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.
As one of the first scientists to be associated with The New York Botanical Garden, Henry Hurd Rusby started the botanical garden’s long history of research in economic botany, the study of how people use plants. Appointed Honorary Curator of the Economic Collections in 1898 (a position for which he volunteered and which he held until his death), Rusby acquired useful plants and plant-derived products through donation, exchange, and field excursions for the garden’s Economic Museum.
These specimens were arranged first by use, then by phylogeny (their evolutionary relationships), and were put on display at the turn of the 20th century on the main floor of the newly built museum building, which is now called the Library Building. The collection occupied more than 200 glass cases. Rusby placed great emphasis on ensuring that each item in the museum have the correct origin and scientific name. That’s standard practice today, but at the time many specimens lacked these important pieces of information.
Novels are full of unconventional women, from Jane Austen’s spunky Elizabeth Bennet to the brilliant botanist Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. But Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee (1844-1920), a real-life botanist, could certainly have taught these fictional women a thing or two about forging your own path.
Born Mary Katharine Layne in 1844 to a Tennessee farmer, she was a young girl when the Laynes moved west to California during the 1849 gold rush, eventually settling in Folsom, California. She married Hugh Curran, a constable, in 1866, but he died of alcoholism in 1874. Often described as strong-willed, Mrs. Curran moved to San Francisco the following year and enrolled at the University of California’s medical school. She was only the third woman to do so.
At that time, botany was an essential component of medical science education, and after receiving her degree, Curran followed the advice of an instructor and pursued botany rather than practice medicine. She became a member of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 1879, continuing her botanical training by collecting plants throughout California and working in the Academy’s herbarium. In 1883, Curran was appointed a curator of botany, one of the first women to hold such a position at a major museum, and in 1891 she became the sole botanical curator.
Christmas is associated with so many different plants that it’s hard to imagine the holiday without them. There’s mistletoe (traditionally Viscum album), holly (Ilex species, usually I. aquifolium), poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and, of course, the Christmas tree (species of Abies, Picea, or Pinus). But most people probably don’t realize that one of the central moments in the story of Christmas features plant products. They’re frankincense and myrrh, which along with gold were brought as gifts by the three kings (or wise men, or magi).
In our collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, we have samples of both frankincense and myrrh, which were used throughout history as perfume, incense, and medicine and were considered precious gifts. Both are gum resins collected from small trees in the family Burseraceae, also known as the torchwood family because the wood and resin burn so well. The periderm (outer bark) of the trees is peeled back or cut, and the resin flows to the wounded surface, where it dries and is scraped off.