Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

A clue to his wide impact is in the many things named after him…probably more than any other person.

Humboldt did not consider himself an explorer,
but rather a scientific traveler, who accurately measured
what explorers inaccurately reported.

Humboltian Science

A few examples: Humboldt County, CA, Humboldt University, The Humboldt Current, The Humboldt Grove of Sequoia and the Humboldt neighborhood in Portland, OR….Andrea Wulf counts almost 300 plants and more than 100 animals named after Humboldt.

Given his love of mountains, it is perhaps not surprising that 18 peaks and three mountain ranges are named after von Humboldt. At 5020m, the Peak Alexander von Humboldt in Kyrgyzstan, is the highest mountain to bear his name. Feb 10, 2020 -Storymaps

He was a Prussian and grew to be a naturalist and geographer and adviser to many. He explored Latin America extensively, and made a trip to the United States and advised fellow natural philosopher (and President) Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

Thomas Jefferson remarked “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met.”

Inspiring Others

Humboldt was a generalist who was able to connect ideas related by many disciplines. His work and dedication inspired many well-known scientists, writers, artists, and intellects of the time such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many others.

Charles Darwin, for instance, referred to Humboldt as the “greatest scientific traveller who ever lived” and made frequent reference to Humboldt’s work in his Voyage of the Beagle.

Passion for Travel

Humboldt from OSU Archives

Some might say his special talent was curiosity about the world we live in, others his love of travel and science, and still others in his ability to communicate what he discovered. Perhaps it was his ability to cultivate and maintain long-lasting relationships with others or his ability to nurture respect and admiration from the common man and foster a vision of what science could do.

Celebrations

At one time, Humboldt was considered to be one of the most famous men in Europe. His works have been translated into almost every language in Europe. Humboldt and his labors have been celebrated in many countries including the U.S.  

If you had been around in 1869 you might have attended one of the many festivals celebrating the 100th year of Humboldt’s birth. If you were in New York City that year, you may have been able to witness the unveiling of a bust of his head in Central Park. Maybe next year on September 14 we should have a birthday party to recognize Alexander von Humboldt.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once dubbed Humboldt as “one of those wonders of the world… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.” 

Describing and Measuring the World

Humboldt would travel and conduct scientific studies as he traveled. He would tote along equipment to measure everything in multiple ways. He would collect information about population, economics, weather, plants, mineral, agriculture, etc. often using this information to create maps. Expeditions typically included naturalists and artists who were creating some of the first visual images ever captured for a region.

Humboldt was adamant that everything should be measured using the best techniques and tools available and that this collected data should be the basis of all scientific understanding. He traveled all over the world conducting studies, mapping, creating travel diaries, and often consulting with world leaders (who might help sponsor an expedition).

In one expedition in Cuba, Humboldt conducted extensive scientific and social research. He began by surveying cities and towns, and collecting statistical population information.

Humboldt often made suggestions related to his observations. One suggestion in Cuba, for instance, related to the potential for developing the market for guano. Guano was eventually exported to Europe.

Thirst for Knowledge

Alexander got off to a rough start as a sickly child, who, at first, was a poor student. However, Humboldt earned a diploma from the Freiberg School of Mines in 1792. Even though he attended three universities, he did not earn a degree at any (Frankfurt [Oder], Göttingen, and Berlin). His focus was preparing for scientific travel.

Humboldt’s unending thirst for knowledge was sparked while attending Freiberg where he began his interest in botany. There he studied mining and plants found around mines, created a safety light for miners, and started a school to help train miners.

Expeditions helped feed the thirst for knowledge and were typically funded by state-sponsored enterprises and wealthy patrons. The expeditions were often lengthy and expectations high for information that might boost a country’s economic possibilities.

Publishing

His extensive travels provided many opportunities to learn more about the generally unexplored world, and aggressively push this information out through printed publications and lectures. Unlike many other scientists of his day, Humboldt published information quickly and in great detail.

Map and one of five Kosmos titles (royalty free image from Shutterstock)

His publications demonstrated his universal belief in the “unity of nature.” This belief encompassed a holistic relationship existing between all physical sciences (such as biology, meteorology, and geology). He tried to explain natural phenomena through observation and data rather than religious dogma which was common at that time.

