|University of California, Berkeley|
Willis Linn Jepson—“The Botany Man”
Richard G. Beidleman, 2000
Near the tranquil summit of Cemetery Hill in the bustling valley community of Vacaville, California, stands a white Carrara marble headstone set upon a gray Sierran granite base. Carved on the tombstone is the name of Willis Linn Jepson, with the following inscription: “Profound Scholar, Inspiring Teacher, Indefatigable Botanical Explorer, born in Vaca Valley August 19, 1867; died in Berkeley Nov. 7, 1946. In the ordered beauty of nature he found enduring communion.”
It was east of the Araquipa Hills, near Alamo Creek, where Willis Jepson’s parents, William and Martha Ann, settled in 1857, coming out of Missouri in an adventure-fraught journey by bullock-drawn covered wagon, though earlier William had already experienced the gold rush days in California. At the Vacaville homestead, which later would be christened “Little Oak” for a seedling Valley Oak that sprang up in the woodpile, three daughters were born to the farming couple before Willis, and then a younger brother who later would die in a riding accident. About his boyhood Willis reflected that, “We had things. We had horses and cows and chickens. And flour from our wheat and fruits from the orchard. But we never had any money.” However, as the family grew up it became a tradition to celebrate May Day with an outing. Throughout his lifetime, when his schedule permitted, Jepson would always try to continue the tradition, to be out in the field around May 1, “the best days in the year for the open.”
Two things which Willis yearned for as a lad were a gun and books. Willis’s father favored hard farm work and thought that reading was a terrible waste of time. The Jepson youngsters had one children’s book of California pioneer stories, and Willis would sit by the pot-bellied stove reading the tales. He envied the neighbor boy who had copies of Youth’s Companion. When he was able to save up a little money, the first thing Willis bought was a worn set of Charles Dicken’s novels, which would remain part of his library, as did the tattered paperback about pioneers. This personal library burgeoned to the end of his life and eventually became part of the nucleus of today’s Jepson Herbarium Library.
In those early days the Vaca Valley was sparsely populated beyond the village with farms and developing orchards, but much of the surrounding countryside was natural, with nearby unspoiled wooded canyons and chaparral-covered ridges,marshes and meadows, tree-lined creekbottoms. At an early age Willis, encouraged- especially by his mother, developed an interest in natural history. As he later reflected, it was she who had provided him with an “almost inordinate love of dancing, of the songs of birds, of the sound of running water, of the flowing wind waves rippling the field of summer wheat—and all manner of joyous and pagan things.”
But most formative, Jepson came to realize, was the opportunity as a teenager to attend the newly established Normal and Scientific School in Vacaville, which attracted able high school students from near and far. Under the tutelage of Wyandotte J. Stevens, A.M., the principal, young Jepson encountered chemistry, geology, zoology, astronomy, mathematics, Latin, literature, philosophy, and history. And then there was botany, which even included field trips and collecting. Here Willis was introduced to his first plant book, which may have been Volney Rattan’s new A Popular California Flora, written especially “for beginners. One of his first preserved plant specimens was a Lepidium nitidum (Common Peppergrass) collected on March 6, 1884, probably. around Vacaville. When his growing interest in botany occasioned a visit by the youthful Jepson to the California Academy of Natural Sciences in San Francisco, his reception as a budding naturalist by the venerable botanist Albert Kellogg and the younger Edward Lee Greene was something he would never forget.
At summer’s end in 1885 Willis Jepson rode the train to Berkeley to take the entrance examinations for the freshman class at “the great U.C.” Remarkably, he was the first young person from Vacaville who had ever applied to the university, and he found the initial experience so trying that he was “sick bodily and mentally” for days after the exam. Stress followed by relapse would unfortunately become, for Jepson, a familiar pattern throughout his lifetime. But there had been no reason for concern about the entrance exam, because he was readily accepted as a member of the Class of 1889, which four years later would graduate 42, including seven coeds.
In a sense, the four years at Berkeley provided a release from farming-town bondage. After a somewhat homesick freshman year, Willis came to life as one of the “Jolly Sophomore Boys.” He became a leader in the Class of 1889 fights and yells, spending evenings and even afternoons at whist and cassino and attending coeducational parties, plays, musicals, readings, and art exhibitions. It is historically significant that it was the Class of 1889 that initiated the university’s first yell and set a precedent for future classes with: “Rah! Rah! Rah! Cali-for-ni-a! U! C! Berkeley! Zip! Boom! Ah!”
To be sure, the academic performance of Willis Jepson his first year had left something to be desired, with his poorest grades in geometry and algebra. But as a sophomore he proved somewhat more scholarly, at least outside of class, doing some botanical collecting for Edward Lee Greene, who had become Instructor in Botany in 1885, and among other pursuits Jepson initiated a recording of earthquake vibrations, noting that they generally occurred after eight in the evening. The high point of the second academic year, however, involved the wild sophomore celebration of Thanksgiving, which resulted in the kidnapping of several freshmen, running up and down Bancroft singing and shouting, and keeping “the town awake in diverse way[s], having three separate bonfires.”
