Over Deserts and Mountains: A Botanist’s Love
Amy Weiss is a curatorial assistant in The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she catalogues and preserves plant specimens from around the world. Each Wednesday throughout Women’s History Month, Science Talk will celebrate one of the many women of science to have left a mark on botanical history.
Every time I walk by the California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) that bloom in the Rock Garden at The New York Botanical Garden, I get a little homesick. I am a California girl, born and raised. As it turns out, I have the botanist Sara Allen Plummer Lemmon to thank for making this poppy the state flower of California and an emblem of home.
Sara Allen Plummer was born in Maine in 1836, schooled in Massachusetts, taught art in New York City, and in 1869 made her way to Santa Barbara, California to improve her health. Upon settling in, she opened up a stationery store and lending library (the first public library in Santa Barbara) and became fascinated by the local flora. She began drawing and collecting specimens of plants, and her store became a cultural hub in town, offering art exhibits, lectures, and readings. Sara met John Gill Lemmon (botanist, teacher, Civil War veteran) in 1876 when he came to California to study and collect the local plants. Their shared interest in botany no doubt played a part in their love affair, and the two were married in 1880.
John went on to write an account of their honeymoon in 1881, stating that his wife, “being as enthusiastic and as devoted to botany as I, was the first to propose that, instead of the usual stupid and expensive visit to a watering-place, idling our time in useless sauntering, and listening to silly gossip, we should wait a few weeks, devoting the time to study; then, at the right time, make a grand botanical raid into Arizona, and try to touch the heart of Santa Catalina.” Their goal was a sheltered valley between the peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, Arizona, which previous botanists and white settlers had not managed to penetrate.
Female botanists were a novelty then, and it was Sara’s field outfit that got all the attention, comprising a suit of strong material, calfskin shoes with nails along the soles and heels for traction, leather leggings and gloves to protect against cacti and snakes, a broad-brimmed hat, botanical portfolio, and a long staff. Making camp in a deserted horse thief’s stick-and-mud cabin, and later a small cave, the pair attempted to climb the mountain from the south side. The way was steep and full of plants with thorns and spines that tore at their clothes and embedded themselves in their flesh. They saw Gila monsters and rattlesnakes. All of their attempts were foiled by ridges or chasms that prevented them from going further. I’m not sure this is what either envisioned when they decided to make this their honeymoon.
They retreated back to Tucson, where they sought advice and were told to go around to the north side, to the small town of Oracle, and see E. O. Stratton, a rancher. He outfitted them with horses and guided them up the mountain. They eventually reached the highest peak of the Santa Catalinas, which is now named Mount Lemmon, in Sara’s honor.
The Lemmons returned to California and settled in Oakland, setting up the Lemmon Herbarium in their home (it was later incorporated into the herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley). The two extensively botanized the West Coast, and in addition to authoring her own botanical works, Sara produced artwork to accompany her husband’s forestry publications as the official artist for the California State Board of Forestry.
She authored the bill that designated the California poppy as the state flower in 1903; with its golden petals, it is a fitting floral symbol for the Golden State. Coming up in a little more than a week is California Poppy Day, which is celebrated in the state every April 6th.
The Lemmons sent many of their collections to the great 19th-century American botanist Asa Gray for identification, and he named many species in honor of Sara and John. One was Stevia plummerae, a specimen of which, collected during their honeymoon, is here at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. In the species description, Gray explains that it is “a very pretty and distinct species of Stevia, which may appropriately bear the name of one of the discoverers, Mrs. Lemmon, botanically still best known by her maiden name of Plummer, having shared the labors and privations of her husband in the arduous exploration of which this is one of the fruits.”
John died in 1908 and Sara in 1923. Their headstone reads, “Partners in botany.”
Before planning your own botanical wedding trip, start out by reading more about the Lemmons’ honeymoon.
Gray, A. 1882. Contributions to North American Botany. Proc. Amer. Acad. Arts, 17: 204-205.
Lemmon, J. G. 1881. A Botanical Wedding Trip. The Californian, 4(24): 517-525.
Santa Barbara Independent