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Unsung Heroines in the Movement to Preserve Native Plants
Unsung Heroines in the Movement to Preserve Native Plants
Published by Porterbrook
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Unsung Heroines in the Movement to Preserve Native Plants

Frank W. Porter
Porterbrook Native Plants

During the nineteenth century, it was extremely difficult for women to enter science as professionals. Botany, however, opened its doors to a select few whose talents were too significant to go unnoticed. Scientific illustration was one of the acceptable ways for women to enter the professional ranks in the nineteenth century. In a male dominated society, art was deemed an appropriate talent for women to develop; and there were many gifted artists who made significant contributions to the growing knowledge and understanding of the native flora of North America. There were others whose pioneering spirit took them into unexplored territories and brought to light several native plants new to science. And there were others who sought to preserve the native flora before it was lost to urban and economic development.

Lilla Leach was one such pioneering botanist. Lilla was born on March 13, 1886 in Barlow, Oregon. From childhood, Lilla exhibited a keen interest in wildflowers. Lilla’s father, William Irvin, sent her to Tualatin Academy, a preparatory school, in 1904. It was there that she met her future husband, John R. Leach. Together, they set out to find the botanical treasures of the Siskiyou Mountains in southwestern Oregon from 1928 to 1938. Because there were no roads, and quite often no trails, Lilla and John used burros to pack their gear on these long treks. Describing his camp duties, John said: “I am the muleskinner...acting as a buffer between the botanist and the burros.” Their travels were filled with adventure, encountering cougars, bears, and rattlesnakes. There were also humorous times, such as the day the burros ate John and Lilla’s underwear while they were swimming in the Chetco River.

Lilla graduated from the University of Oregon in 1908 with a degree in Science and with an emphasis on Botany. She taught science classes in the Eugene public school system for three years after graduation. Because it was customary at that time for women teachers to end their careers after they married, Lilla filled in as a clerk at her husband’s pharmacy. John and Lilla were soon collecting native plants close to highways and back roads. It was not long before Lilla decided it was time to botanize in unexplored areas. In 1930, Lilla made the first scientific collection of Kalmiopsis leachiana, a relict plant from the Tertiary geologic period. During their ten year sojourn, they discovered five plant species new to science. And their plant collections became world renowned. Their botanical efforts resulted in the creation of the Kalmiopsis Wild Area which encompasses over 70,000 acres.

Emily Hitchcock Terry (1838-1921) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her parents were highly intellectual and artistic. Emily’s ambition was to become an artist, but she also had a deep interest in botany. In time, she merged her interests in art and botany and produced a collection of forty-nine watercolor paintings of the flora of Minnesota. Most of the paintings were of wildflowers. These paintings are part of a large collection, American Flowers, which contained 142 paintings from various parts of the United States. Unlike many plant collectors Emily, instead of accumulating a typical herbarium of pressed specimens, created a ‘painted herbarium.’ Her paintings are the earliest known botanical illustrations of Minnesota. “As long as I live I shall work in botany,” Emily remarked, “if I have any eyes to see.”

Eloise Butler (1851-1933) was truly a Victorian plant hunter. She was another aspiring botanist who began her work at a time when science and career did not mix well with marriage. Eloise chose science and became a teacher in Minneapolis. Minneapolis was a small but rapidly growing mill town. Natural areas filled with wildflowers that Eloise had come to know through her botanizing began to disappear at an alarming rate as city streets and buildings were constructed. Alarmed by this rampant loss of rare and common species, Eloise helped to establish the Wild Botanic Garden, which soon was enveloped by the growing city. She saved countless plants from wanton destruction, and moved them to new homes in the garden. The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, as it is now known, is the oldest exiting wildflower garden in the United States. Eloise’s pioneering work surely influenced the creation of other wildflower sanctuaries, but her significant contributions to the native plant preservation movement have gone unheralded. Unless, of course, you have been among the fortunate visitors to this amazing garden and walked among plants once common but now so rare that if not for her efforts they would have been lost to future generations.

Marianne North (1830-1890) was an unmarried Victorian lady who came from a wealthy family. In 1871, she began a series of botanical expeditions to paint the tropical and exotic plants of the world. By the end of her journeys, she had made a collection of over 800 paintings which are now housed in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew in England. Marianne used her paint brush as the modern botanist uses a camera. Several of the plants she painted were almost unknown to botanists and horticulturalists. In fact, four species were unknown to science and were named in her honor. Many of the countries Marianne visited still retained areas that had not been spoiled by man. In California, however, she noted the “regrettable ravages” inflicted on the Redwoods. “It broke one’s heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries.”

Marianne was anxious to visit the United States because she felt that many people in England did not realize the vast botanical differences between North and South America. In 1871, she arrived in Boston. Her letters of introduction gave her access to many prominent politicians and scientists who went out of their way to provide assistance. As she traveled throughout New England, Marianne painted vivid landscapes of the rocky coasts, the autumn colors of the White Mountains, and the magnificent falls at Niagara. Her paintings of wildflowers captured the beauty and diversity of the flora of New England. One painting, in particular, is virtually a collage of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Solomon’s Seal, False Spikenard, and Wild Geranium. Another painting of wildflowers in the neighborhood of New York brings to life Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Naked Broomrape, Wild Columbine, and Pinxter Flower. Nearly a decade later, Marianne returned to the United States arriving in San Francisco. Her paintings of the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers of California and the Southwest illustrate the striking colors of these unique landscapes.

In 1879, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker offering to build a gallery to house her collection of paintings, to which he readily agreed. For the first time, the everyday citizens of England could see the beauty and diversity of the flora of North America in contrast to other exotic lands.

Without the pioneering efforts of these unsung heroines (and many others like them), the movement to preserve our native flora would surely have been delayed. It is hard to imagine how many more species would have been lost to future generations.

Reprinted with permission of the Marietta Register
By NEBogger on 11-02-2009, 07:24 PM

Oh to picture the difference in our land today from yesteryear when these botanists were working.
I have my mother-in-law's college notebook of here botany work. We had the same interests.
Thanks for the artical.
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By Stoloniferous on 11-03-2009, 12:00 PM

Thank you for the fascinating article, Porterbrook!
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By Porterbrook on 11-03-2009, 12:31 PM

You are welcome, Stoloniferous. I hope that our readers will make known to me any other "unsung heroines" who have contributed so much to the preservation of our native flora. I am working on a second article about them.
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By Sunflowerchild on 11-25-2009, 03:03 PM

Excellent article!
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heroines, movement, native, plants, preserve, unsung

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