California's first wildflower guide—1897

“In the plain itself, the richest and most brilliant wildflowers flourish in boundless profusion, and with a rank luxuriance which far transcends all the efforts of art. All colors, all shades of colors, all hues, all tints, all combinations are there to be seen; and the endless varieties bewilder the senses. Perennial incense ascends to heaven from these fragrant plains; and the size which some of these gorgeous wild-flowers attain, would seem fabulous to an eastern florist. ”

That impression of the Los Angeles area was recorded by Joseph Warren Revere, a naval lieutenant and grandson of Paul Revere, in A Tour of Duty (1849), Revere’s account of his time serving on the USS Cyane during the Mexican-American War.

Even in years without a ‘super bloom’, California’s wildflowers are dazzling. Imagine how spectacular they must have been before the Gold Rush, livestock grazing, invasive exotic species, and urban sprawl. That is how the flowers must have looked to two women who traveled through the state in the 1890s planning what would be the first wildflower guide to California.

First published in 1897, The Wild Flowers of California: Their Names, Haunts, and Habits provided field identification entries for a great many of the state’s plants, accompanied by 149 pen-and-ink illustrations. The artist, Margaret Warriner Buck (1857-1929), created highly detailed line drawings of each plant’s habit. All but four of her illustrations were drawn from nature, and those four were based on herbarium specimens. The cost of color printing would have been prohibitive for the project, so the author, Mary Elizabeth Parsons (1859-1947), organized the entries by color into six sections: white, yellow, pink, blue and purple, red, and miscellaneous (greens and browns). While the color of each plant is left to the imagination, the form and various structures of each plant are carefully rendered.

After each entry describing a plant’s identifying structures and habitat, Parsons includes amusing and informative personal observations, notes on ethnobotany and etymology, and even poetry.

About Zauschneria californica, she writes:

“In late summer and through the autumn, the brilliant blossoms of the California Fuchsia brighten the somber tones of our dry, open hill-slopes. Its aspect is one of gay insouciance, which would drive away melancholy despite oneself, and though other plants have been put to rout, one by one, by the sun’s fierce glare, nothing daunted, it puts on its brightest hues, like a true apostle of cheerfulness.”

And for the cholla:

“In many places it forms extensive and impassable thickets, which afford an asylum to many delicate and tender plants that retire to it as a last refuge from sheep and cattle.”

During the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, all of the plates that had been prepared for a third printing of the book were destroyed. As all new plates had to be created, Parsons took the opportunity to expand the number of plants included in the guide and to update the nomenclature. A limited number of copies of this 1909 edition were printed on watercolor paper with a deckle edge and gilt top. Half of these deluxe copies had the illustrations printed normally and half had a lighter printing to allow coloring by the reader.

The Wild Flowers of California can be downloaded or viewed online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, at Project Guttenberg, and at the Internet Archive. All 3 sites include the illustrations and offer a choice of several file formats for download. — Cindy Hartwell

This appeared in the May 2017 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.