What Plants Did Lewis & Clark Find?

In addition to exploring a route to the "Northwest Passage," Lewis and Clark were commissioned by President Jefferson to observe and record information about native peoples and their cultures, and to make scientific observations as well as to collect animal and plant specimens. The potential commercial value of native flora and fauna was the main focus. However, the journals created by the men on the expedition are even more valuable as historical markers of life in North America before European control was complete.

Elephanthead Lousewort

Elephanthead lousewort, or pink elephants (Pedicularis groenlandica) is a perennial flowering herbaceous plant that grows erect to a height of 30 inches. The lavender flowers are borne on spikes above a crown of leaves. Noted in the expedition journals on July 6, 1806, the plants were found on prairie heath lowlands, where moderately moist conditions prevailed. The Native American children ate the sweet flowers like candy. The plant was used to make tea to treat coughs.

Lewis' Mock Orange

Lewis' mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) is a shrub that was noted in the journal on July 4, 1806. It has clusters of white blossoms, and grows on rocky soil. Drought tolerant, Lewis' mock orange shrubs spread by seeds and extended roots. It provided browse vegetation for wildlife. The hard wood branches are straight, and were used for arrows, bows, and other purposes. Teas, poultices and salves were made from the plant.


Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is another shrub with medicinal properties. Journal entries state that on June 11, 1805, Lewis was quite ill. Chokecherry twigs were boiled to make a decoction. After two doses of the brew and a few hours rest, he was well again. Chokecherry grows in any soil type in full sun. The foliage and twigs are browse for wildlife, and the berries are palatable to humans.

Pink Cleome

Pink cleome, or rocky mountain beeplant, (Cleome serrulata) was an important source of nourishment. The seeds were ground to make nutritious flour, and the plant stems and leaves were boiled and eaten as greens. Pink cleome has a round cluster of flowers at the top of each 3 foot tall stem. It was noted growing in the open prairies in the journal of August 25, 1804. The plant was also noted to have a particular scent that disappeared during cooking.

Keywords: Lewis and Clark plants, plant journal, lewis and clark journals

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Fern Fischer writes about quilting and sewing, and she professionally restores antique quilts to preserve these historical pieces of women's art. She also covers topics of organic gardening, health, rural lifestyle, home and family. For over 35 years, her work has been published in print and online.