Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Hardy and Engaging: Rowntree and Native Plants in New Edition

By Ron Sullivan
Friday January 05, 2007

Oh boy, did I get a great Yule present. Joe gave me a copy of the new edition of Lester Rowntree’s classic Hardy Californians. If no one gave you one, remedy that immediately. 

It’s worth having even if you’ve got a copy of the first edition on your shelf. Additional material by Lester B. Rowntree and Judith Larner Lowry would be worth the book’s price, and there a handy concordance appended that lists the current taxonomic names of the plants in the original, many of which have been reclassified since its publication in 1936. The California Academy of Sciences has collected lots of Rowntree’s personal notes, an invaluable resource these writers present handsomely to the rest of us. 

I just missed Lester Rowntree by a couple of California years. I keep meeting interesting people who knew her personally. I’m just a tad bitter that I never had the chance to meet her myself before she died—at the age of 100—in 1979.  

Her friends and students tell me she was the character a reader meets in her books. This is a very engaging character indeed: knowledgeable, witty, practical, independent in mind and habits, perceptive, and unreservedly in love with the land and the plants she encountered.  

And physically tough. She rambled all over California’s wildlands, over the Sierra and through the deserts, in one of those great clunky old 1930s coupes with running boards—passenger seat removed to make room for her equipment—or on foot, sometimes with a burro named Skimpy to caddy. 

These impedimenta were mostly plant presses, reference books, samples and seeds and storage for them, film holders and big box cameras. She herself required little: a homemade bedroll and garden tools, and presumably a change of clothing, a pot or two, and a stash of beans and raisins. No tent; in bad weather she tucked up in the car. Otherwise, she liked her world first-hand and immediate: 

“The best places of all were in the high mountains, where I knew no one was camping above me. I used to love sleeping at the edge of the snow banks during thaw time to watch the alpines open with the rising sun.” 

The book’s title is utilitarian: Hardy Californians are plants that will thrive in gardens that get seriously cold in winter. The phrase contradicts the idea then prevalent that all California plants were semitropical or at least tender.  

“Hardy” and “tender” mean something particular to gardeners that their common usage doesn’t convey. Much as “theory” does not mean “wild guess” to scientists – it means a tested explanation for concrete facts—“hardy” means “cold-tolerant” and “tender” means the opposite. The toughest plant on Earth might be a shoreline shrub who endures gales, salt spray, and annual drought, but has never faced deep freezes and is therefore tender.  

Rowntree’s voice is frank and forward in her book, and her first-person style makes the acquaintance with our native plants even more a pleasure. She includes growing advice that needs very little modification for us here and now’ to summarize: Know where your plants come from and how they grow there, to know what they’ll like.  

Read it yourself. It’s a good introduction to brilliant and hardy Californians, in both senses. 



Hardy Californians: A Woman’s Life with Native Plants. Lester Rowntree.  

(New, expanded edition).  

University of California Press, 2006,  

ISBN-13 978-0-520-25051-2.