The Thurstons’ Orchid Collection Expeditions

by Karen J. May


William Richardson Thurston (Bill) was born in New Haven, Connecticut September 4, 1920, to Edward and Florence Holbrooke Thurston. Thirteen years after Bill, on January 8, 1933, Beatrice Louise Furnas (Mickie) was also born in New Haven, Connecticut to former Olympian Clifford Cook Furnas, Aeronautical Researcher and Sparkle Velma Moore Furnas, Home Economist MS.

By the time Bill and Mickie met in Colorado perhaps they saw in each other a kindred spirit with a mind filled with curiosity and a taste for adventure because they remained together until William’s death in 2011.

The Thurstons became known for their philanthropy, love of the arts, music, and education. Some of the many things they are credited as supporting are the Abbey Theatre, the Artist in Residence program, the Community Concert Hall, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG), endowing several geology scholarships at Fort Lewis College, helping initialize the Four Corners Opera, Music in the Mountains, Raise the Roof concert series, and sponsoring the Animas Room For Lewis College Student Union.

The motivation for the Thurston’s first trip to collect orchids in Mexico is unclear. They were certainly in a position to enjoy a luxury hotel or cruise. However, they were inveterate hikers with scientific educations and abundant curiosity. They decided to spend their leisure time tramping through back roads and living rough in the pursuit of endangered orchids.

Mickie planned the trips, researched the locations and specimens, and took along reference materials. Bill, always working with the latest photography equipment, photographed the specimens and locations, and photographed the orchids again if and when they bloomed once back in the States. The images were preserved as slides with careful notations about lighting, lens, aperture, exposure, and film.

In early 1972 they flew to Mexico City and rented a non-descript used car. They bought a large woven basket, filled it with moss and secured it to the top of the car to hold the orchids they would collect. Both the Pan-American Highway and the Mexican Federal Highway 190 were under construction and available for car traffic. The Thurston’s plan was to use these roads to access smaller less traveled back roads into the countryside where they might find orchids growing in their natural state.

From April of 1972 until December of 1985 they collected about 1554 orchids from Mexico, South America and Papua New Guinea resulting in 279 Botanical Illustrations, 4,493 color slides, 191 pressed specimens, and 159 specimens for the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium.

One of the first plants they collected was a small Encyclia flabellata (Lindl.), however, once it re-blossomed the Thurstons noticed that their specimen had a “unique fan shaped entire lip” unidentified in previous descriptions of the orchid. They wrote to Glenn E. Pollard , the expert on Mexican Encyclia, for his opinion and when the Encyclia bloomed again they sent a blossom to Leslie Andrew Garay, PhD, curator at the Orchid Herbarium of Oaks Ames Botanical Museum, Harvard University. Dr. Garay confirmed the re-identification of Encyclia flabellatum and encouraged them to contact their friend, Eric Hágsater, a world authority and Director of Asociacion Mexicana de Orquideologia A.C., and  publish in Orquidea; Organo Oficial de la Sociedad Mexicana Amigos de las Orquideas. The publication of the article resulted in the re-naming of the orchid Encyclia flabellata (Lindl.) B.F.Thurst. & W.R.Thurst.

Encyclia flabellata (Lindl.) B.F.Thurst. & W.R.Thurst was donated to DBG and cultivated there. A herbarium specimen was prepared for the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium. The digital images are accessible through at

The Thurstons wrote an additional article at Eric Hágsater’s prompting on Lepanthes pollardii Hespenheide titled “Notes on Lepanthes pollardii” that was very well received.

Some orchids were collected while in bloom; however, many were not. In order to document the orchid once they returned to Colorado, the Thurstons grew the specimens in greenhouses at their own compound or at Denver Botanic Gardens. They designed a side room adjacent to their own greenhouses to be used for activities needed to document and illustrate the orchids as they came into bloom.

In a 1985 newspaper article describing a “Micky and Bill Thurston…joint project with Denver Botanic Garden, to record and preserve endangered floral species.” it describes Barbara [Tobin] Klema “…working on “Dendrobium polysema” [Thurston collection number T-3489] and when she finished, her drawing will be the first of [the] Dendrobium since 1911.”  In the same article Mickie explains, “Practically every trip we bring back two or three unidentified orchids”. Once they bloomed a Botanical Illustration is created because although “[We] have taken 35mm pictures of every blossoming plant, but believe that in 200 to 300 years, those pictures will be faded past the point of recognition. Pen and ink doesn’t fade, however.”

It is clear in the collection’s meticulous field notes that the Thurstons were rescuing many of the orchids. In a field note about Lycaste aromatica (Graham) Lindl. T-1157: “Mexico: Chiapas: 069 Km Pan Am Hwy (Federal Highway 190)-Ocosingo. One grove of oaks left along road; fields clear cut in area. 4100'. Collected 6 Feb 1976. T-1157.” and “Mexico: Chiapas: 069 Km Pan Am Hwy (Federal Highway 190)-Ocosingo. Grove of large oaks; most of area clear-cut Collected (7) Feb 1976. T-1190.” The oaks are gone now; the clear cutting has been grown over with scrub and grasses. It is not the same environment thirty years later.  This is one of many examples in the field notes documenting the changes being made in the environments.

William R. Thurston and Beatrice F. Thurston orchid collections, the contributions to education, arts, science, Denver Botanic Gardens and other institutions would become their legacy to future generations beyond their lifetimes.

January 28th at Denver Botanic Gardens RMSBA member Karen J. May, 2012 Foundation Certificate in Botanical Illustration from DGB SBAI, shared her work with the Thurston Orchid Collection in a presentation encompassing the field notes, photographs, specimens, and Botanical Illustrations commissioned by the Thurstons.


  • Bill and Mickie Thurston 1990
  • Encyclia flagellata (Lindl.) B.F.Thurst. & W.R.Thurst.
  • Mickie cooking at campfire
  • Bill collecting Cattleya
  • Barbara Tobin Klema's BI of Dendrobium polysema