Hardy Californians: A Woman’s Life with Native Plants

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Lester Rowntree was an amateur botanist of the John Muir ilk, never formally schooled but passionate about the plants that were native to California. She ditched her husband after a cancer scare and spend several decades alone collecting specimens of wildflowers and other plants across California through the 1920s through the 1970s. This book is a single droplet in the enormous bucket of writing that Rowntree did over her lifetime, mostly to earn money to live. Her writing is detailed and personal, especially interesting when talking about her setup, dragging along a long-handled shovel and axe due to ranger regulations (“How familiar becomes the quiet ‘Hello,–may I see your shovel and axe?’ of the clean, polite ranger.”) She’s on the road for most of the year, spending winters near Carmel in her shack, but once the snows clear, she’s headed out on the hunt. “If the world has been too much with you it needs a few days adjustment to adapt yourself to a sphere where action takes place no more swiftly now than a thousand years ago. The change from rooms with walls and ceilings to a place of infinite space is always a pleasant one and you soon fall into the basic rhythm of life–rising at dawn, eating only when hungry, washing and filling canteens wherever water is to be found, turning in when dark comes–(the last habit entirely unfits you, on your return home, for the hours kept by civilized society).”

She does have some bad words about the C.C.C. boys who made the landscape “all very nice and neat. When I asked the ignorant ‘Landscape Architect’ who had been put in charge of the work if the Violets could not be left intact, he was highly amused.” Mostly, Rowntree attempts to put together a book that gardeners across the U.S. can use as a guide to which plants from California can be raised in their own plots of land.