When They Were Wild

by Bart O’Brien O’Brien, RSABG director of special projects and co-curator of When They Were Wild

This article first appeared in the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden membership newsletter Garden Variety, Winter 2013

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California’s rich plant life has captured the imagination of horticulturists, scientists and artists for more than a century.

A collaborative project of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens and Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, When They Were Wild interprets the unique diversity of the California flora from its origins to its current popularity.

This diversity has been depicted by talented artists who were also amateur naturalists, including Alice Brown Chittenden, Clara Mason Fox and James Milford Zornes. Illustrations by these and other artists, complemented by herbarium collections (museum specimens of dried plants), publications and ephemera, depict an era when many of these species passed from growing wild into domestication.

Some 200 items in the exhibition from the three collaborating institutions and from a number of other public and private collections tell the story of the iconic beauty of California plants and share the botanical, ecological and horticultural nature of native flowers.

Over the past three years, I have gathered and cataloged RSABG’s holdings that will be part of the exhibit and/or part of the extensive online resources for the exhibit. Irene Holiman, RSABG’s library specialist, and two Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Interns, Jessica Torres in 2012 and Jessica Dewberry in 2010, have been immensely helpful. Torres and Dewberry were indispensable in researching and writing up the artists’ biographies as well as scanning a wide array of paintings and documents.

The exhibit will be organized around several themes: a brief introduction to the biological setting of California; the discovery, describing, cataloging and depiction of California wildflowers; the science and horticulture of California wildflowers and a gallery featuring dozens of images that we’ve nicknamed “the garden.”

Many of these artists portrayed dozens to hundreds of California wildflowers. These works illustrate remarkable stories of beautiful plants. These stories are the stuff of legends; they meld scientific discovery and horticulture.

On display will be RSABG’s first edition copy of the original published image of the first California native plant to flower in cultivation in Europe: beach sand verbena (Abronia umbellata). This California wildflower was described and published by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1791 in his landmark 21-volume treatise, Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique des Trois Regnes de la Nature.

As with many early images of California’s flora, this one has quite a backstory. The seeds of the plant were collected in Monterey in September of 1786, by Jean-Nicholas Collignon of the La Pérouse Expedition. This French expedition’s two ships, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, carried the first non-Spanish European explorers to reach California’s shores since Sir Francis Drake’s landing in 1579. From California, the expedition crossed the Pacific and landed in Macao, and then traveled north until they reached Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula on September 7, 1787.

The expedition departed from Petropavlovsk on September 30, 1787, but left Jean Baptiste Barthélemy de Lesseps to carry the expedition’s materials overland in order to report to the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg.

It took de Lesseps an entire year to reach St. Petersburg. From there, he traveled to Paris arriving on October 17, 1788. The La Pérouse Expedition was subsequently lost and was never seen again, leaving de Lesseps the only survivor.

Interestingly, the botanist Jean Baptiste Lamarck writes that the beach sand verbena had been growing in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris since 1788. In my research, I have not been able to ascertain whether the seeds were sown and germinated in 1788 (highly likely) or whether they were blooming in 1788 (highly unlikely, given the time frame). In any event, it is clear that this sand verbena is the first known California native plant to be grown from seed to flowering in Europe.