At the beginning of his junior year Jepson commenced an invaluable activity, namely keeping a diary. He prophetically promised himself to “record everything that is worth recording.” “Not just a collection of dates—but rather a collection of thoughts.” Although it started as what he called “a student’s note-book,” this activity within a decade would become a routine. Over his lifetime his entries, including innumerable plant collections and detailed descriptions, field trip experiences, anecdotes about fellow scientists, teaching and research suggestions, photography data, addresses, literature citations, would result in more than 50 compact, black morocco “Jepson Field Books,” an invaluable record of a scientist’s professional lifetime.
But the first diary, Jepson’s “student’s notebook,” was concerned with his final two years at the University of California, when he became an extra-curricular achiever. He worked on the Blue and Gold year book, soliciting advertisements far and wide, and in his senior year he went on to become business manager, then energetic editor of the literary magazine The Occident. In his diary he demonstrated his literary and artistic talents by writing descriptively and repeatedly about the beauty of San Francisco Bay sunsets. On campus he enthusiastically attacked fraternities and the university administration. On the other hand, he attacked his course work with less enthusiasm, especially Political Economy and U.S. History and Constitutional Law. His grade in Zoology was a disappointing C, and at one time he was close to flunking chemistry and German. He worried constantly about examinations, and once, after getting only 14 hours of sleep during 48 hours of cramming, he was “utterly broken down.”
The academic bright spots were his occasional botanical excursions with classmates, including Victor Chestnut, who would later become an important government scientist. But more influential was his continuing relationship with botany professor Greene. During a week-long illness (“sauerbawled” in student parlance), Greene saw to his disciple’s well-being, plying him with medicine and hot tea. And as Jepson reflected, “How many profs, I wonder, would walk a mile on a cold morning to build a fire for a sick student?”
Despite being ill the last two months of his senior year, Jepson still graduated with his favorite Class of 1889. Among interesting graduation statistics, Jepson at 160 pounds was 15 pounds heavier than the class average; at 5'10", he was 1½ inches taller than the class average, and after graduation he would eventually exceed 6 feet. His college occupation, as cited in the Blue and Gold year book, was “fire eater,” his future occupation “Lobbyist,” and his favorite beverage “Calves’ Blood.” Hmm. His most famous classmate was Lincoln Steffens, whose future occupation was forecast as “Would-be Aristocrate,” but instead Lincoln became an astute muckraker. Decades later, Jepson, demonstrating his continued dedication to that memorable Class of 1889, would actually serve as its class secretary, soliciting news of his remaining alums.
Encouraged by Greene, Jepson now embarked on a graduate program, was appointed Assistant in Botany in 1891, and on April 20 commenced the field work at the Sutter Buttes that resulted in his first publication, “Botany of the Marysville Buttes” (Torrey Botanical Club Bulletin 18, 1891), in which he reported 110 species of plant. When Greene read Jepson’s rough draft of the article, he told Jepson that the manuscript was too neat, that “The New York people would remark over its pedantic preciseness.” So Jepson roughened it up a bit before submitting it.
That fall Jepson became president of the newly formed Chamisso Botanical Club on campus, whose initial purpose was to generate a list of plants growing within 20 miles of the foot of San Francisco’s Market Street, and which held frequent meetings into 1897. In 1892 he joined a small, select group of individuals, headed by John Muir, to create the Sierra Club. The following year in early April Professor Greene and Jepson were in the field together, investigating the plants of the Marin Peninsula and northward. Jepson designed a spring garden of native plants at the University, and with Greene’s help he started the botanical journal Erythea, which brought the young editor to the attention of a wide array of scientists. At Greene’s botany laboratory and herbarium in South Hall Jepson was busily pursuing taxonomic work, with particular emphasis on Umbelliferae, Polygonaceae, and Chenopodiaceae, together with Marshall Howe, Joseph Burtt-Davy, and Ivar Tidestrom, all members of this botanical quartet destined for distinguished futures.
In 1894 Jepson first formulated plans for his magnum opus, The Flora of California. As early as 1887 he had begun numbering his plant specimens, but the early efforts proved inadequate. He finally formalized the numbering in 1899 and set aside numbers 13,334-15,095 fot those earliest specimens. He always claimed that he was responsible for starting the university herbarium. Eventually he would almost frenetically build up his own personal herbarium, separated about 1905 from the university herbarium, by himself and through a growing cadre of collectors around the state, as almost exclusive reference material for his writing of the Flora. Surprisingly enough, Jepson would later emphatically aver that “The Herbarium will be my monument, more than the Flora.” And today the Jepson Herbarium at the University of California does indeed constitute the “monument,” associated with, but still distinct from the University Herbarium.
The mid-1890’s became a period of ferment at the University. In 1895 Greene left Berkeley for Catholic University in Washington, D.C., taking with him not only his own herbarium but many of Jepson’s specimens. University of California factions were divided between obtaining a new head for the department of botany or, as Dean of Agriculture Eugene Hilgard urged, putting botany back under agriculture.
Greene himself felt it better to let his “young team” handle the existing botany department without a chairman for a year. In February Jepson was granted a leave of absence with salary to study at Cornell University and was away from Berkeley until July. Meanwhile he somewhat shocked Greene by reporting that he had entered his name for the chairmanship; but as backup Jepson had also made an application to Oregon State College (Corvallis) “to fill the professorship of botany” at that institution.
