The Gypsy Botanist


Botanist Lester Rowntree Collecting Seeds, Photo Courtesy of California Academy of Sciences/Library.

Botanist Lester Rowntree Collecting Seeds, Photo Courtesy of California Academy of Sciences/Library.

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.    ~ Lester Rowntree (1879-1979)

The above quote could have been written by me during my recent travels through California, but it was in fact written by Lester Rowntree, “gypsy” botanist. I have just finished reading Hardy Californians, which was her landmark book written in 1936.  In Hardy Californians, Lester takes us along on one of her seed collecting journeys.  Her poetic descriptions of the plants she found, as well as the places in which they were found, are absolutely compelling.  Never have I heard the Sierras described so vividly, so freshly.  She was obviously writing “in the moment” from out there from the trail.

CA Mountain Wildflowers, Photo Courtesy of LasPilitasNursery

CA Mountain Wildflowers, Photo Courtesy of LasPilitasNursery

Lester set out to study plants in their native habitats, cataloging, photographing and writing descriptions of them as they flowered.  She traveled up and down the State of CA to catch them in the season in which they bloomed.  Lester was a plant lover and a writer.  She wrote hundred of articles for a variety of magazines and papers under the name “Lester” because at the time (1930s), you wouldn’t be hired to write if you were a woman. And she needed to support herself.  So Lester was a trailblazer in that way too, not only giving up the comforts of her Carmel home and garden to go off for week/months at a time to study native plants in their native habitat, she also wrote about them and got published.

Back then, not much was known about CA natives and botanists soon came to rely on her field notes and the plants she pressed.  How many of us would think of traveling with a plant press?

Arctostaphylos 'Lester Rowntree',Photo courtesy of

Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Rowntree’, Photo courtesy of, Manzanita named after the author

Hardy Californians is written in a first person, memoir style, in which Lester describes the many adventures and challenges of being a single woman traveling alone. I love this excerpt:

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.) ~Lester Rowntree

Lester Rowntree Traveling by Donkey, photo courtesy of

Botanist Lester Rowntree Traveling by Donkey,           photo courtesy of

“Hardy Californians” inspires me to want to follow Lester’s path around California, beginning with finding the desert wildflowers in the winter, and moving on to the High Sierras for wildflower blooms in April. My challenges on the road pale in comparison to hers; while I travel from the relative comfort of my camper, she travelled by car or even by donkey!

Throughout the book, fat with descriptions of California lands, I found myself wondering: how did California look in the 1930’s? California was as yet undeveloped. There was so much more open space for wildflowers, native plants & wildlife to interact in their natural environment without interference from man.  I’m jealous!

In 1980, one year after Lester’s death after her 100th birthday, the Lester Rowntree Native Plant Garden was created on her property in the Carmel Highlands overlooking the Pacific. Her son and his wife were also passionate Rowntree environmentalists . Together with the California Native Plant Society, they worked to turn her one acre garden into a Native Plant Garden that would be open to the public for tours. Hundreds of plants are labeled, including a large collection of Ceanothus and  Manzanitas.  Lester’s Carmel Highlands’ garden was a famous “testing area” from which to watch how seeds and native cuttings collected would grow.  The Lester Rowntree Native Plant Garden is on my list of “Must See Places” when I return to the Carmel area.


Hardy Californians is a must read for the native plant lover of any state. You can find the original 1936 book at Amazon. There is also now a new updated edition available through Amazon, or through the University of CA Press, or purchased through the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery for Native Plants.

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  1. says

    When I saw the title of your post on my emails this morning, I knew it must be your blog. You wrote about her and her adventures with such passion, I can tell she will be one of your mentors, even though she has passed away.

    What an amazing story of this Gypsy Native Plant Pioneer, and what an inspiration for your gypsy self and your writing!

    How courageous of her that she wasn’t afraid to camp with bears!

    Happy and safe travels,

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, Judith. Yes, I think about Lester Rowntree often as I travel around California. Seeing wildflowers in the Sierras in Spring is definitely on my “to do” list, as well as visiting the Lester Rowntree Native Plant Garden in the Carmel Highlands with all its Manzanitas~
      kathy vilim recently posted..Return of the Hummingbirds

  2. Kimberley says

    I really love this post! She reminds me of my Father, who also pressed leaves and labeled them in the 1930′s! I still have his book as well of pressed leaves.

    Thank you for this! I think I will search for her book. :)


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