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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Tribulus Troubles: Wildflowers in the Edward Palmer Papers at the National Anthropological Archives

Although archives are best known for their well-organized and carefully-described materials, this TV-ready appearance belies a wealth of intellectual and physical labor by archivists. Behind the scenes are records which defy description, papers for which no particular order seems better than another, collections of questionable or wholly unknown provenance. Archives are full of trouble. So it's no surprise that archival records for a flower which was once categorized as part of the genus Tribulus - deriving its name from spiky weapons and multi-pronged threshing boards - should provide some poetic archival entertainment.

Image by Max Licher,
courtesy of SEINet Arizona-New Mexico Chapter.
Kallstroemia grandiflora, the plant formerly known as Tribulus grandiflorus and commonly referred to as the "Arizona poppy," is a low, creeping plant with a show of bright orange flowers during and after the monsoon in the Sonoran desert. Samples of K. grandiflora were collected on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by self-trained ethnobotanist Edward Palmer. Many of Edward Palmer's papers were retained by William E. Safford, who wrote a biography on Palmer, and William Andrew Archer, a former chair of the National Museum of Natural History's (NMNH) Department of Botany. Documents by Palmer, Archer, and Safford coalesced and were eventually transferred to the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) as the "Edward Palmer Papers."
Other materials by Palmer exist elsewhere in the archives, including photographs, maps, and vocabularies. William Safford was himself a US Naval officer who collected for the U.S. National Museum, and some of his photographs were donated to the NAA by his wife. Within the Palmer collection are folders which contain both handwritten notes by Palmer and typewritten duplicates of Palmer's notes by Safford or Archer - sometimes with additional unsigned, handwritten corrections or queries. In the end, at least five individuals contributed content to the collection, representing a confluence of interests, careers, and experiences among many people and across many decades at NMNH. From among this particular multi-vocal tangle emerges K. grandiflora.

Palmer's earliest sample of K. grandiflora still within the NMNH Botany Department holdings comes from the city of Guaymas, Sonora in the year 1887 - Palmer Sample 177(1),(2). Yet Palmer's notes from that year are scant and make no mention of this plant, despite noting the bloom times of chrysanthemum, rose, and tuberose in the region (3). His 1887 specimen of K. grandiflora finally reappears over 60 years later when William Andrew Archer compiled Palmer's collection notes into a series of index cards.
Notecard for Tribulus grandiflorus, 1887, Edward Palmer Papers 1869-1920,
Box 11, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 
The unsigned handwritten corrections point to ongoing name confusion. The plant is commonly referred to in English as "Arizona poppy," despite not being part of the poppy family Papaveraceae but rather the caltrop family Zygophyllaceae. In the Mexican Spanish spoken during Palmer's time, the plant was referred to as "mal de ojo" (in English, “the evil eye”) or "abrojos" but these two terms can also refer to two other plants: desert globemallow (Sphaerlacea ambigua) and puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris) - the latter plant being known for distributing its thorns into passersby's clothes, shoes, and - most painfully - feet (5),(6).

Notecard for Kallstroemia grandiflora, 1898. Edward Palmer Papers 1869-1920.
Box 11, National Anthropological Archives, ,Smithsonian Insitution.
Yet the lack of original documentation for Palmer Sample 177 is actually fitting for a plant sample: emphasis on sample. K. grandiflora produces flowers which are likely cross-pollinated by a regional wasp, Campsoscolia octomaculata (7). Later, the flowers become self-pollinating. In either case, another agent becomes involved: C. octomaculata, the vibrations from another insect shaking the pollen onto the stigma, or even wind moving the plants around and shaking pollen onto the stigma. Beyond pollination, K. grandiflora is part of a larger ecosystem. The plant roots itself in sandy, alkali soils which are unacceptable to many plants and absorbs monsoon floodwaters. For two other non-pollinating wasps (Bembix u-scripta and Myzinum Navajo) K. grandiflora provides a source of nectar. As Archer mentions on a notecard for a later sample of the plant, residents of Saltillo used the tops of the plants to treat rheumatism and K. grandiflora is often spotted in 'wasteland' (8). Using the documentation in the Edward Palmer papers, the plant can be seen as a part of our bodies, our economies, our visual landscape, and our understanding of space.

Much like K. grandiflora, the Edward Palmer Papers reflect the involvement of many agents, not all of whom were working at the same time or on the same projects. The 60+ year gap between Palmer’s trip to Sonora and the creation of Archer’s notecards reflects the fits and stops which characterize scientific discovery, and science within a natural history museum. The collection is a snapshot, or a sample, of some of the ongoing processes in the careers of ethnobotanists, the administrative staff behind them, politics, and infinitely deep ecologies around the globe – all at particular times. Upon being transferred to the NAA the records were re-organized, meaning they are also representative of archival theory in practice.

Together, the NMNH Botany collection and Edward Palmer Papers provide us with two complementary samples. While the dried sample of K. grandiflora can give us structural information on the species, it tells us little about the ecology from which it emerged and can only tell so much about the collector. For instance, Palmer's existing 1887 notes touch on other interests which took up his time: local market offerings, politics, racial ideologies, and a woodpecker pecking on a tin can. Without the archival records we're left with an incomplete picture of how the sample arrived at the Smithsonian and how it fit into Palmer’s complete life in Guaymas. Without Palmer Sample 177, we have no way to experience the materiality and physicality of K. grandiflora in Guaymas 130 years ago. Palmer’s missing notes remind us that no record is complete within itself, which is why interconnected collections – like those found at the Smithsonian Institution – are so invaluable. While this kind of documentary 'trouble' might not be what most researchers hope for, it hints at the complexity of all archival collections and the ways that botanical and archival collections are involved in one another.

Dani Stuchel, Reference Intern
National Anthropological Archives


(1) "Palmer Sample 177" is only meant to indicate that this was the 177th sample from Guayamas in 1887, not that it was the 177th sample from Palmer's career or the year 1887.
(2) Kallstroemia grandiflora. Catalog number 14164. Botany Department, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. EZID:
(3) Notes on Plants from Guaymas 1887, Journal Notes 1880-1889, Box 3, Edward Palmer Papers 1869-1920, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
(4) Notecard for Tribulus grandifloria, 1887. Box 11. Edward Palmer Papers 1869-1920, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
(5) Wolf, M. and B. Evancho. 2016. Plant Guide for desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua A. Gray). USDA-NaturalResources Conservation Service, Tucson Plant Materials Center. Tucson, AZ. 
(6) Washington State University Extension Office. Control de abrojo o cadillo. URL:
(7) O'Neill, Kevin M. Pollen foraging and pollination, in Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001.
(8) Notecard for Kallstroemia grandifloria, 1898. Box 11. Edward Palmer Papers 1869-1920, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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