On August 12 the San Francisco Examiner carried a blurb about Greene’s leaving and went on to report that “Willis Linn Jepson, who was Professor E. L. Greene’s assistant in the botanical department, will succeed his old chief.” There were others, including Professor Willard Rowlee of Cornell University, who anticipated that Jepson would indeed become chairman of botany. Greene, however, pointedly reminded Jepson that all he had promised was to request an instructorship for Jepson, not any chairmanship.
By late summer, although a separate botany department had been retained by the university, the new chairman and full professor was a Dr. William Setchell, who had earned an undergraduate degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from Harvard. Actually, Hilgard had hoped to entice the distinguished Charles Bessey from the University of Nebraska for the position, but California’s offer had fallen short. Two decades earlier, when Bessey had taught a three-week-long course on economic botany at the new university in Berkeley, he had been perfectly happy with a stipend of $300.
Dr. Setchell was slightly older than Jepson, was from the eastern Ivy League establishment, with a well-to-do New Haven family background, sported a Phi Beta Kappa key, already had his Ph.D., had been assistant professor at Yale, and was a “bombastic” extrovert. The more introspective Jepson received an appointment only as an instructor in botany from the Regents on August 13, 1895, with a salary of $1,200. Congratulations for this appointment shortly arrived from his former classmate Victor Chestnut, who was familiar with Setchell and optimistically commented that “He will speed up the biological side & will need you badly to bolster up the Systematic side. Hold your fort.” But the western farm boy from Vacaville, although with an egotism of his own, undoubtedly felt outclassed by Setchell; and in academia Jepson, at least in his own mind, would increasingly “suffer” beneath that domineering shadow until Setchell’s retirement in 1934. However, Jepson too would later sport a Phi Beta Kappa key, just like Setchell.
In the fall of 1896 Willis Jepson received another semester’s leave of absence with salary, this time to work up his California collections at Harvard’s Gray Herbarium under curator Benjamin Robin-son’s direction. At the beginning of his trip, he received a solicitous letter from his new department chairman to take care of his health and be sure to look up the Setchell family when he passed through New Haven, Connecticut. When Jepson’s productive stint at Harvard came to an end, he did visit New Haven, saw the Setchells, and enjoyed a dinner with the famous William Brewer of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. Although Brewer’s plant collections from his “up and down” days with the early California Geological Survey would not even come close to what Jepson would collect in his own lifetime, the number of California miles which Brewer covered in the California wilderness during the Civil War years may well have exceeded Jepson’s eventual three-score years of extensive tramping.
By this time Jepson had already been on his own exploratory California treks. His first of many junkets to Yosemite National Park was in August of 1890, then two years later he was in the Yuba River Sierra, and in Mount Shasta in 1894. During July of 1896 he, alias “Dusty Roads,” and Setchell, alias “Weary Wilie,” had a companionable botanical excursion by horse and wagon to the Santa Cruz Mountains and then east across the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite. The summer of 1897 found Jepson in the wild Yolla Bolly and redwood country of northwestern California, with former Cal football left tackle Loren Hunt as his able assistant, collecting new plants and recording the trip with his camera. Also, this was the first year that Jepson ever gave a public lecture, before a small audience isolated in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He talked, somewhat timidly, about the colorful massing of flowers in the springtime, illustrated with some of the finest herbarium sheets he could find. He was well received, invited to stay overnight; and thus commenced a lifetime of popular lecturing. Indeed, 40 years later he would even be delivering a 30-minute radio broadcast from KLX, Oakland, on “The Message of John Muir” to celebrate that great naturalist’s birthday.
On May 11, 1898 Willis Linn Jepson took the final examination for his degree of Doctor of Philosophy, with a major in systematic botany, minors in plant physiology and paleophytology. His thesis was on the flora of Western Middle California, and comprising his Sub-Committee were Setchell and Dr. John A. Merriam, paleobotanist and future president of the Carnegie Institution. More than mere years now separated the Jepson of the Ph.D. exam from the Jepson of the freshman entrance exam, as he answered such questions as “Development of taxonomic knowledge of the California flora,” the “De Candollean System as modified by Bentham and Hooker,” “California Plant Areas and Communities,” “Periodicity of growth” in plants, and “Floral changes during the Mesozoic Period.” His Ph.D. degree would be only the 10th granted by the University of California and its first in botany! It might well have seemed demeaning for Jepson to complete his degree under Professor Setchell. But that notwithstanding, “The Botany Man” was at the gateway of his professional career. And there was no better way to launch it than with a series of 6 lectures on botany, illustrated with lantern slides, sponsored by the University of California and presented on Friday evenings in March and April of 1899 at. the California Academy of Sciences.
There would shortly be more than a purely academic experience ahead. A tradition was developing in the department of botany to have staff members spend summers out in the field. And 1899 was especially appropriate because it was the summer during which the Harriman Expedition, with its shipload of eminent scientists, was sailing into Alaskan waters. Thus it was that an intrepid quartet of U.C. young men including Setchell, Jepson, Hunt (now instructor with the U.C. Civil Engineering Department), and the new assistant in the botany department, Anstruther Lawson (later to become botany professor at the University of Sydney in Australia), set out from San Francisco aboard the Bertha on their own Alaskan adventure. The group photographs of the quartet on shipboard show Jepson reading Kipling while the other three were consorting with some of the female passengers.
