The Search for Hall’s Violet

in 1871 Illinois botanist Elihu Hall took the train to Oregon to collect botanical specimens. Sometime in the 1850’s Hall had discovered there was a market for specimens of native plants from the west…plants that had never been collected or identified. His first collecting trip was in 1862 to Colorado, accompanying Dr. Charles Parry (the first botanist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and though scholars originally pictured Hall romantically riding the west on horseback or stagecoach, in fact he took the train. He waited until the railroads reached a certain spot and then off he went, occasionally accompanied by his cousin Jared Harbour. In Colorado Hall collected 10 sets of 700 specimens, many carrying his name. One set went to Harvard and he was at liberty to sell the rest.

(In the 1871 City Directory of Salem, under the heading “Sketches of Salem: Improvements of the Year” writer L.H.Judson describes the coming of the Oregon and California Railroad in 1871 as being transformational with two trains a day arriving from Portland.)

In Oregon, Hall collected across the state, which was still largely unknown botanically so collections from here were in demand. The specimens Hall collected were sent back to Harvard to Asa Gray, for identification. One Oregon find was the lovely little Hall’s violet…Viola hallii Gray..found on the campus of Willamette University (Waller Hall seen here in an 1871 engraving).

Viola hallii Gray
Hall’s violet leaves

Botanist Morton Peck arrived at Willamette in 1908 to teach and also actively collected native plant material and compiled his own collection (a “herbarium”) now housed at Oregon State University. In 1941 Peck wrote “A Manual of the Higher Plants of Oregon” with Hall’s violet as the illustrated frontispiece (drawing by Dr. Helen M. Gilkey)

Hall’s violet is now considered extinct in Oregon. Salem landscape architect Elizabeth Lord (1887-1976) describes her childhood forays into the Bush’s pasture …”We youngsters played down in the pasture and our main enjoyment was picking wildflowers and now I think of it in shame. They had so many varieties of wild violets down there just before you came to the creek [now lower Bush’s pasture Park]. One called Voika …had a divided stem…and the flower was brown and white and the sweetest smelling violet of all. It is now extent [extinct].”

Though Hall’s violet is no longer found here in Oregon, it does grow in other places. I would really like to find some plants or seeds and bring it back…so far, though, I haven’t had luck finding these plants or seeds. Soon the violets will start poking up so keep your eyes.peeled. I’m on a mission. I need help here.

10 Comments

  1. Such a lovely story. I am related sureptitiously to Halls that settled in Redlands.
    I will look for violets too. On with the hunt.

  2. Loved reading this. I have been reading a lot about Emily Dickinson lately. Besides being the great poet, she was also an avid gardener and created her own herbarium which is now safe at Harvard’s rare book library. I wonder if she knew about this violet. Best of luck Bonnie on your mission.

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