Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2007


A Hardy Californian

January 1, 2007

Lester Rowntree (1879-1979) was a self-taught botanist and independent spirit who spent half her life trekking up and down California observing, gathering, and photographing the state’s native flora. Born in England, Rowntree lived in Kansas, Southern California, and on the East Coast before returning to California in 1921. In 1931, the 52-year-old Rowntree left her husband and began what she called a “gypsy” existence studying California’s plants on their home ground. She supported herself by writing hundreds of articles and two books, including Hardy Californians (1936), from which this excerpt is taken.

After my English childhood came a girlhood here in California, when I began to realize the state’s richness in flowers and made little forays into its then almost virgin territory. I often wish that I had kept the rather incomplete herbarium I made in those days….

Later, when I was vehemently gardening in northern New Jersey, my thoughts went back to the wild flowers of California with a desperate desire to see them flourishing in my rock gardens and woodland slopes. Indeed I made several trips to the Pacific Coast, bringing back collected seeds of plants which I thought could be grown. But a California garden in New Jersey was in those days only an experimental indulgence. Horticultural books and magazines could yield me no information. I was without the benefit of experience—my own or that of others—and many a homesick plant of the Pacific Coast infected me with its own deep and undisguised depression.

Finally I achieved a California existence once more and could indulge again in my prowls in the hinterland until they became a habit culminating in my present two-thirds-vagabond life. (By such a regrettable series of gradations has a tomboy developed into a gypsy.)

Tourists in California often complain that there are no seasons…. Let them turn collectors. They will soon find that while in the lowlands Nature perhaps does not express her changes of tense in such emphatic terms as in the East, they are in the grip of the seasons here just as surely as in the climes where winter is for skating and summer for swimming.

Water is California’s greatest benediction and it controls the inception and the intensity of the seasons. Drought has enforced a summer’s rest upon growing things. The chaparral-covered slopes with their many variations in texture and in shadings of greens and browns, wait for rain. The live-oak dappled hills are drowsy slopes of pale gold velvet. All plant life begins to look expectant. At the first touch of what [William Ernest] Henley called “the wet-winged Angel of Rain” the silent hidden root-world thrills skyward, feeling the sting of stirring sap throughout trunk and branches and stems even to the tiniest leaf and tendril.

And for the next nine months my life is a harried one. The whole state becomes a garden of extravagant bloom. Each climatic area must be visited, the members of its flora photographed, studied and noted, specimens pressed, perhaps a seedling dug, often some seeds captured.

The plants must be approached, not only from the botanical angle but also from that of the gardener; their exposures, soil, possible requirements and their associates recorded; anything, in fact, which will facilitate the growing of them….

My collecting car has but a single seat—the driver’s. This leaves floor space to spread my sleeping bag when desert storms rage or Sierra rains descend or when in isolated spots the footprints of bears appear unusually thickly. (Bivouacking with bears, though not dangerous, is often disturbing.)

…The best stands of native plants can be reached only on foot or by horse or burro. My car is purely a means of transportation into the vicinity of these places. No one who has not left the highway and followed out-of-the-way trails can have any conception of the poignant beauty of the haunts of California’s wild flowers….

I wish there were a word one could use instead of the acquisitive-sounding “collecting” which has such a vampirish and predatory ring. Intelligent collecting is a conservation measure, legitimate only when done with knowledge and forethought and when the motive is the preservation of the plants themselves. A scrupulous collector does always more good than damage. He never exhausts a stand. When seed is scarce he sees to it that some is sown in appropriate places not far from the parent growth. He is out to create rather than to destroy. Taking plants or seeds is but a part of his field day’s activities; much additional time is spent in studying, identifying, noting and photographing. Collecting is a pursuit which should be actuated only by love of plants.

Excerpted from the new edition of Hardy Californians, published by the University of California Press, 2006,

About the Author

Lester Rowntree is an emeritus professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. He is writing a book for UC Press on the natural history and landscape changes of the Central Coast.

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