Once in Unalaska, the U.C. group moved into the bishop’s old home in the Aleut village of lliuliuk next door to the cathedral and Indian boys’ school. Non-smoker and non-swearer Willis was initiated into matesmanship by his devilish compatriots with a baptism of cigar and pipe smoke and volleys of vulgarities. But out in the field it was time for botanizing, with the four busying themselves collecting mountain higher plants and coastline lower plants, not to mention teaching the local Native American boys the fight yells of the University of California, and socializing with Harriman’s scientists, including John Muir and John Burroughs, when the latter were briefly at Dutch Harbor. At summer’s end the quartet was back in Berkeley. Setchell delivered his lantern-slide lecture, “A Botanical Trip to Alaska,” for a university audience, while Jepson received from the university his appointment as assistant professor of botany. So would a new century be ushered in.
Assistant Professor Jepson was beginning a professing career which would extend until his retirement at summer’s end in 1937, becoming an associate professor in 1911, a full professor in 1918. He embarked on an annual schedule that involved teaching much of the academic year, with summers and any other free time preferably out in the field. He developed strong ideas about botanical field work, asserting that it was not for weaklings. In the earliest days he traveled on foot, on horseback or with mule, and for longer trips by railroad where possible and otherwise with his camp wagon. When automobiles became the public’s mode of traveling, he warned that “You must still go afoot if a real botanist. No field botanist should become soft and travel only in an auto.”
He would sleep under the stars, using a tent only to dry his plants in, cook his meals over a fire, trespass and collect where he wished, even in national parks, and with nary a reprimand, bring along three presses (16" × 11", of oak frame for lightness and strength, with straps of harness leather and nickel buckles and a leather handle), one of them for collecting and two for drying, a vasculum and a pick which he had designed himself, his knife attached by a buckskin string; and always mark in the field each collection folder with locality and specimen number. Eventually he prepared a collector’s manual, which unfortunately he never published, commencing thus: “Exploring for plants in California. A handbook for making records, preparing specimens and guiding beginners in the ways of camp and trail.”
It was fitting to start off 1900 with a new organization at the University of California, the Field Club, intitiated on January 20 and devoted to “prompting tramping trips into the region about the Bay,” with. Jepson being elected President. The summer Of 1900 found Jepson and some colleagues far from just tramping around the bay, as they hiked into the southern Sierra towards the tallest mountain of them all, Mt. Whitney, accompanied by two dutiful mules, Hot Haste and Sierra, and a copy of Volume 1 of the Botany of California by Brewer and Watson, hardly a field-guide sized volume. It proved a small world in the high mountains, because who should be encountered but the University of California’s Joseph LeConte, long-time professor of natural history and author of A Journal of Ramblings through the High Sierra, which recounted his ramblings with the new 1870’s University Excursion Party. Just a year later LeConte would pass away during a Sierra Club hike in Yosemite.
Although the Flora of California was Jepson’s perpetual goal, “a symbol of my life,” he began pursuing a variety of other involvements. His Ph.D. thesis, A Flora of Western Middle California, was published in 1901, and the next year he completed a small School Flora for the Pacific Coast. With a growing interest in forestry, that was the summer he spent in the lumber country of northwest California, especially investigating the mall oak industry but falling in love with the redwoods.
When, in 1903, an influential group of Los Angeles citizens, concerned about forests and watershed protection, approached the University of California, President Benjamin Wheeler called upon Jepson and Professor Arnold Stubenrauch of the agriculture department(?) to conduct what turned out to be a very successful forestry summer camp at Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains. The 10 lectures which Jepson delivered dealt with “Life-history of a Tree,” “Classification of Forest Trees,” and “Forests of California.”
Pursuing this forestry interest, then, Jepson on his own began gathering pertinent information out in the field, becoming acquainted with lumbermen, and taking photographs related to the lumber industry in California, which culminated with the publication in 1909 of his singular The Trees of California, and next year the definitive Silva of California. He also incorporated more material on forestry in his botany courses, was instrumental in encouragement for a forestry school at the university, and when some of the students organized the Forestry Club in 1912, he, then as associate professor of dendrology, became a popular advisor and lecturer for the group.
Meanwhile, the first two fascicles of his Flora appeared in 1909, including gymnosperms, the willow family, oaks, and several other small families. The publications were illustrated with a few fine photographs by Jepson, and some line drawings, the three initialed by an inconspicuous M.H.S. being drawn by Mary H. Smith. Incidentally, only rarely, as they were to note, did any of Jepson’s many artists over the years receive much, if any, recognition. The next fascicle, copyrighted in 1912, would include a lengthy section on Gramineae by U.S. Department of Agriculture grass authority A. S. Hitchcock. In future fascicles there would not only be detailed descriptions but extensive locality data for each species based upon herbarium voucher specimens.
The academic year of 1905–1906 was Jepson’s first sabbatical leave as a professor, and in early July he was off for Europe as one of four American delegates to the Second International Congress for Agricultural Education, which met on July 28-29, 1905, at Liege, Belgium. Taking full advantage of his sabbatical, he then spent the fall and early winter in Great Britain, researching and recreating, with extended time at Kew Gardens where he actually encountered historic plant collections from California, including type specimens gathered by von Chamisso in 1816.
