Among the vestiges of the natural world maintained through our intervention are fields of wildflowers, most now fragments of what early explorers saw.
The West, especially California, very early became known as a flowery region. Plant exploration began in the 1500s, with the period between 1750 and 1850 known as the golden age of plant discovery on the Pacific Coast. Long before statehood was attained much of our native flora was known in other parts of the world. Many of our plants were named for their discoverers — often botanists or naturalists who otherwise knew little about California. Generally, records of forays into the Pacific wilderness are scant and filed away in foreign institutions. David Douglas, that indomitable plant hunter, left enthusiastic notes about his collecting trips, delightful to read today for his reaction to wild and trackless forests in areas we now whisk through on broad highways. As were many other plant hunters, Douglas was commissioned by foreign institutions and nurserymen to comb our woods and fields for plants with which to enhance gardens elsewhere.
Not all of the early visitors came to collect plants. There were naturalists, foresters, miners, business people, and those who came for leisurely contemplation of the California scene. A few of these learned to admire the native flora and left records of their impressions. We are grateful for the evocative descriptions these wanderers left us of the wild plants in countryside now greatly changed.
The tragedy is that knowledgeable appreciation of California’s flora came almost too late, and some plants have become rare or are facing extinction before their beauty has been widely recognized or their usefulness evaluated. Many a newcomer to this state has never seen a February field filled with coppery orange poppies, sky-blue lupines, yellow tidytips, rose-purple owl’s clover, soft yellow cream cups, and many more. These free-flowering annuals once formed mosaic carpets stretching for miles from the great Central Valley to the foothills. The few records of personal observation thus become increasingly precious.
Through Other Eyes
Can you imagine, to begin with, the area now dominated by buildings to the south of San Francisco described by an observer during the mid-1800s:
The first thing that arrested attention after leaving the sandy shores of San Francisco was the flowers… Here they have flowers in May, not shy, but rampant, as if nothing else had the right to be; flowers by the acre, flowers by the square mile, flowers as the visible carpet of an immense mountain wall. You can gather them in clumps, a dozen varieties at one pull. You can fill a bushel-basket in five minutes. And the colors are as charming as the numbers are profuse. Yellow, purple, violet, pink and pied, are spread around you, now in separate level masses, now two or three combined in a swelling knoll, now intermixed in gorgeous confusion. Imagine yourself looking across to a hundred acres of wild meadow, stretching to the base of hills nearly two thousand feet high — the whole expanse swarming with little straw-colored wild sun-flowers, orange poppies, squadrons of purple beauties, battalions of pink — and then the mountain, unbroken by tree or rock, glowing with the investiture of all these hues, softened and kneaded by distance. This is what I saw on the road to San Mateo.
John Muir, one of the most quoted of our naturalists, found similar scenes further inland:
The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. Mints, gilias, nemophilas, castillejas, and innumerable compositae were so crowded together that, had ninety-nine percent of them been taken away, the plain would still have seemed to any but Californians extravagantly flowery. The radiant, honeyful corollas, touching and overlapping, and rising above one another, glowed in the living light like a sunset sky — one sheet of purple and gold, with the bright Sacramento [river] pouring through the midst of it from the north, the San Joaquin from the south, and their many tributaries sweeping in at right angles from the mountains, dividing the plain into sections fringed with trees.
In the 1940s, Alice Eastwood, a botanist at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, walked the hills frequently and wrote about her travels as well as about the plants seen by others more than half a century earlier. How sad to read her comments and the list of plants that once existed, most of which are now gone:
In the 1890s the open country everywhere around San Francisco was a beautiful wild flower garden in the spring. In the region near Lake Merced the wild flowers were so thick that it was impossible to avoid stepping on them. There were California poppies, nemophilas, violets, cream cups, owl’s clover, mouse-ear chickweed, Indian paintbrush, clovers, etc. The yellow violet, Viola pedunculata, was especially common, known to children as Johnny-jump-up. Today, new roads, golf links, vegetable fields, and human habitations have driven them away and it is doubtful if a single native flower persists. A solitary madrone grew in a gulch leading to the lake, the sides of which were covered with dense chaparral. Ceanothus incanus formed a thicket together with hazel, manzanita, low oaks, and other shrubs. Climbing over them was the Dutchman’s pipe, Aristolochia californica.
The Bay View Hills near south San Fransisco was the home of some flowers not found elsewhere in the city. These were the climbing nemophila, Nemophila aurita (now in genus Pholistoma); the white flax-flowered gilia, Linanthus liniflorus; islay cherry, Prunus ilicifolia; the tall larkspur, Delphinium californicum; the stinging phacelia, Phacelia malvaefolia. On the rocky summit, now known as Bay View Park, were rose cress, Arabis blepharophylla; the downy leaved paint brush, Castilleja foliolosa; pennyroyal, Monardella villosa; and later several composites and eriogonums. In the meadow below was a garden similar to that at Lake Merced. In some places near Visitacion Valley the ground was white with the pelican-flower, Orthocarpus versicolor, and in other places the areas were pink tinged from owl’s clover, Orthocarpus densiflorus. These common names were given to these flowers by Dr Kellogg, the latter because each flower formed the face of an owl. Everywhere golden poppies and amsinckias.
