads plants were collected, the farms were located by reference to County histories and by consulting “old-timers” who were well acquainted with the region.

When transcribing his field notes to permanent labels Suksdorf did not consider many of these minor localities to be important.  Schmetterling-See”, for instance, as well as many other lakes in the Chiquash Mountains, became simply “small Mountain Lake, Chiquash Mts.”, Although they were some of his favorite localities. It is often, however, highly desirable the data on the specimen be more explicit, especially if it concerns a type locality. Hence it was fortunate that Suksdorf was not able to make labels for all of his plants, else many localities so clearly defined in his field notes would have become indefinite.  Wodan’s Vale” would have become “rocky slope, Mt. Adams”; Bingen Mountain, “Mountains, west Klickitat County”; and many other exact stations would have become lost…

Map of the Bingen area, reproduced from the pamphlet entitled
“All Roads Lead to Bingen on the Columbia,” printed by the Bingen Commercial Club

from Weber’s 1942 thesis on Suksdorf

Because there was no one in the area who could give him much help in identifying unknown forms [plants], he sent them to Harvard University. In this way he came to know Dr. Asa Gray.  Dr. Gray was very sympathetic towards Wilhelm’s needs, encouraged his collecting, and made available to him certain books which he needed very badly. Wilhelm’s careful methods of collecting impressed Dr. Gray…

Suksdorf became Dr. Gray’s assistant to me herbarium at Harvard University in 1887. His work consisted mainly of working over his own collections and preparing them for distribution to the herbaria of the world. His intimate association with Dr. Gray made him a deep admirer of this great botanist. Always extremely shy individual, Wilhelm found in Dr. Gray a counselor and friend who understood his nature and appreciated his abilities.

Although Suksdorf enjoyed his work with Dr. Gray, for some unknown reason his health and disposition did not fare well at Cambridge. Dr. Gray’s death, in 1888, left Wilhelm completely broken in body and spirit… And after Dr. Gray’s death, he returned during the spring of 1889 to the old life among his family and friends in the state of Washington. There he drew about himself a cloak of solitude from which he never again emerged. Had he chosen to remain at the Gray Herbarium, Suksdorf might have become a botanist of great renown…

His decision was typical of the man who was so very humble and shy in speaking of his work and who doubtless felt his shortcomings more keenly than most persons. He had never mastered the use of the English language which he felt was so essential to his profession; his health was poor.  All of these things were factors which made him feel that life at Cambridge was not for him…

Once more in his old hunting grounds, Suksdorf began to broaden his fear of collecting. In July and August, 1890, he collected extensively along with the Nooksack River in Whatcom County; his trips down the Columbia River to Portland and the ballast grounds near there became more frequent; the prairies in eastern Spokane County attracted his attention. He used his brother Detlef’s farm at Spangle as a base for daily forays to Phillep Lake, Mica Peak, Newman and Liberty lakes, and the rolling Palouse country to the south. At home, he took a farm in “Falcon Valley” so that he might be nearer to Mt. Adams. He intensified his collecting work there and continued to grow native plants in his garden at Bingen

On October 2, 1932, Suksdorf was struck down and killed by a train near his home at Bingen.  Thus came to an abrupt close the life of one of the last of America’s pioneer botanists. But behind him he left an enduring monument to a lifetime spent in earnest endeavor in the interests of Science.” 1 


An interesting short biography of Suksdorf was written by Rhoda M. Love and appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 

Other works that discuss Suksdorf’s life and science:

Howard, Grace E. (1955)  Lichens of northwest America collected by W.N. Suksdorf.  The Bryologist 58(1):  49-64.
Lange, Erwin F. (1955)  Pioneer botanists of the Pacific Northwest.  Oregon Historical Quarterly 57(2):  108-124.
Jones, George Neville (1933)  William N. Suksdorf.  The Washington Historical Quarterly 24(2):  128-129.


PUBLICATIONS (derived from Weber’s thesis):

Suksdorf, Wilhelm N. (1931)  Untersuchungen in der Gattung Amsinckia.  Werdenda 1:  47-113.
--- (1927)  Washingtonische Pflanzen IV. Werdenda 1:  15-43.
--- (1927)  Uber einige Plectrideen.  Werdenda 1:  43-44.
--- (1927)  Abrams’ Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States (a review).  Werdenda 1:  45.
--- (1923)  A new Saxifrage from Oregon.  Torreya 23:  106-107.
--- (1923)  Eine neue Weide aus dem Staate Washington.  Osterr. Bot. Zeits. 72:  94-95.
--- (1923)  Werdenda, Beitrage zur Pflanzenkunde (Foreword).  Vol. 1, No. 1.  Bingen, Washington.
--- (1923)  Washingtonische Pflanzen III.  Werdenda 1:  1-14.
--- (1918)  Cardamine oligosperma and its near allies.  Rhodora 20:  197-199.
--- (1914)  Is Arenaria lateriflora dioecious?  Rhodora 16:  55-56.
--- (1906)  Neue Pflanzen aus Washington.  West Am. Sci. 15:  58-61.
--- (1906)  Washingtonische Pflanzen II.  Allg. Bot. Zeits. 12:  5-7, 26-27, 42-43.
--- (1906)  Zwei neue oregonische Pflanzen.  West Am. Sci. 15:  50.
--- (1903)  Ueber einige Nemophila Formen.  West Am. Sci. 14:  31-33.
--- (1902)  Eine neue Brodiaea  Art.  West Am. Sci.  14:  1-4. 
--- (1901)  Washingtonische Pflanzen.  Deutsche Bot. Monatss. 19:  91-93.
--- (1901)  Zwei neue einjahrige Epilobium Arten.  West Am. Sci. 11:  77-79.
--- (1901)  Zwei neue Kalifornische Pflanzen.  West Am. Sci.  12:  53-55.
--- (1900)  Washingtonische Pflanzen.  Deutsche Bot. Monatss.  18:  26-27, 86-88, 97-99, 132-134, 153-156. 
--- (1898)  Key to the species of Plectritis and Aligera.  Erythea 6:  21-24.
--- (1898)  Washintonische Pflanzen.  Deutsche Bot. Monatss. 16:  209-212, 220-222.
--- (1897)  Die Plectrideen.  Deutsche Bot. Monatss. 15:  116-119, 144-148.
--- (1896)  The flora of Mount Adams.  Mazama 1:  68-97.  Thomas Howell, co-author.
--- (1892)  Flora Washingtonensis.  A catalog of the phaenogamia and pteridophyta of the state of Washington.  15 pp.  White Salmon.

1.  Weber, William A. (1942) 
The botanical collections of Wilhelm Suksdorf 1850-1932.  Thesis, M.A., Botany, State College of Washington, Pullman, Washington. 


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University of North Carolina Herbarium
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University of North Carolina
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phone: (919) 962-6931
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Last Updated: 29 May 2011