Then in early February he returned to the European mainland, making the continental tour from Paris to Italy to Switzerland, and finally to Germany, where he settled down in Berlin, hired a German conversation teacher, and interacted with eminent German taxonomists, especially at the Botanic Garden. In mid-May he was back at his favorite, Kew Gardens, and finally home to Vacaville in early August by way of Yellowstone National Park and the Columbia River. On every occasion abroad he was received as a distinguished visitor, dined and wined and regaled. Small wonder that in 1906 he was included among the 100 leading botanists in the United States in a report by Jaques McKeen Cattell.
During the summer of 1909 Jepson, for the first time, joined an extended Sierra Club summer excursion, this time in Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. Jepson was in his element, hiking, collecting plants, taking photographs, giving a lecture on Sierra conifers and providing the farewell invocation. And since one of his hiking companions was John Muir, there was many a conversation between these two, which were recorded in Jepson’s field book, including conversations about the proposed flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Continuing for a number of summers Jepson would accompany Sierra Club trips, collecting, lecturing, reciting poetry along the trail, getting acquainted with a variety of outdoor-loving people from around the world, the groups sometimes including more than 200 individuals, covering many miles of the Sierra Nevada, and often taking up most of a summer.
Before Jepson knew it, another sabbatical leave year arrived, 1912–1913. Initially he had grandiose plans which included not only Kew Gardens and mainland Europe again, but followed by an aroundthe-world collecting tour. However, with his mother’s health in question, he settled initially for his first retreat to the Mohave Desert, at the Waterman Ranch near Barstow with the late Governor Waterman’s daughter Abby as his hostess. Abby had graduated from Berkeley in the Class of 1904, a president of Prytanean, the Women’s Honor Society, during her senior year. Berkeley had been her home, but eventually she had to move to her father’s desert ranch because of her health.
During this early June of 1912 at the Waterman Ranch, Jepson, alone and with Abby, botanized in the area, sometimes on foot, by horseback, or in Abby’s rig drawn by “the Blacks.” This became a Mohave Desert field tradition which would repeat itself many a time. In years to follow, when Jepson’s Mohave-bound Santa Fe train, and later his automobile, would drop down from the Tehachapi Summit, reach the first of the Joshua Trees and swing into the open desert of Creosote Bush, White Bursage, and distant vistas, the university professor was able to cast off his academic robes, so to speak. As he once wrote in his field book: “. . . it caused my spirits to rise and at once I felt better in body as well as cheered and sustained in mind.”
This first visit to the Waterman Ranch was for only 7 days, and then it was back to Berkeley. However, by the end of June 1912, Jepson was once more in southern California, this time to join the Sierra Club’s 5 week excursion through the mountainous Upper Kern River Sierran countryside. Again Jepson was in his element, hiking through wilderness with 200 club members and 40 assorted attendants, botanizing, lecturing, and in mid-July garnering alpine flowers on Army Pass at 12,000 feet, just south of Mt. Whitney. This hegira finally terminated on the east side of the Sierra at Lone Pine the end of July.
The best was yet to come, during the autumn of his sabbatical. In mid-October Jepson was once more in the Mohave Desert, first at his tent site on the Waterman Ranch, and then joining his Sierra Club hiking companion James Rennie at Needles. There the two men bought a rowboat for $15, named it The Lotus, and proceeded down the untamed Colorado River to Yuma on a 15-day collecting adventure, a journey along the edge of the new state of Arizona replete with white water, a sunken boat, a presidential election, and Giant Saguaro photo ops.
The remainder of Jepson’s leave was spent close to home, but filled with excitement. Since 1902 he had been dreaming about a botanical society for California. So on April 12, 1913, at his call some 20 people gathered in the meeting room of the Oakland Public Museum to discuss the creation of such a society. Two weeks later at a general organizational meeting in Oakland the California Botanical Society was established, and Dr. Jepson not only was elected its first president but would serve as editor of its publication Madoño for many years, and before summer’s end would make arrangements for its first annual banquet speaker.
During late spring of 1913 Willis Jepson was headed once more for the Mohave. Abby Waterman picked him up at the train station with her road team, and he stayed again in his tent above the ranch. Soon out into the desert, at Calico Wash, he paused to write in his field book: “Sitting here on the ground studying flower parts under the lens is a pleasant occupation. When one’s eyes tire there are the desert ranges stretching one beyond another, and a soft breeze blowing from the west.” Eventually he traveled on to the New York Mountains, Needles, and finally to San Bernardino where he went on a brief collecting trip with his friend Samuel Parish, the premier amateur botanist in southern California, before returning to Berkeley.
It was now time to think seriously about a Califomia Botanical Society banquet speaker, and Jepson had candidates. The International Phytogeographical Excursion, with its entourage of important European and American botanists, had been touring the Middle West and southern Rockies during the summer of 1913, and in September was coming to California as the state’s first organized botanical excursion. Here Jepson would guide the group through Yosemite National Park. After a week enjoying the incomparable Yosemite under Jepson’s leadership, the excursion traveled by train to Oakland, visited Luther Burbank at Santa Rosa, then proceeded to Muir Woods with Jepson, where Alice Eastwood of the California Academy of Sciences joined the assembly. Finally, the congregation went down to the Monterey Peninsula, where the botanists were the guests at the Carnegie Desert Laboratory’s Coastal Laboratory in Cannel.
