Earth Notes: Botanist Charles Parry

Nov 22, 2017

Botanist Charles Parry arrived at the Virgin River in southern Utah in the spring of 1874, eager to discover a trove of unusual plants. His timing was good—he was enthralled by the blossoming of the Virgin Valley that year.

Botanist Charles Parry
Credit Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives

Parry was born in England but grew up on a farm in New York. Like many naturalists of his day, he was educated as a doctor but quit his short-lived medical practice to devote himself to botany.  He collected plants on the Mexican Boundary Survey from 1849 to 1852, then spent years searching among the alpine regions of the Rocky Mountains. There he discovered a spruce that he named for his famous botanist friend, George Engelmann.

In Utah, Parry lodged in St. George with Mormon pioneer Joseph Ellis Johnson and his large boisterous family. Johnson showed him a plant with yellow flowers that popped open at the same time each evening, and that was visited by a special native bee. Parry named this evening primrose for his host, Joseph Johnson. 

When he finally saw Joshua trees blooming in the desert, Parry was disappointed by their ungraceful appearance and fetid odor. Still, he wasn’t disappointed in Utah. He found 37 plant species unknown to science. In all, he discovered more than a hundred new species in his 40-year career—among them Parry's penstemon and Parry's primrose.