He rescued the French wine industry — but why is a tree named after him?

Writing and photos by Brian Mize, field forester

Engelmann spruce in a meadow.

Last fall I was cruising timber (creating estimates for timber appraisals) above the Little Naches River on a frost-flecked day. My cruise strip progressed straight down the hill toward a wide floodplain — it was here I encountered a clump of large Engelmann spruce. 

As I scribbled “ES” on my paper under the species column, I resolved myself to answering a long-standing question: How did this tree receive its name?

Here is the simple answer: Charles Christopher Parry, an English-American physician and botanist, selected the name to honor his friend, George Engelmann, a 19th-century German-American physician and botanist. 

This led me to more questions: “Why were so many botanists also medical practitioners, and why did George Engelmann deserve this honor?” I will not tackle the first question here, but instead provide a little insight into the life and scientific contributions of Dr. George Engelmann.

An Engelmann spruce cone.

He was the oldest of 13 children, born in Frankfurt in 1809. He earned a medical degree with a dissertation focused primarily on plant morphology. In 1832, he emigrated to the United States and settled in the St. Louis area, where he established a medical practice. 

Engelmann's interests extended well beyond medicine to an incredibly eclectic range of pursuits. He founded a German newspaper, studied multiple plant species (dodders, cacti, vines), plant diseases, animal species (tapeworms, mudpuppies, possums, squirrels), recorded 50 years of daily meteorological observations, founded the St. Louis Academy of Sciences, helped establish what is now known as the Missouri Botanical Garden and was one of the original founders of the National Academy of Sciences.

Phylloxera vastatrix, right, and grape rootlets. Scan from "Economic entomology for the farmer and fruit-grower : and for use as a text-book in agricultural schools and colleges" (1906)

Perhaps Engelmann’s greatest contribution came in the 1870s, when French vineyards experienced a potential catastrophe via a small aphid-like pest, Phylloxera vastatrix. This insect sucks sap from the roots of grape vines, and causes a decline in fruit production and possible mortality. The French government dispatched a scientist to St. Louis to work with Engelmann, whose knowledge of American vines and grapes was unrivaled. He had confirmed that many American species naturally resisted Phylloxera and coordinated an effort to send millions of shoots and seeds to France. These varieties proved to be very effective in providing rootstock to an industry that was on the brink of calamity.

George Engelmann

In 1880, toward the end of his life, Engelmann was invited by Professor C. S. Sargent to join the Forestry Division of the United States Census in assessing the forests of the Pacific coast. His longtime friend, Charles Christopher Parry, was the other botanist on this expedition. They traveled from the Fraser River in British Columbia to southern Arizona, almost certainly observing many specimens of the tree named in his honor. Upon his death in 1884, Sargent honored his friend by saying: 

“… that splendid spruce, the fairest of them all, will still, it is to be hoped, cover the noble forests and the highest slopes of the mountains, recalling to men, as long as the study of trees occupies their thoughts, the memory of a pure, upright, and laborious life.”