When the train arrived in Oakland from Yosemite on September 12, there awaited an evening’s entertainment. It was the inaugural banquet of the California Botanical Society, with eminent and undoubtedly exhausted phytogeography speakers fortuitously arranged by Jepson: Professor C. von Tubeuf from the University of Munich and Dr. Adolf Engler, Professor of Botany and Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Berlin, where Jepson had sojourned in 1906.
Jepson’s teaching assignments during the academic year of 1913–1914, including a routine Botany 1 course, must have seemed a letdown after all the events that had transpired the previous 2 years. But he was back to the Mohave by late April and throughout May. This time Jepson, accompanied by Abby Waterman, her sister Dr. Helen Waterman from Berkeley, Mrs. Rice, and Herbert Manson (the Waterman Ranch foreman) embarked upon a month-long desert circuit from Barstow to the Old Dad Mountains, Ord Mountains, Twenty-Nine Palms, Indio, Palm Springs, San Bernardino, and back to Barstow. Then in August Jepson made a collecting trip up the Sacramento River to Dunsmuir.
With the arrival of fall Jepson’s most disastrous academic year commenced, which rightly or wrongly would forever imprint its apparent consequences upon Professor Jepson’s mind. In 1914 William Setchell suddenly announced that he would be taking a sabbatical leave starting in the autumn, and, as Jepson expressed it, “thrust the Department load almost wholly on me.” There had already been increasing antagonism between Jepson and Setchell in recent years. Jepson was heavily preoccupied with his work on the Flora, continuing to build up his herbarium by collecting trips, preferably long ones, in every available moment; had what seemed to him like a demanding teaching load; and had never cared for administrative duties though he might secretly have wanted to be department chairman.
Despite the ensuing travail, Jepson did manage to survive the academic-year demands while Setchell was absent, and was actually able to spend productive time in the field from late May until late July of 1915, especially doing field work in the central Sierra around Columbia and the middle fork of the Stanislaus River. By mid-September of 1915, however, he “snapped,” and went into the sanitarium at St. Helena, near the home of his sister Mary Elizabeth and her husband Frank Pellet. This sanitarium would become a frequent retreat for Jepson because of its “tranquility.” “One finds there an atmosphere of peace, quiet, good cheer and hopefulness.” When Jepson requested another leave of absence from the university to recover from his breakdown, the dean reminded him that he had just had a leave with pay 2 years earlier, so this requested leave would have to be without salary.
By mid-December of 1915 Jepson left the sanitarium to continue his convalescence in Barstow at, naturally, the Waterman Ranch, where he remained until the end of March. The Waterman Ranch, obviously, had become Jepson’s favored retreat when he sought prolonged respite. And for those who have wondered, this explains the dedication which Jepson in 1936 so poetically penned for the second volume of his Flora: “Abby Louise Waterman. Daughter of the desert and of a race of sages, penetrating observer of the arid wastes of mesa and playa, protector of the desert men against the errant flow of circumstance, to her is inscribed this dedication page of the second volume of the Flora of California by the botanical traveler, who, driven from pitiless ranges and stone-dry hidden valleys in the year nineteen hundred and fifteen, found elemental shelter at Waterman Ranch in the heart of the Mohave.”
Much of the Barstow stay, this time, was not productive for botanizing, but during the winter months Jepson kept busy observing birds, preparing what was probably Barstow’s first winter bird inventory. By April Jepson had recovered sufficiently so that he could make a trip to the San Diego Exposition, which he felt was a disappointment, “unless for persons who seek merely to be amused.” Then he carried out some field work in southern California before returning to Barstow, then Berkeley and Vacaville.
Although Jepson would always look back on that Setchell sabbatical period as one of the two major calamities in his professional career, the other to come in the mid-1930’s, he did actively return to his teaching and field research routine by 1917, spending May of that year in Death Valley and from mid-July into early August in the White Mountains, busy collecting more plants. His interest, however, began to focus on coastal redwoods, with which he had become enamored during earlier field trips in the northwestern California redwood country. There was growing statewide interest in redwoods, including a drive for a redwood state park; in July of 1919 the Save-the-Redwoods League was established, with Willis Jepson as a member of its Executive Committee. Immediately Willis Jepson embarked on more than a decade of public lectures around the state in support of the League and preservation of redwood stands.
During the early 1920’s Jepson was at work on a new book, which would be published in 1923–1925 as A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California a 1200-page tome in a single volume (unlike Leroy Abram’s four-volume Illustrated Flora, which began appearing at the same time, published by the Stanford University Press). Although the book was put out by the Associated Students Store at the University of California, the entire cost was borne by Jepson; and through the years he would frequently complain that while other faculty works were published at University expense, his never were. The Manual was not intended to replace Jepson’s projected Flora, but with its comprehensive keys, many line drawings, and detailed species descriptions, the Manual would be the sole California botanical bible until the publication of A California Flora by Philip Munz and David Keck in 1959.