On the hills back of Ingleside, then known as Sunset Heights, and on the hills rising from the mission, a great many flowers could be found. The Potrero Hills, too, were then covered with flowers. The white Fritillaria Iiliaceae grew there and in a wet place Miss Cannon discovered a long-lost species, Sanicula maritima. At Hunters Point, now entirely covered by a housing project, this fritillaria was found a few years ago by Lewis S. Rose, and I found the fragrant Dodecatheon bernalinum there in 1916. This was still on Bernal Heights a few years ago.
In the early 1890s, the Presidio was as beautiful a wild flower garden as Lake Merced… In olden times a low form of Zigadenus fremontii whitened the ground, the blue-violet as well as the yellow was common, as were also two species of Orthocarpus not found in any other part of San Francisco; and a dark red onion and clumps of the blue Douglas iris loved rocky ridges. Besides there were flowers common elsewhere. However, the yellow-flowered bush lupine, the blue-flowered Chamisso lupine, and the broad dumps of Ceanothus thyrsiflorus still hold their own. Not long ago, Lewis S. Rose even added a species of fern allies known as quillwort, Isoetes nuttallii. This had never been found in the San Francisco area and is not a common plant. The wax myrtle too, may yet be growing along Lobos Creek or Mountain Lake.
Willis Linn Jepson is widely respected as the father of California botany, and his early Manual of Flowering Plants is now being revised. In addition to being a fine botanist, he was amazingly accurate in predicting the conservation movement among lovers of the native flora. He wrote in 1917:
In the long run protection must come by the devices and resources of united effort, high intelligence, and careful handling. We must work for it, plan for it, strive for it. It is a noble object. If the beauty and glamour of the Golden Land in its youth can be preserved and harmonized with the practical phases of our civilization, then we may proudly say that our race was fit to enjoy it and to keep it, rising to the spirit and glad wonder of Nature in the valleys, mountains and canyons of our California.
And by the stream and in the canyons Charles Francis Saunders, another of my favorite nature writers, observes fall’s first rains in southern California in the 1920s:
Hard upon this first substantial storm, which may last for two or three days with varying intensity and soaks the ground to the root of things, the cañons awake. Dormant springs renew their waters; brooks move more briskly; their sluggish pools, dogged with the summer’s accumulation of leaves and fallen acorns, overflow and fill again with musical tinkle the stretches of gravelly channel long silent. Under the magic of the rain the selaginella beds, which throughout the dry season were as shriveled rags and tatters upon the sunburnt sides of the cañon, are transformed in a night to bright green mats; the clenched fists of the goldback ferns as quickly become outstretched palms, and the polypody ferns, Western cousins to Thoreau’s ‘cheerful colonists’ of New England woods, thrust up eager croziers from the mould, and uncurl their whole length in an incredibly short time, elbowing and overlapping till the shady sides of the cañon have the appearance of being shingled with the massed fronds.
In the San Fernando Valley, in 1913 already being surveyed for the coming rush of building, J. Smeaton Chase, on a slow-paced horseback trip from the Mexican border to Oregon, describes flower scenes, a few of which might exist today in remote places:
The summer was at its full of flowers. The beautiful tree-poppy grew freely in many places, bearing shallow cups of palest gold at twice a man’s height. By the roadside bloomed the great golden Mariposa tulip, flecked with brown, a truly magnificent blossom. Mountain lilac was just breaking into clouds of fragrant azure, and wild roses, daintily simple, gleamed from every thicket. Poppies, mimulus, brodiaeas, and many more added their cheerful colors to the summer show.
For their appreciation of what the wild flora means to countryside and to the enjoyment and enrichment of our lives, many more authors deserve inclusion here. Young activists of today who are putting their deep love of nature into fresh, beautiful phrases will, no doubt, be excerpted in future anthologies. There is now great concern for all wildlife, and for fragile natural resources which, up to now, we have gobbled up with little thought for renewal. Maybe if we can imagine what we have lost, we may be more eager to preserve those lovely and flower-filled places that remain intact.
Reading the Originals
Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity, an illustrated magazine, was published by James Mason Hutchings between 1856 and 1861. The quotation is from excerpts selected by Roger R. Olmsted.
The Mountains of California, by John Muir, was published in 1894. The excerpt is from the concluding chapter.
Leaflets of Western Botany in 1945 included an article by Alice Bentwood called The Wild Flower Gardens of San Francisco in the 1800s. Her list of plants is based on the work of Dr Behr published in Zoe in 1891.
The Southern Sierras of California, published in 1923, is the account by Charles Francis Saunders of his leisurely journeys in the deserts, hills, and mountains of southern California.
J. Smeaton Chase traveled from the Mexican border to Oregon on horseback, and the description of his journey, California Coast Trails, was published in 1913.
Annotated List of the Wild Flowers of California, by P.B. Kennedy, published in 1917, contained a contribution from Willis Linn Jepson, widely respected father of California botany and author of the Manual of Flowering Plants, now being revised.