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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Plant Matriarch of the Pacific Slope: Sara Plummer Lemmon

For thirty years, from the sweltering deserts of Arizona to the mountainous forests of Northern California, there traipsed a duo of botanists, broken in health, perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, but so devoted to their work and each other that they took all the pain and privation in stride and amassed a botanical legacy that was worldwide in its impact. Sara Plummer Lemmon (1836-1923) and John Gill Lemmon (1831-1908) rank with the Coris and the Goeppert-Mayers in the annals of ideal scientific couples, able to weather all manner of hardships because of the strength of their intellectual and emotional union.


Today their names are inseparable in botanical circles, but they came relatively late into each other’s lives. Sara Plummer did not meet JG Lemmon until she was forty years old, and he was forty-five. Prior to that meeting, she had pieced together a life of intellectual entrepreneurism in the face of daunting obstacles, both personal and social. Born and raised in New England, she was educated at the Female College of Worcester and took additional courses in physics and chemistry from the Cooper Union Institute for the Advancement of Science. Her time in the 1860s was divided between nursing wounded Civil War soldiers, studying, and teaching, a path followed by many socially conscious and educated women of that era. That trajectory might well have continued along its traditional lines were it not for the complete collapse of Plummer’s health in 1868.



Sara’s lungs were to be a lifelong source of difficulty for her, with pneumonia and pleurisy ever at the door. Staying in the New England climate was deemed a death sentence for one of her constitution, and so in 1868 she moved to California, which had just been declared a state some eighteen years previously. She made her way to Santa Barbara, which was just stretching its way to the first glimmers of respectability after decades as a Mos Eisley-like bandit haven. Seemingly unpromising ground for a woman of culture and education, Plummer saw the growing city as a place of potential, and went into debt creating Santa Barbara’s first lending library to feed the as-yet unfathomed intellectual hunger of the region.


The lending library was just successful enough to keep Sara afloat financially, while also serving as a source of immense pride to the up and coming Santa Barbara commercial and intellectual elite. Fatefully, one of the books she ordered for her growing library was Asa Gray’s Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. Asa Gray (1810-1888) operated out of Harvard University and was easily the most esteemed American botanist of his time, and more significantly for our story, was deeply supportive of enthusiastic amateur botanists and their collected efforts to scour the United States cataloging the botanical richness of the nation. Beginning in the early 1870s, Plummer took to botanizing while on her long walks, learning the craft of preserving and documenting specimens, studying her Gray’s Manual, and sketching species she couldn’t identify.


It was a pleasant enough existence, though Plummer’s health and finances were never as vigorous as she would have liked for a person staring down the uncertainties of middle age. Then, in 1876, JG Lemmon came to Santa Barbara to give a botanical lecture. A strident abolitionist who had fought for the Union during the Civil War, his health had been subsequently broken by the harsh conditions of the Confederate Andersonville prison. The pair shared a love of botany and the outdoors, a commitment to abolition and temperance, and a taste for simple, frugal living. They began to correspond and it was not long until JG proposed to Sara, who turned him down at first, citing the practical concern of their shared fragile health. She felt they should seek robust, healthy partners who could watch over them through their bouts of illness, especially as their scientific interests took them far from established medical services for long periods of time.



It was a good point, but fortunately it did not win the day, and in 1880 the couple married, to spend the next twenty-eight years together exploring Mexico and the Western United States, their names soon ranking next to those of John Muir, Alice Eastwood, and Charles Parry as reigning experts in the region’s botanical curiosities. For their honeymoon, they organized a botanical expedition to Arizona to study in regions still bristling with the tensions of the Apache Wars (1849-1886). Botanically, the trip was a great success during which Sara achieved the dual distinctions of discovering a new genus of plant, later named Plummera in her honor by Asa Gray, and of being the first white woman to climb the mountain now named in her honor, Mount Lemmon. It also featured one of the strangest episodes in the life of anybody we’ve featured thus far, when Sara and JG were staying with an eccentric frontier hermit who had constructed for himself a subterranean fort lined with explosives to act as a place of last retreat in case of Apache attack. As it turned out, the trio ended up having to remain in that grim and dank 19th century Panic Room for eleven days when word reached them that a collection of warriors under Apache chief Juh had slipped the bonds of their San Carlos reservation and were making for the hermit’s general location.


The eleven days underground with only a twitchy hermit for company did nothing to help Sara and JG’s already frail constitutions, but overall the trip was an intoxicating mixture of discovery and exploration that set the standard for the many expeditions to come. The Lemmons would botanize in Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, and all up and down the state of California in the years to come, their rail fare usually provided for by scientifically enthusiastic railroad owners, and their accommodations in the field generally being either their own tents or the cabins or ranches of various generous souls they happened to come across.


And yet, though their expeditions were ludicrously inexpensive by modern standards, they still needed to pay the rent on their Oakland lodgings, which also held their ever expanding herbarium, as well as the bills for the doctor’s visits that they regularly required. Part of that money they earned by selling the plants acquired on their travels to other collectors, part was from fees obtained from lectures they gave about their plant adventures and observations of Native American lifestyles (though often these lectures were given without charge to educational institutions), and part again from their own laboriously researched and beautifully illustrated publications, including definitive studies of Pacific cone-bearers and ferns. For all of that, however, the couple was seemingly always at bankruptcy’s door, criticized by the more conservative members of their families for leading lives of romantic adventure when what they should be doing at their age was saving up against the expenses of old age.



Though sometimes chided by relatives, they were in the scientific community regarded as among the nation’s most important popularizers not only of Western botany, but of the cause of ecological preservation. Like JG’s contemporary John Muir, they used the power of their writing to express the wonder of the United States’s natural legacy, and the need to preserve it from the depredations of industry and large scale agriculture. They had witnessed the ability of unregulated Western mega-herds to decimate an area of its natural resources, and seen rare species collected to the point of disappearance by over-zealous botanical enthusiasts, and so they made it a point in their popular writings to speak for the importance of the forests and all wild areas. That cause, it turned out, would soon have a zealous adherent in the White House in the form of Theodore Roosevelt, who, urged on by Muir, used his power as president to place approximately 230 million acres of land under federal protection.


The decades’ long honeymoon of JG and Sara, however, could not last forever. It was always simply a question of whose health would give out first, and in 1908 it was JG who was the first to go, two years after all of the couple’s many contributions to the California Academy of Sciences were destroyed when that mighty institution was devoured by fire in the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. With JG’s death Sara all but stopped her professional botanical activity, and in her last years slipped into a dementia so profound and disturbing to her family that they ultimately felt they had no choice but to commit her to the Stockton State Hospital in 1916, where she would live out the remaining six years of her life. It was a tragic ending for somebody whose zest for life and discovery had always seemed so much larger than the confines of her often treacherous physical being, but it was not the true end of Sara Plummer Lemmon. Her name continues to this day, in the mountain she scaled, in the genus named in her honor, and in the many plants she and JG discovered and that were subsequently named in her honor, including Plummer’s baccharis, Plummer’s onion, Plummer’s mariposa lily, Plummer’s cliff fern, and Plummer’s morning glory.


FURTHER READING:


Wynne Brown’s The Forgotten Botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art (2021) is the indispensable guide to all questions relating to the Plummers. Deeply researched and charmingly told, it is a story of happiness found against all odds, and of scientific enthusiasms encouraged, rather than quashed, by the academic gatekeepers of professional scientific endeavors. There is a lot of sadness and tragedy within it, but on balance the life that JG and Sara made for themselves was a beautiful one, and it is good to allow oneself a little beauty now and then.

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