Flowers are Forever

The woman who gave California the golden poppy


Among the California poppies waving their lovely heads in Mountain View Cemetery this spring, lie the remains of Sara Plummer Lemmon, the adventurous Oakland woman who raised their humble stature to state flower. Lemmon, born in 1836, was an artist and self-trained botanist who traveled the West with her husband in the late 1800s, plant-press in hand, camping in primitive conditions and dodging Apache war parties in order to bring back to Oakland a new flower or fern. When states began to choose their own floral emblems in the 1890s, Lemmon spearheaded the campaign to have the diminutive golden poppy declared the symbol of California, and shepherded the effort through three unsuccessful bids in the state legislature before achieving success in 1903.

Though amateurs, the Lemmons were highly respected and collected adventures along with new plants, holing up once in a makeshift mountain tunnel for almost two weeks while Apaches combed the hills, killing the whites they considered invaders. Their most famous escapade, however, was their honeymoon to the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona. No one had ever reached the inner island of green between its craggy peaks, but it was rumored to contain untold numbers of new plant species.

“My wife … was the first to propose that, instead of the usual stupid and expensive visit to a watering-place, we should … make a grand botanical raid into Arizona, and try to touch the heart of Santa Catalina,” Lemmon wrote in an article with the charming title, “A Botanical Wedding Trip.” Unfortunately, their honeymoon almost killed them with extremes of heat and cold, lack of water, rattlesnakes, impassable chasms continually halting their advance, rock slides and—worst of all—forests of cacti whose barbs caused excruciating pain. After a 30-day trip that was originally intended to last two weeks, they reached the summit, a verdant valley that was “a very paradise for botanists.” After that trip, the mountain was named in Sara’s honor—one of the few mountains named for a woman. 

For decades, the Lemmons displayed their floral finds in an herbarium attached to their home on Telegraph Avenue (no longer in existence). After their deaths, their plant collection was donated to the University of California. In the spring, looking at the hillsides, gardens, and median strips all made brighter by the unassuming poppy, take a moment to remember the adventurous woman responsible for its recognition.

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