He was the first to take on the study of interactions and relationships between organisms and their biophysical environment (later known as ‘ecology’). Humboldt is considered be the ‘father’ of ecology, particularly for his work describing vegetation zones (geobotany) and climate using latitude and altitude. He also put forth far future concepts such as human-caused climate change, geology and formation of stars.

On many explorations, countries were particularly interested in having Humboldt look into natural resources such as mineral deposits. These minerals and materials included things like gold ore, silver, platinum, and eventually led to the discovery of diamonds in the Ural Mountains in Russia. Perhaps the most important thing about this discovery is that he was able to accurately predict the presence of diamonds based on his measurements.

A Visit to the U.S.

Humboldt frequently wrote letters to various leaders looking for exploration opportunities or areas in which help was needed. One such leader was then President Thomas Jefferson on the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

The then Spanish minister in Washington, D.C. had not furnished the U.S. with information about the actual southwest border let alone other details such as population, military, and economics. Humboldt was able to provide that information and more to Jefferson, who was also a scientist.

During that trip Humboldt was able to meet with some of the major scientific leaders of the time including chemist and anatomist (Caspar Wistar who supported compulsory smallpox vaccination), botanist (Benjamin Smith Barton), and physician (Benjamin Rush who was researching South American cinchona bark as a fever cure).  

Thomas Jefferson remarked “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met.”

Humboldt Lagoon State Park in North California (image courtesy of California State Park).

Challenging and Wondrous

The exploring process was undoubtedly challenging and wondrous. He is known for several mountain expeditions, and conquering tall peaks. These expeditions and amazing feats are not what people may generally remember him for.

What makes him truly memorable to many was his writing and communicating. Humboldt took extensive notes during his travels on what he learned and saw, and created multiple volumes of travel diaries and publications.

Not only was Humboldt a good writer but also a good artist. He would often capture images of what he saw (such as plants and animals), and create first ever maps from the measurements he took and landscapes explored.  

He was able to explore continents and create maps so more research could occur such as in central Asia, new Spain (Mexico), and Russia. Not many could have done this exploration and documentation better than Alexander von Humboldt.

Be inspired to observe the details of our world in your travels and share it with others! Even if you don’t get the credit!

“There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
― Alexander Von Humboldt

REFERENCES:
–Encyclopedia Britannica, Alexander von Humboldt (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-von-Humboldt)
–Wikipedia, Alexander von Humboldt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt), Botanical Geography; Alexander von Humboldt (…History_of_ecology#The_botanical_geography_and_Alexander_von_Humboldt); and Humboldtian Science (…Humboldtian_science)
–Good Reads Author Quotes (https://www.goodreads.com)
–Images: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/j-c_goersch/1137961438/) and Oregon State University Archives (http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab/tag/humboldt/)


Just like in classic murder mysteries… a pretty face pressed behind glass and poising as art is really a deceptive killer.

Bracken fern (royalty free from Unsplash)

Perhaps being a deceptive killer is really just a clever survival strategy. Fossil records over 55 million years old show Bracken ferns is one of the oldest plants around.  

Bracken ferns grows throughout all temperate and tropical regions. In Oregon we see the subspecies P. aquilinum pubescens or Western Bracken which grows from Alaska to Mexico and east to Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas.

The plant prefers well-drained soils and will often grow on hillsides. It will also grow in burned-over areas near woodlands or other shady places and in open pastures and ranges with sandy, gravelly soils.

Colonization

It colonizes areas two different ways. Triangular fronds may reach 16 feet or taller in a season. Fronds provide some shade and protection but discourage native species through large volumes of plant litter and chemical emissions.

Tiny, lightweight spores are on the underside of the frond. Spores easily spread in the wind or fall from fronds to the ground.  

Spores sprout into plants and lead to the development of deep-set, black roots called rhizomes. Bracken rhizomes creep underground up to 1,300 feet sending up fronds as they grow. The lowly Bracken is surprisingly one of the largest plants in the world.

Dried Bracken fern (royalty free Unsplash)

Silent Killer

Every part of the Bracken contains poisonous, carcinogenic compounds—even the spores are toxic. The plant emits poison into the surrounding soil through spores and leaf litter. These toxic chemicals remain in the soil even after the fern is removed.

