By Wynne Brown
Author, The Forgotten Botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art, (University of Nebraska Press, 2021), posted by Deborah Shaw
It’s like death to me to be idle...
So wrote the botanist and artist Sara Plummer Lemmon—back in 1870, long before she became an acknowledged botanical expert and illustrator. She’d recently arrived in Santa Barbara and was writing home to her little sister back East.
Born in 1836 in New Gloucester, Maine, Sara attended school in Massachusetts before moving to New York City, where she taught “calisthenics” (gym class) and private art lessons.
Her health had always been fragile, and driven by frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, she made the momentous decision to move, alone, to California.
There she not only taught herself botany—partly by drawing the unfamiliar plants—but also established Santa Barbara’s first library. In 1876, she met another amateur Western botanist, John Gill Lemmon, a Civil War veteran who’d moved to California to convalesce after being captured by the Confederate army and held prisoner in both the Andersonville Prison in Georgia and South Carolina’s Florence Stockade.
The two eventually married and then spent the rest of their lives traveling throughout the West. They’re credited with discovering three percent of Arizona’s vascular plants.
According to their letters, Sara illustrated hundreds of species, but tragically, most of her work has disappeared. She was the first woman allowed to speak to the all-male California Academy of Sciences, and after breaking through that ceiling, she was at the Academy often. She and JG both wrote about giving her work to that organization.
I believe many of Sara’s paintings were destroyed in the fires that gutted the California Academy of Sciences in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
But not all were lost ...
Sara’s great-nephew, Harold St. John, a noted botanist in Hawaii, ended up with two boxes of her watercolors—most of them painted in 1881 during the Lemmons’ time in southeastern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains.
In 2015, Harold’s granddaughter, Sara’s great-great-grandniece, Amy St. John, donated the works to the University of California and Jepson Herbaria Archives in Berkeley, California.
Back in 2017, I knew I wanted to write Sara Lemmon’s biography—and that I wanted to include photos of her work. So, to get photographs for the book I hadn’t yet written—and didn’t even have a contract for—I hired a local art conservator for a day to assess the work. Since Susan K. Filter treated John Wilkes Booth’s diary, I figured she could be trusted to handle Sara’s work!
Susan, my husband Dave Peterson, and I then spent a thrilling day examining Sara’s paintings.