The low-growing Thompson’s beardtongue is native to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California, associated with pinyon-juniper and subalpine habitats. It grows in a relatively narrow elevational band (1500m to 1900m (5000 ft. to 6700 ft.)) and is associated with calcareous soils.
Today’s photograph was taken during my May 2015 trip to the US Southwest. I had wished to attend the American Penstemon Society’s annual meeting in the Utah area the previous year, but that didn’t pan out. Fortunately, some of the meeting organizers were willing to share locations of where I could see a few of Utah’s rare or uncommon penstemons during my 2015 trip, including Penstemon thompsoniae.
If any historians are up to the challenge, I would love to read a researched article about the person who this beardtongue was named in honour of. The specific epithet ends in the feminine “-iae”, so the first fact I knew is that the Thompson it is named after was a woman. In trying to determine who Thompson was, one of the first resources I encountered was Edmund Jaeger’s Desert Wild Flowers. He wrote:
[named in honour of] Mrs. Thompson, little-known collector, of Utah. Fl[owers] blue. A gray mat only an inch or two high and six inches or more across…Just over the [California] state line in the ranges of Clark Co., Nev., at somewhat higher elevations, one finds P. Thompsoniae Jaegeri, with more open inflorescence and fewer but woodier stems.
(the subspecies Penstemon thompsoniae subsp. jaegeri, or Jaeger’s beardtongue, is still recognized and endemic to southern Nevada)
“Little-known collector” did not seem hopeful, and searching using the terms “Mrs. Thompson” was going to be futile. My next step was to read the original descriptions of the taxon: Penstemon thompsoniae by Rydberg (no new facts about Thompson, though he was the one who elevated the taxon to its own species) and the original naming of the taxon by Asa Gray: Penstemon pumilus var. thompsoniae. Thankfully, Asa Gray makes mention of Captain Bishop–and searching for both Thompson and Captain Bishop led me to Stan Welsh’s address to the Utah Native Plant Society, where I learned “Captain F.M. Bishop, Lester F. Ward, and Mrs. Ellen Thompson (sister of John Wesley Powell) collected in southern Utah as adjuncts or as parties to the Geological Survey of Powell“.
There is no mention of Ellen Thompson on geologist and explorer’s John Powell’s Wikipedia page, but a search for “‘john wesley powell’ sister thompson” led to her husband’s Wikipedia page, Almon Harris Thompson. Three additional pieces of information about Ellen Thompson are gleaned from here:
After graduation, he married Powell’s sister, Ellen Louella (Nellie) Powell (1840–1909), on July 8, 1862, in Wheaton, Illinois. They had no children.
Ellen Powell Thompson accompanied her husband on some of his surveying activities, including trips into the mountains and boating the rapids of southern Utah. While residing in Kanab in 1872, she collected and identified many new types of plants.
He also became the first European American to reach the summit of the Henry Mountains, which likewise was the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be surveyed. He named the highest peak Mount Ellen after his wife.
(aside from the Mount Ellen Wikipedia entry: “Over several days beginning on September 10th, 1895 a detachment of the U.S. Army Signal Corps established the world heliograph record from stations atop Mount Ellen, Utah and Mount Uncompahgre, Colorado. The record for visual signalling was established utilizing mirrors 8 inches across and telescopes. The flashing signals communicated over a distance of 183 miles.”)
Finally, I ended up browsing through Stanley Welsh’s article, Utah plant types—historical perspective 1840 to 1981—annotated list, and bibliography, from Great Basin Naturalist 42(2). Here I learned that Ellen Powell Thompson was responsible for the collection of 15 “type specimens” (in short, the physical specimen that the taxon’s description and name is scientifically pinned to)–and although it isn’t a competition, at the time of publication of Welsh’s paper, it made her the twelfth-most prolific collector of Utah plant taxa new to Western science.
If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed that every single one of the men I’ve referenced have Wikipedia pages (with the exception of Bishop, who has a different page dedicated to him). Perhaps with a well-researched article on Ellen Powell Thompson as source material, there could be a Wikipedia page for this early Utah plant collector.