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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
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Reprinted from: July/August 2010, Volume 101, Number 4
By Nancy Carol Carter
Lester Rowntree was a self-taught field botanist and photographer with a flair for writing. At midlife she embraced a completely new existence and produced Hardy Californians: A Woman’s Life with Native Plants (1936). A second work, Flowering Shrubs of California and Their Value to the Gardener (1939) further secured her place in horticultural history. These books are a triumph of spirit and resolve by a woman entranced by nature.
As a child, Gertrude Ellen Lester tried to run away, dreaming of climbing aboard the colorful wagons of the traveler families camped near her Lake District home in England. After her family immigrated to the United States in 1889 and settled in Kansas, the sight of a distant Indian village ignited a desire to travel across the prairie. “I wanted very much to be alone,” she later wrote, and “in a wild place if possible.”
Despite her restlessness, Gertrude Lester recalled a happy early childhood with her many brothers and sisters. However, the family’s move to Kansas was fraught with hardships. The Lesters eventually moved west to join other Quaker settlers in Altadena, north of Los Angeles. Gertrude loved the richness of California’s wildflowers and often roamed the undisturbed countryside. Her father grew citrus and her mother capably home-schooled the children.
In her late teens, Gertrude was sent to Pennsylvania to work as a governess and to attend a Quaker school. Several cross-country train trips during her school years broadened the young woman’s interest in natural history. She collected plants at stops all along the way. She graduated from Westtown School in 1902 but instead of continuing on to college, returned to Altadena to care for her ailing mother. By this time she was developing a preference for being called “Lester,” in keeping with Westtown’s exclusive use of student surnames.
When her mother died five years later, Lester visited England and upon returning, joined her father, who had relocated to Pennsylvania. There she again encountered Bernard Rowntree, a childhood acquaintance made in Kansas. The two married in 1908 and settled in New Jersey.
The young family welcomed a son before Lester was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Facing an early death, she asked to spend her last days amid the beautiful wildflowers of California. They moved to San Diego, joining Lester’s brother and sister, then to Altadena, and finally, in 1926, the Rowntrees settled in a new home on three acres of land in the Carmel Highlands.
Lester began to collect and study wildflowers seriously and to publish some of the 700 articles she wrote during her lifetime. As the months passed, it became quite clear that Lester Rowntree was not fatally ill. She had either been misdiagnosed or experienced a total remission of cancer. Despite this good news, her marriage was faltering. Bernard Rowntree had abandoned his New York City electrical engineering career to fulfill his wife’s “dying wish” to return to California. His professional life never recovered. After 1929, the economic pressures of the Great Depression made domestic life much more difficult.
In 1931 with their only child approaching adulthood, the Rowntrees divorced. Lester was homeless and financially strapped, and she was 52 years old. Despite her frightfully insecure situation, Lester later wrote that this was the beginning of her life. All constraints on the former runaway were broken. She had never been so happy because she had never felt so free.
The next year, a combination of depression-era bartering and some earnings from her writing allowed Lester to build a hillside cottage situated between Big Sur and Carmel. This was her home for almost 50 years and it served as the base for the wandering, nomadic pursuit of wildflowers she now began. Lester Rowntree camped out and lived in her car for months at a time, traveling without an itinerary or plan. She simply followed promising trails of bright blooms, studying and photographing the flowers, compiling field notes, and collecting seed. She made friends from one end of California to the other, including a close connection with Kate Sessions. She spoke at the San Diego Floral Association and published extensively in California Garden.
A routine gradually emerged. Rowntree lived on her coastal hillside from November to February, then headed to the desert in March and April, moving into the foothills by May. In June, she ventured into the northern counties and by July was into the mountains, reaching the alpine zones by August and September. Most of the circuit could be made in her specially-adapted automobile, but she reached higher elevations by being packed in with a mule.
Her writing combines a natural joyfulness and candor. She reveled in witnessing the annual transformation of California into “a garden of extravagant bloom.” She tells of disrobing to dance in the rain on a remote Sierra peak. Yet, she had not taken up this work for its “poetry.” She wanted to find out about California wild flowers. “There was little written about them [in their natural habitats] so I made it my job to discover the facts for myself.” She accepted the discomforts, hazards and disappointments of the resulting peripatetic life. Along the way she enlarged understanding of native California flora with entertaining and accessible prose.
Lester Rowntree’s finances were always precarious, but she patched together a living through landscaping work, paid writing and lectures, a native plant nursery business, and the sale of the native plant seeds and specimens she collected each year. Her physical stamina barely flagged until late in life, but when she failed a driving test at age 90, her nomadic wings were clipped. She received recognition and awards during her lifetime and is remembered today for her knowledgeable celebration of native plants and her advocacy for their conservation.
In 2006, seventy years after its debut, the University of California published a new and expanded edition of Hardy Californians, edited and introduced by the author’s grandson, another Lester Rowntree.
Lester Rowntree (Gertrude Ellen Lester Rowntree)
Born: 1879 in England | Died: 1979 in California
Dig deeper with:
“About Lester,” in Rowntree, Hardy Californians. Berkeley: UC Press, 2006.
Cara R. Brandt, “Lester Rowntree: Denizen of the Mountains,” Journal of the California Horticultural Society, 14:1 (January 1955): 8-17.
Web site of Lester B. Rowntree (grandson): www.lesrowntree.com
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