WASHINGTON - After a long journey across uncharted territory, the Lewis and Clark expedition turned homeward from the Pacific Coast. Before long, one of the party came down with severe back spasms and could hardly walk. He suffered for three weeks until cured by an American Indian herbal remedy.
"You can imagine how painful that was," said James L. Reveal, a retired professor of botany at the University of Maryland.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is featuring a new exhibit of discoveries from the natural world recorded during Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's early 19th-century trek across the Northwest. Reveal was among those who worked on the show.
President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to cross America's new territory in the Northwest and the unclaimed Oregon region. Besides having the men look for a trade route and establish contact with Indian tribes, Jefferson hoped to learn more about the region's flora and fauna.
The explorers left St. Louis in May 1804 and returned more than two years later with specimens as well as notebooks full of information. For example, the first scientific description of the grizzly bear came only after their journey. They also described less ferocious beasts like the prairie dog and jackrabbit.
Lewis and Clark also collected 232 specimens of more than 100 plants. One of the plants they encountered was a godsend for their ailing companion. He had done little but endure his pain when they came to what is now a reservation of the Nez Perce Indians in Idaho.
Following American Indian practice, Reveal said, a sweat lodge was built by heating stones to a high temperature and placing on them a plant called wild ginger. They gave the patient an extract from the plant to drink and then left him in the sweat lodge overnight. By morning he had recovered.
The expedition did not take a specimen of the plant - probably, Reveal said, because it was not in flower and they had only the leaves and roots.
Now the wild ginger is being studied by James A. Duke, who retired in 1995 as chief of the medicinal plants laboratory at the Agriculture Department. He lectures to students at his "Green Farmacy Garden" in Fulton, Md., where he has collected 300 medicinal plants.
Duke said wild ginger is not a close relative of the cultivated ginger used in flavoring; they have different medicinal properties. He lists nine chemicals found in the wild ginger that may have contributed to the cure. The plant also may have some merit as a tonic and an antiseptic, he said.
Lewis saw a future for a delicate blue wildflower called prairie flax. It's a perennial, meaning it comes up repeatedly without having to be replanted. That could be a boon to the linen industry, he thought. There turned out to be other perennial flaxes in countries unknown to Lewis. But the prairie flax can now be found in garden centers and supermarkets.
One potentially valuable specimen Lewis described is among those that have been lost: red Mandan corn. A staple of the expedition's diet, it grew with unusual speed. A sample was sent to Jefferson, an enthusiastic gardener, but no evidence has been found that he ever planted it.
Another plant collected, one still in wide use today, is the Osage orange. It's shaped and colored like an orange and has similar ornamental leaves, but the fruit is inedible. It's popular as natural fencing because of its abundant thorns.
"Neither horse, cow nor man wants to go through that," Reveal said.
The exhibit, "Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark," has only four of the specimens that Lewis saved. Many others are kept by The Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia.
The Washington exhibit includes more than 60 works of art inspired by Lewis and Clark - drawings, water colors, sculpture and jewelry done by artists of today.
The exhibit will be in Washington through June 18. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and military personnel, and $4 for students.
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Corcoran Gallery of Art: www.corcoran.org
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