It was in September of 1925 that Jepson finally moved into a home of his desire, at 11 Mosswood, a several-storied Mediterranean style mansion with red tile roof, on a prominence looking down into the lower end of Strawberry Canyon and the university stadium, well beyond the academic campus. Largely designed by Berkeley’s famous architect Julia Morgan and beautifully landscaped, with several attractive gateways into its walled enclosure, the home was embellished by Jepson inside and out with ornamentation both floral and faunal. In the downsloping first floor, paneled in redwood, was the fine large library and herbarium drawers. The key to the cabinet which held his type specimens was labeled “Holy of Holies.”
Above, on the main floor, was the front room, with comfortable chairs and scattered Persian rugs, and three large overflow bookcases. The great west window looked out across San Francisco Bay from San Mateo north past Tamalpais to San Pablo Bay, a vista which Jepson especially enjoyed in early evening, with the twinkling lights of the metropolis. Among the many pictures on the wall was a large beautiful oil painting of the Suisun Marshes, with the mountains beyond and “magnificant clouds at which I look a great deal!” Above the brick fireplace in the living room was a redwood panel with an engraving of a California Quail on one side, and on the other side Jepson’s boyhood favorite, the Acorn Woodpecker (which he incorrectly called a “California Red-headed Woodpecker”), and in the center an engraving of “Golden Eggs,” a yellow Oenothera (Oenothera ovata) that used to carpet the campus when Jepson was a student. On either side of the entryway into the dining room were additional recessed bookshelves. Even in the sparse bedroom, with its spartan wood-frame bed there was a bookstand by the bedside. Engraved into wood paneling on doors were images of plants and birds, while at the front entrance, which faced the upper hillside, there were in the framing of the tall entrance door California Quail amidst twining runners of oak.
It was rumored among the graduate students at the time that Jepson had prepared the home for a prospective wife, but alas she apparently married someone else. There is no question that Willis Jepson, over a span of many, many decades, was both a romantic figure and eligible bachelor in the imagination of many women of his acquaintance, whether he had met them as one of his students on campus, on a Sierra Club trek, at a scientific meeting back east, or even in London during a sabbatical. He was tall and lean, with craggy features, “rugged, like a tree” as one of his former women students reminisced. His personal correspondence abounds with appealing notes. But, of course, Jepson would remained forever a bachelor.
In December of 1925 Professor Jepson was off on a major sabbatical trip, this time to the Middle East with William Bade, dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and a biblical scholar. This would turn into an extensive journey encompassing essentially all of the countries surrounding the eastern portion of the Mediterranean Sea, with special emphasis on Egypt and Palestine. Jepson toured famous landmarks from the pyramids and Karnak, to Mary’s Well in Nazareth and the Dead Sea, collected plants in the desert and among the cedars of Lebanon, visited institutes and universities, met Muslim botanists, Arab shepherds, camel drivers, bedouins, biblical scholars, British soldiers, geologists, and archaeologists, and took enough photographs to prepare a hand-tinted lantern slide program upon his return to Berkeley.
In early June of 1926 Jepson went on to England from the Middle East, working again at his favorite Kew Gardens Herbarium until mid-July, as usual focusing on early West Coast plant collections. Then he scheduled a memorable trip to the Liverpool area on the trail of one of America’s greatest frontier naturalists, Thomas Nuttall, the first botanist to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1834 and who, on his way back east in 1836, collected along the California coast from Monterey south to San Diego. Because of provisions of an uncle’s will, Nuttall had to return to his native England in 1841, occupying Nutgrove estate near Liverpool until his death in 1859. Jepson was ecstatic at actually encountering Nuttall’s grand nephew, Dixon Nuttall, who as a young lad had met Nuttall; and then locating Nuttall’s old Nutgrove Hall (in 1926 it housed a girl’s school) and his grave at nearby Christ Church. In 1934 Jepson would publish an article in Madroño about Nuttall’s botanical excursion across America, the botanist heralded by the Missouri Botanical Garden as “The Father of Western Botany”; and on October 25, 1935, he would deliver a dedication talk at Spring Valley Lake for a Nuttall memorial there.
Leaving England in early August of 1926 on the Orca, Jepson stopped over in Ithaca, New York, to attend the Fourth International Botanical Congress at Cornell University. He observed that “One meets a bewildering lot of men here,” many of them, of course, old acquaintances, the “most terrible bore of the Congress” being P. A. Rydberg of the New York Botanical Garden, who always seemed to dwell on trivial points.
During the 1920’s the University of California botany department would move into the remodeled Palmer House and expand both its faculty, its roster of graduate and undergraduate students, and its laboratory courses. Jepson had developed the basic teaching philosophy that “every educated person should know, at least broadly, the native forests, shrubs and flowering plants in his own state, so that elsewhere he may be an intelligent traveler.” He further felt that “the object of botanical investigation was to learn as much as possible about the plant and that every phase of the life-history possible should be represented in the record either by specimens or field notes. . . . Intelligent and critical observations with real things in view should be the student’s aim, should be the things held in mind, not, as I say, merely to collect, but to study plants.” In his actual teaching, Jepson followed the pedagogical pattern of Louis Agassiz. Especially with his graduate students, he would give adequate preliminary instructions, then pay no further attention until the student was ready to raise questions. Professor Jepson was always thinking up and writing down questions for students to contemplate, projects for them to pursue. One invaluable field exercise initiated by Jepson for botany seniors was to have them do a detailed vegetational map of some local site, an experience that in part provided the model for development of our modern vegetational mapping programs.
