Ralph Hoffmann on Massachusetts Plants, I:
Berkshire County's Wild Flora in 1899

Compiled and Edited by
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Ballona Institute & Wetlands Action Network
322 Culver Boulevard, Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293

Volume 1: 229-230
December 1899

Ralph Hoffmann
For several years I have noticed in a peat bog, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a handsome willow, growing as a shrub fifteen feet or less in height. The persistence, or late ripening of the fruit is particularly characteristic; a branch collected September 24, still retains its half opened capsules. The willow grows plentifully in beds of sphagnum, in company with Betula pumila L. and Sarracenia purpurea L. Mr. C. E. Faxon, who has kindly examined a branch, pronounces it Salix amygdaloides Anders. As the most eastern station for this willow so far reported is Central New York, this record is the first for New England.

A grass collected by me in Sheffield, Berkshire County, has been identified through the kindess of Mr. W. Deane, as Eragrostis frankii Steud., hitherto recorded no farther north than northern New Jersey. I have unfortunately no data by which to determine whether the grass is native of Sheffield.

Scabiosa australis Wulf. naturalized from Europe, has been known to the botanists of Pittsfield since 1892. It grows sparingly in several wet, grassy spots and abundantly in at least one. The effect of the loose habit and pale blue heads is rather pretty, in spite of its weedy look in the dried state.


Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek

Ralph Hoffmann was born and raised in Berkshire County in 1870. At the age of 13 years, he was considered an expert bird watcher. He moved east to Boston in order to attend Harvard University. Soon after graduation, he began to write his first articles on birds. However, the article reprinted above is believed to be the first article that he wrote about botany and a wild flora. It would be 23 years later, when he would write a comprehensive monograph entitled: Flora of Berkshire County. Although he had been writing articles on birds for several years, this article marked his professional and avocational interest in botany. He was a 29-year old school teacher at the time he wrote this article. The article begins with a brief narrative about a "peat bog" with a "handsome" willow tree and it is a subtle indication that shows his life-long interest in watery landscapes, i.e. wetlands. His article ends with another plant of the wetland habitat, which is a weed but that he states is "rather pretty." We can discern that Ralph Hoffmann, even as a scientific naturalist, was able to wax poetic about beauty, albeit ever so subtle, with the use of the words "handsome" and "pretty." The publication of this article is the first clear indication that Ralph Hoffmann was not only interested in birds but also in botany, so we may actually call him a naturalist. Later in his life, as a mature middle-aged man, he moved from Massachusetts to California, and took up, once again, a dual interest in birds and plants. He pursued both ornithology and floristics simultaneously, with a passion. He observed birds and collected plants from the California Channel Islands, desert, California coast, and wetlands of southern California. For example, at Carpinteria, where Ralph Hoffmann resided, he collected at least 15 plants from the dune and marsh at Carpinteria. Wayne Ferren, a UCSB botanist, carefully edited a monograph on the biology and ecology of Carpinteria Salt Marsh. In this monograph, Ferren listed Ralph Hoffmann's name at least 15 times, in regard to varioius plants that he had collected at Carpinteria Marsh. He also wrote a brief biographical note about Ralph Hoffmann as follows: "The second quarter of the 20th Century included visits to Carpinteria Salt Marsh by many notable collectors. Ralph Hoffmann, Director of SBM (1925-1932), collected numerous specimens from the estuary and dunes between 1925-1932. These specimens are housed at SBM, CAS, and POM."

In the 1980s, Pamela Weatherbee, as a student of the flora of Berkshire County, emerged on the "landscape." She did graduate work on the floristics and vegetation, and published a comprehensive book entitled: Flora of Berkshire County Massachusetts. It is the exact same title that Ralph Hoffmann used 74 years earlier. Her book is 123 pages in length, while Ralph Hoffmann's book is 211 pages in length. Pamela Weatherbee quotes Hoffmann profusely throughout her book because Hoffmann's book is a good baseline of information upon which she could draw many observations. A few excerpts from Pamela Weatherbee's book regarding Ralph Hoffmann are worthy of quotation: "Ralph Hoffmann, compiler of the most recent Berkshire county Flora (1922), was born in 1870 in Stockbridge, where his father was headmaster of a private school. He was known first as an accomplished ornithologist, publishing a paper on Berkshire birds in 1900, and subsequently, field guides and books on birds of a wider area. His interest in botany surfaced in 1899, and ... he documented the discovery of autumn willow (Salix serissima) and Frank's lovegrass (Eragrostis frankii) in the county. Thirty years of collecting laid the foundation for his flora, which is a thorough, accurate work, providing much information on habitat and distribution. His professional career was in teaching, although later in life he became Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. It was in 1932, while collecting plants on a coastal cliff in California, that he fell to his death."

The small tree of the "peat bog in Stockbridge" that Ralph Hoffmann called a "handsome willow" occurred "plentifully in beds of sphagnum" and was discovered by him, is today known by the name of Autumn Willow, Salix serissima. Pamela Weatherbee describes the habitat this way: "In shrub fens and calcareous wet meadows. In central valley region." Perhaps, what intrigued Ralph Hoffmann most about the sphagnum peat bog was the presence of the "carnivorous" pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea. Or perhaps it was the Swamp Birch, Betula pumila, which most intrigued Ralph Hoffmann. Today, the Swamp Birch is considered "rare" according to Pamela Weatherbee. All in all, more than 100 plants that were collected by Ralph Hoffmann are compiled in Pam Weatherbee's flora with Hoffmann's year of collection and location in Berkshire County.

In summary, this early article, 106 year ago, by Ralph Hoffmann, albeit brief, establishes Ralph Hoffmann as both a zoologist and botanist. Therefore, he is a genuine biologist and naturalist, and can be termed an early ecologist, conservation biologist, and environmental biologist. Of course, as Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and with a biologist bent, we can also refer to him as a "true" natural historian.