Ask Rufus: Flowers, poetry and early explorers

April 26, 2014 9:59:30 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week the primroses blossomed along Highway 82. I say primroses but I always called them buttercups as a child because if you smelled them your nose would become covered in yellow pollen. 


They also bring to mind the American colonial naturalist and explorer William Bartram and thus also the great poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. 


Flowers, poetry and explorers make for strange bed fellows but tell a fascinating story. 


It all started in Charleston, S.C., where Bartram arrived from his home in Philadelphia in March of 1773. From there he began a four-year trek that would carry him across Georgia, through Florida and to the Mississippi River, and as far north as the Cherokee Nation in present day Tennessee.  


As Bartram traveled across the American Southeast he collected specimens and made drawing of the fauna and flora that he encountered. During his journey he described 358 plants and trees. He collected many specimens which he sent to London. Others he made drawings of and sent them to England. Today the Natural History division of the British Museum has 247 botanical specimens collected by Bartram during his travels. 


Of great interest to Bartram were limestone caverns and associated springs in Florida in which water rose up like a fountain and flowed into the St. Johns River. He also told of an alligator hole, and of an attack by an alligator when he was paddling a river in a cypress dugout canoe. He even made a fanciful drawing of a mother alligator defending her nest. 


Bartram also wrote extensively of the Native Americans he encountered. He provided a wealth of information on the Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles and, to a lesser extent, the Choctaws. He described everything from their dwellings to customs to hunting.  


In 1791, Bartram published a book of his travels and included descriptions and drawings of many plants and animals. Of the 358 plants described by him I recognized several that are still common in Mississippi. Among those local flowers he described in the 1770s are the Primrose, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Celestial Lily, Climbing Aster, Flaming Azalea, St John's Wort, Hooded Pitcher Plant, Lupine, several Rhododendrons, Mountain Camellia, Purple Milkweed, Spider Lilly, Savannah Pink, Sebastian Bush, Pawpaw, Spider Flower, Yucca and Yaupon Holly. 


In the early 1790s the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth each obtained a copy of Bartram's Travels and became interested in the new country of America. Coleridge pulled many images from the book which he incorporated into his masterpieces, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Wordswoth used Bartrams botanical descriptions in his poem "Ruth," which told of "a youth from Georgia." Who would have ever thought that many of the images in "Kubla Khan" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are based on places in Florida and Alabama? 


Following links and connections can give a whole different dimension to history.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]