Earth Notes: Grand Canyon's Pioneering Cactus Collector

Feb 25, 2015

  It was a long way from the civilized college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Mexican Hat, Utah, back in the summer of 1937. But Dr. Elzada Clover made the trip.

A botanist at the University of Michigan, she had an ambitious dream to explore the little-known plant life of the Colorado River region. Cacti were her specialty. Where better to find them than the Southwest deserts?

In Utah she met riverman Norm Nevills, and persuaded him to guide her down the Green and Colorado rivers by boat. Back in Michigan, Clover put her crew together—all men, except a young graduate student, Lois Jotter, who proved to be an able budding botanist.

In three wooden boats built for the trip—the “Wen,” the “Botany,” and the “Mexican Hat”—the six-person expedition launched from Green River, Utah, on June 20, 1938. The headlines read “Two Flora-Minded Women Off On Daring Boat Trip.”

For 42 days, the women gathered plants through Cataract, Glen, and Grand canyons, storing the specimens in watertight compartments on the boats. As they descended the Grand, Elzada noted changes in vegetation, especially the huge barrel cacti.

Credit National Park Service

At the end of the 666-mile trip, at Hoover Dam, Clover declared it “more successful than we had dreamed.” She and Jotter published two major papers on the cacti, including three new species.

Besides ground-breaking science, the trip was momentous for another reason—Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter were the first women to successfully run the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.  

Earth Notes is produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.