Gardening with Galligan: Women plant pioneers

HERMAN KNOCHE PHOTO | Alice Eastwood in 1927.
Alice Eastwood in 1927.

Alice Eastwood was a plantsman.

She was born in 1859 in Toronto, Canada. Her mother died when she was six and she was cared for in a convent for most of her childhood. In 1873, at the age of 14, she moved with her remaining family members to the United States.

A self-taught botanist, she found a position as curator at the California Academy of Sciences herbarium in 1892. By 1894 she was head of the department of botany and remained in that position until 1949 when she retired on her 90th birthday; she died four years later.

Her first foray into the wilds was a collecting expedition in California’s Big Sur at the end of the 19th century. The area was still a frontier with no roads and little civilization. She discovered a willow, which bears her name, and a form of potentilla, previously unknown.

When the earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906 and the herbarium caught fire, she rushed into the burning building and retrieved more than 1,000 specimens as well as the early records of the institution.

At the age of 55, she accepted a commission from Harvard and traveled to the Yukon to study the plants of this cold region. The situation required her to live in a rough cabin with a wood stove that didn’t work, a floor covered with ice, and not enough to eat, but she wrote “I don’t mind anything when I want to get something.”

During the course of her career, she published more than 300 articles and a number of books, some of which are still available. Seventeen recognized species have been named for her.

Another female Indiana Jones was Ynes Mexia, born in 1870. She had a somewhat troubled life with a Mexican father and an American mother; her parents eventually agreed to divorce and her mother took the children to live in Texas. She attended St. Joseph’s College in Maryland and then married twice. Ynes first marriage ended with her husband’s death, the second in divorce.

Eventually she found success in the world of botany. She entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1921 and although she never graduated, she was fortunate enough to find a mentor, Roxanna Ferris, a California botanist. Mexia accompanied Ferris on a collecting trip to the western part of Mexico where her Spanish-language skills were useful.

For more than a decade, she made additional expeditions, not only to Mexico, but to Alaska and South America as well, spending time in many remote areas. In all she collected more than 150,000 botanical specimens and more than 500 new species of plants.

Some of the plants were named for her and unlike other women botanists, she enjoyed having plants named after her.

She became ill in 1938 while on a collecting expedition in Oaxaca, Mexico and the illness was a serious one. She returned home but there was little significant improvement in her health. She died on July 12, 1938 in Berkeley, California of lung cancer. She had been a member of the California Botanical Society, as well as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

Next week we’ll visit some famous gardens. By then the autumn equinox will be upon us and we’ll return to those plants in bloom, the last gifts of the season.