Bracken fern is toxic to dogs, cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs. This fern is linked to cancer in humans. Even milk from cows grazing Bracken fern may be hazardous to humans.

Grazing animals may consume Bracken when normal foods are unavailable (such as during adverse weather). Ptaquiloside has a cumulative effect. Cattle consuming large amounts of Bracken in short periods of time can become poisoned. The disease has a delayed onset and poisoned animals rarely recover. The disease is often chronic in horses.

Some cultures consume young fronds called fiddleheads and rhizomes. Ptaquiloside will damage DNA and potentially lead to digestive tract cancers. There are ways to reduce the level of this chemical through cooking and other detoxifying techniques.

Hydrogen cyanide is released when mammals or insects eat this fern. This chemical causes repeated insect molting leading to death. Bracken is under investigation as a possible new insecticide.

Eradication

Bracken invasions threaten biodiversity and habitat loss. Once established, this deciduous plant and its chemical foot print are very difficult to eradicate.

Removal and long-term management can encourage the re-establishment of native habitats. Bracken ferns are listed as an invasive species in several areas and considered to be among the world’s worst weeds.

REFERENCES:
–Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/plant/bracken)
–USDA Agricultural Research Service (https://www.ars.usda.gov/pacific-west-area/logan-ut/poisonous-plant-research/docs/western-bracken-fern-pteridium-aquilinum/)
–Wikipedia, Bracken (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracken)

USDA photo

Don’t let Poison Oak and other plants ruin a perfectly good outing.

It can only hurt you if you touch it, right? Not necessarily…. Here are a few tips for avoiding problems with Poison Oak.

Recognize the plant

Poison Oak is commonly found in Oregon and California as a shrub or vine that is up to 12-feet tall.

The old warning ‘leaves of three, let them be’ is still accurate. Note: there could be more than three leaves (like 5 or 7) and the leaves of every variety can look different.

Poison Oak is not a tree—it is a member of the cashew family with hairy under-leaves. The leaves are similar to the rounded lobes of Oregon white oak. Oregon white oaks does not have clumps of leaves in threes (or fives).

Understanding the danger

All parts of the oak are capable of exuding oil which can cause a rash on most individuals. 

The Center for Disease Control indicates that most people are sensitive to the poison oak sap and a tiny amount (equivalent to a grain of table salt) will cause 80-90 percent of adults to rash.

An oily plant sap chemical, urushiol triggers an allergic reaction. A reaction can occur within just a few hours.

Knowing how exposure occurs

Exposure can occur when brushing up against or damaging the plants like a pet may do. Urushiol does not affect pets.

Urushiol sap can easily transfer to other objects such as a tool, clothing, pet fur, shoes, and gloves.

Finally, smoke from a burning plant can be a problem. Sap in smoke can impact skin and nasal passages, throat, and lungs and potentially cause very serious allergic reactions. 

Recognizing the symptoms

The sap causes Contact dermatitis which is the swelling and irritation of the skin. The dermatitis may not show immediately in individuals who have not had previous contact.

Not everyone will be impacted by Poison Oak. Everyone, however, can spread the sap and contaminate others. 

Clean up carefully

Carefully wash fingernails to avoid further spread. Closely trim fingernails to minimize the damage caused by scratching (such as infection).

Wear gloves and use lukewarm water when cleaning surfaces. Use soap and cool water for pets and livestock. Even though pets and livestock do not get the rash, they can easily carry it.

Controlling the problem

The sap is quickly absorbed into the skin. Fast treatment (within 20-30 minutes of exposure) is critical. There are several products on the market that work well; some even come in wipes and handy pocket-sizes.

One particular product may not work for everyone or in every case. Be sure to include a variety of items in the First Aid kit including some of those products, antihistamines, oral corticosteroids, and more.

Symptoms may persist for three weeks before subsiding. Poison Oak is not contagious.

Call 911 as needed

Don’t let something like Poison oak ruin your outing. This article is not intended to share or provide medical advice or recommendations. It does share commonly experienced problems, tips and techniques. In other words: Been there. Had the itch. No fun.

REFERENCES:
–Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac at https://www.poison-ivy.org/pacific-poison-oak  check out the great plant identification poster
–U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Poisonous Plants.” July 7, 2016 at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/plants/
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife at https://www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/visitors/docs/Denman_WA_TrailGuide.pdf