As Thrilling as Any Western Romance

Lester Rowntree with plant press, Ynez, Mexico, June 1941. Photographer not known. Photograph courtesy of Special Collections, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Lester Rowntree with plant press, Ynez, Mexico, June 1941. Photographer not known. Photograph courtesy of Special Collections, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Tomes could be written on the pleasant by-products of the work. A collecting trip brings with it an awareness of earth and a sense of well being which adds to the larger life. You exchange confusion for peace; the feverish occupations of the city for the calm and quiet business of stalking plants in Nature’s planless plantings; and, most important, an unavoidably helpless and artificial way of life for one which is self-sufficient and authentic.

Lester Rowntree, Hardy Californians

Intrepid plant hunters in the first half of this century wrote about their adventures in a number of memorable accounts. E H Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China (1913) and Reginald Farrer’s On the Eaves of the World (1917) are two examples of books that were eagerly read by gardeners and armchair travelers alike. When the formula featured the novelty of a woman plant hunter and a locale that had beckoned to restless easterners and Europeans for a century or more, the appeal became irresistible. Such a woman was Lester Rowntree; the place was California.

Lester Rowntree (1879-1979) wrote two books, Hardy Californians (1936) and Flowering Shrubs of California (1939), as well as many articles about plant hunting in the Golden State’s back country. Rowntree’s quarry, however, was not the undiscovered species sought by other plant hunters. Instead she collected and sold seeds of little known California plants to encourage their use in gardens around the world. Her writing, too, was aimed at gardeners rather than botanists, and reached a wide audience beyond her home state, especially in the eastern United States and in Great Britain.

Rowntree wrote at a time when gardening enjoyed unprecedented popularity in this country. The so-called garden fever held many Americans in its grip from the turn of the century until World War II, and it created customers for Rowntree’s seed business and an audience for her writing. In addition, gardeners’ eternal appetite for something new, as well as the period’s growing enthusiasm for alpines and rock gardening, also fanned interest in California plants. Rowntree’s knowledgeable yet conversational remarks about penstemons, lupines, and manzanitas appeared at just the right time. But it was not only her vivid descriptions of potential garden subjects that drew so many readers.

Lester Rowntree’s colorful tales of life as a woman plant hunter, and a lone woman at that, together with her evocative word pictures of California’s landscape offered readers an escape from worries about an economy ravaged by the Depression and the looming threat of war. For gardeners and nature lovers, said the British journal Nature, Lester Rowntree’s books were “as thrilling as any Western romance.” She was, in fact, a sort of Zane Grey of horticulture.

Born in England, as a child Rowntree moved to California with her family. Later sent east to school, she settled there after her marriage. She could not erase California or its wildflowers from her thoughts, however, and in 1924 she returned with her husband and son. They settled in Carmel Highlands, which Rowntree used as a base for her increasingly lengthy journeys to mountain, coast, and desert as she collected seeds of wild plants. Garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder was one admiring client who recommended Rowntree to her many readers. Rowntree soon began to write articles herself, and later books, and her writing, full of personal anecdotes as well as information, made her something of a garden celebrity.

To some Lester Rowntree became an object of pilgrimage. Marion Cran, visiting from Britain in the early 1930s, was mesmerized by Rowntree’s Thoreau-like existence and thrilled by stories such as her nonchalant account of how, naked from an interrupted bath, she chased for two miles a bear that had stolen her bacon. Two decades later another Briton, Joan Parry Dutton, went to see Rowntree just after her seed collecting days had ended. Dutton admired Rowntree’s lifelong commitment to California wildflowers, but it was the anomalous combination of gypsy and lady that intrigued her most.

Rowntree could not have been unaware of this aspect of her appeal. She enjoyed describing her transformation, from an adventurer who just managed to leap free of her vehicle as it headed over a cliff, into a decorous garden club lecturer with stylish chapeau. While she confided to her readers that she always included silk stockings among her gear, she relished telling them also how friends feared for her safety and urged her not to travel alone. Mountain lions aren’t supposed to eat people, she scoffed, and “I can’t stay at home because of a few snakes.” Such bravado was characteristic of a new kind of heroine in the 1920s and 1930s: Amelia Earhart in the air, Gertrude Ederle in the water, and the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis on the screen. The public loved it.

The interest in Rowntree’s books and articles grew out of more than her unusual status as a woman plant hunter. The allure of California spoke invitingly to readers in distant cities and suburbs. Lester Rowntree had felt it herself, had abandoned her eastern home for its sake. Her writing and her photographs took full advantage of the spectacular backdrop of her labors. The opening words of Hardy Californians describe her composing its preface while “perched on top of a Sierra peak,” and the first photograph in Flowering Shrubs of California shows Rowntree and her burro silhouetted against the rocky crags of Piute Pass. Such images were hard to resist for the reader who was facing the gray slush of an endless February in the concrete canyons of New York or London. California landscape architect Ralph Cornell commented that Rowntree’s writing made her reader want to “pack his rucksack and start for the hinterlands.”

As Lester Rowntree wove together her writing and photography to create plant portraits, she succeeded as well in expressing the California dream. A dramatic photograph of the Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) growing out of a mountainside strewn with boulders captured the essence of the myth-laden western landscape. A stretching reach of lupine (Lupinus nanus) clothing the lower slopes of a California hillside seemed to promise similar bounty to those who would go west. For others, introducing California plants into their gardens, or just reading about them, brought a taste of the West into their lives.

Rowntree once penned this description for the Royal Horticultural Society:

Seated on this mesa in Southern California, lifted 3,000 feet high and yet surrounded by mountains, I can see, without getting up, mats of dwarf Eriophyllum and Gilia Parryae and sky-blue Delphinium piercing white clouds of Chaenactis. Dotted among these lesser plants are Yucca, Cassia shrubs and aromatic bushes belonging to many genera. Tall spires of apricot-red desert mallow blossom close by and a few miles away thousands of fragrant Hesperocallis or Desert Lilies, as they are called, are in flower.

If thousands shared Rowntree’s plant hunting adventures in spirit, what gardener can wonder why?