More than 50 years ago, Hugh Iltis crouched high in the Peruvian Andes to search for a dropped camera filter and found a patch of tiny pinkish violets no bigger than a penny growing in a spot so remote it’s possible no one had seen that type of flower before or since.
“I didn’t know it was a new species at the time,” said the UW-Madison botany legend and environmental crusader, who named the violet — one of the smallest in the world at barely
1 centimeter tall — Viola lilliputana after the fictional island inhabited by miniature people in Jonathan Swift’s novel “Gulliver’s Travels.”
The diminutive plant, which experts at the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University picked to lead the top 10 list of new species identified in 2012, is not the first species that Iltis, 88, is credited with finding.
And it might not be the last. In his decades of collecting, the former director of the UW-Madison Herbarium amassed many other specimens that, like Viola lilliputana, are biding their time until they can be identified or determined to be a new plant never described before.
In the case of the miniature violet, that moment came when Harvey Ballard arrived at the university. Ballard, now an associate professor at Ohio University, came to UW-Madison in 1992 to begin his doctorate work on violets. But before he got around to the violet in question, Ballard had to finish his degree. Then he and Iltis spent years scouring existing resources to confirm the Peruvian specimen had not been previously identified.
“Nobody’s ever seen it since he found it,” Ballard said. “We know it from one site in the world.”
The violet was selected by a panel of taxonomists from among an estimated 18,000 zoological, botanical and microbiological species identified last year.
Panel members were free to use any criteria they wished in compiling the top 10 list, which seeks to draw attention to biodiversity and is released each year on May 23, the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, known as the “father of taxonomy” for his work classifying plants and animals.
Ballard and Iltis’ article on Viola lilliputana in the Dec. 12 issue of Brittonia, a publication of the New York Botanical Garden, was the culmination of a 2 ½-month expedition in late 1962 and early 1963.
Iltis and his then-wife, along with student Don Ugent and his wife, trekked to a windswept plateau in southern Peru so high the lack of oxygen produces a mountain sickness the indigenous people call sirroche.
“It’s really a devil of a thing,” said Iltis, who toughed out the headaches, along with temperatures — evidenced by snow-capped mountain tops despite the proximity to the equator — by sleeping in a jacket with sweaters layered underneath.
“In retrospect, it was pretty foolish to think you could survive this,” said Iltis, who was studying how potatoes and tomatoes were being grown in the region, as well as collecting other plants.
Iltis recalls the rugged roads the group traveled to an elevation of 13,000 feet or more. “It was absolutely awful. There were huge drop-offs on either side,” he said. “You make one mistake from this road, you end up 300 feet below and nothing would be left of you.”
On Dec. 15, 1962, after passing Lagunas Pucacocha and Islacocha, resplendent with pink-orange flamingos, and the tiny settlement of Negro Mayo, the four stopped to watch vicunas, wild South American camelids. Iltis was taking photos of the animals when the haze filter dropped from his camera. Searching on his hands and knees, he spotted not only the filter.
“I found this little patch of small plants,” he said. “It didn’t look anything like a violet. It was pink, which is quite unrelated to violets.”
A ‘phenomenal collector’
Iltis’ journey to becoming a botanist began in his native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), which he fled with his family as a young teenager shortly before Hitler invaded. Iltis’ father was a teacher and biographer of genetics pioneer Gregor Mendel, known for his work with pea plants.
Iltis used his fluency in German to interrogate Nazi war criminals as a young man serving in the U.S. Army. Later, he used it to research the literature on violets in the process of identifying Viola lilliputana.
As a botanist, Iltis became the world authority on the genus of flowering plants known as Cleome, or spider flower. He also is known for his work on the origin and evolution of corn and for his discovery of a wild tomato that has been used to elevate the sugar content of modern tomato varieties.
As a plant collector, Iltis “had a real eye for knowing what was interesting,” said Ted Cochrane, recently retired curator at the UW herbarium.
Iltis also was a crusader for what he called the “optimum human environment,” talking about people’s need to be around plants and in nature before terms such as “nature deficit disorder” were coined, Cochrane said.
“Dr. Iltis is one of the most phenomenal collectors and botanists we’ve had in a century. This is really a tribute to him,” Ballard said of Viola lilliputana. “This is his baby.”
Plant collectors such as Iltis, who lost part of a leg after developing a blood clot and is now at a Madison nursing home, are themselves a dwindling breed.
“There are just untold treasures out there waiting to be discovered,” Ballard said, adding that fewer and fewer people are going out into the field to find them.
Ballard said he “would be amazed” if anyone has returned to the spot where Iltis found Viola lilliputana.
“It’s an extreme environment for people, and it’s an extreme environment for plants,” he said.
An annual plant, the tiny violet must reseed itself each year in order to survive, Ballard said, adding, “Hopefully, it’s still there.”