Retracing the Footsteps of Great California Botanists

By Duncan Bell

Darlington’s blazing star (Mentzelia puberula) Photo: Amber Swanson

One of the main objectives of the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt is to search for and update historic occurrences of rare plants. An “occurrence” refers to a population of plants in a single location that could contain a few or hundreds of individual plants. Sometimes searching for historic plant populations involves retracing the footsteps of early intrepid botanists. Most of the early collectors provided very little information about specific locations with their plant collections. GPS (Global Positioning System) units had not yet come on the scene, so it was typical to see only a general location of a recorded collection. Sometimes a short habitat description accompanies the locations in these older collections, but it is certainly not the norm. One of the primary objectives of the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt program is to “re-find” these older rare plant populations, see how they are doing, and return with key information such as the exact GPS location of the population, a thorough habitat description, and population size.

Marcus E. Jones

Retracing the footsteps of preceding botanists is not always easy. As an example: Marcus E. Jones was one of California’s greatest botanists. He collected tens of thousands of plants, had dozens of plants named after him and personally described many unique plant species. Unfortunately his collection labels are lacking detailed information typically used to track and evaluate plant conservation status in today’s world of GPS and GIS (Geographic Information System). Some of his labels simply state “Colorado Desert”. In 1924 M. Jones collected harwood’s milkvetch (Astragalus insularis var. harwoodii) and gave his collection location as “Chocolate-Chuckwalla Mountains, Desert Center”. This is better than a simple reference like “Colorado Desert”, but an interested plant lover, researcher, or land manager would still have to search thousands of acres to find this rather small plant. As daunting as this sounds, it is yet not impossible to find the plants referenced in these older collections. In looking for M. Jones recorded population of Harwood’s milkvetch, we were able to make a few good guesses that led us to a rather rugged section of the Chuckwalla Mountains. After a bit of searching around, we eventually found our special plant, which was doing quite well!

Annie Alexander and Louise Kellogg

One of my favorite trips to date was retracing the footsteps of California botanists Annie Alexander & Louise Kellogg. They were adventurous partners who traveled throughout California to collect an abundance of natural history information. In 1941 they collected Fortuna Range suncup (Chylismia arenaria) and Darlington’s blazing star (Mentzelia puberula) “Among granite boulders” location: “[location withheld], Colorado Desert, Chocolate Mountains”. We found [location withheld] on the map, drove down, climbed into the granite boulders of the Chocolate Mountains and within a short amount of time found both our plants which had not been seen in over 50 years. We probably set up our camp that night at the same place they had, and looked up at the same stars they saw when they walked the area years ago.

We don’t always find the plant we go “hunting” for, but when we do, it is a great feeling. There are still hundreds of historic California rare plant locations that need to be re-discovered and updated. A great many of our rare plant population data is lacking in detailed information. If you have a favorite rare plant, or know of a California botanist whose footsteps you would like to retrace, please contact us at and we will send you out on your own adventure.

Post A Comment