By now, Jepson had taught long enough to have generated a lengthy roster of former students, and often he would coincidentally run into one of them in the field, or hear from them by letter, sometimes with a query but often with a note of appreciation for a remembered course. He not only taught in the classroom but had the audacity on occasion to take his students, from beginning classes to graduate seminars, out into the field, even across San Francisco Bay by ferry to the Marin Peninsula. And during a pause in a field trip, he would often bring forth a favorite book, which he always had wrapped protectively in paper or from a book bag, and read aloud to the students, the likes of “The Ode to True Romance” or “The Old Three Decker” (“Full thirty feet she towered from waterline to rail . . .”), Kipling and Stevenson ranking high among his choices. There were some students who appreciated such an exposure to the liberal arts, while others must have felt a bit embarrassed.
Among the botany faculty there were increasing schisms. Professor Setchell, as someone once noted, “liked to draw people around him.” He was at ease with students, liked to be known as “Papa Setchell” or the “Old Boy” and in turn called his favorites “nieces and nephews.” Jepson, on the other hand, “needed serenity and quiet in which to work.” He received no informal nicknames from students, at least to his face, though behind his back Thomas Howell called him “Jeppie” and Helen-Mar Wheeler, “Linn.” Jepson zealously guarded his personal privacy, often keeping his office door closed to intruders, and even totally disappearing from sight for long periods, his whereabouts not even known to the botany department secretary.
In the academic setting he assumed a formal persona. In his view most of his teaching colleagues were neither very qualified nor working hard enough, while he seemingly was working overly hard.and being underappreciated. He was much better out in the field and had a faithful cadre of nonacademic acquaintances, but in the field he might still appear in what we today would call somewhat formal attire, right down to a fedora with hat band, a white shirt with black tie, and a black vest, on occasion even a black suitcoat. He was, obviously, no longer the young collegian who had enjoyed dancing with Misses Spohn and Cora Smith and who, with classmate Wharff, sang with fervor, “So when a maiden kisses me, I’ll think that I the Sultan be. . . .”
With respect to friends, an astute graduate student observed that Jepson had “at least 10 or probably 13 circles of friendships,” with very few in the inner circle, especially among the faculty. One of Jepson’s measures of friendship was complete loyalty to Jepson. For example, if a student or colleague gave plant specimens or attention to other than Jepson, the individual was quickly moved to an outer circle. Jepson himself admitted that he had a quick and violent temper, like his father, and it was readily directed towards those he came to dislike. Yet with the select few in that innermost circle the friendship was mutual and would continue for years. Surprisingly, there were few individuals, as his graduate students Herbert Mason and Lauramay Tinsley had observed, who actually disliked Jepson as much as he increasingly seemed to dislike others.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression, 1930 was a momentous year for the natural sciences at Berkeley, with the completion of the major Life Sciences Building at the lower end of the campus, the move commencing on January 5. Jepson should have been delighted. In the new building he had a beautiful office and a large private herbarium, situated next to a seminar room and the secretary’s office. But after only the winter months on campus, Jepson was again afield, to the Kettleman Plains at the southwest end of the San Joaquin Valley in mid-April and back to Barstow and the Mohave Desert for a week in early May. Then on May 21 he was off for another International Botanical Congress, this time in Cambridge, England, with a week at the Gray Herbarium and several days at the New York Botanical Garden before he took ship to Europe. Since the Congress didn’t convene until mid-August, he inevitably spent most of the two intervening months at Kew. “It is a great delight to be here again,” he wrote in his field book. “I feel a real thrill at being once more within the bounds of the Garden. The collections are so vast, so rich, apparently inexhaustible are the botanical treasures stored here. And one is given so kind a welcome by all the staff that it warms one.” Jepson had once written that his favorite herbarium was his own in Berkeley, but his second fondest was the herbarium at Kew. Finally, with mid-August at hand, Jepson spent a short time in Oxford and then on to Cambridge University for the meetings, where he delivered a paper on “The Role of Fire in Relation to the Differentiation of Species in the Chaparral,” and finally back to Kew. This time Jepson’s return to America was by Montreal and across Canada to Vancover by train.
The next year Herbert Mason, who had essentially been Jepson’s assistant since 1925 and whom Jepson viewed as an accomplished and loyal disciple, was appointed instructor, going on to teach the systematics course and supervising labs for Jepson. As time went by, Professor Jepson came to handle only a graduate seminar, for which he would pick a particular topic such as Age and Area, Life Zones, etc., the topics often remaining the same every time Jepson taught the seminar, a pattern which students were quick to recognize.
As Jepson frequently was absent for health reasons, Mason would periodically take over responsibility for Jepson’s classes. Mason received his Ph.D. degree in 1932 with a thesis on the paleobotany of conifers and 2 years later assumed charge of the University Herbarium. Mason was a good and popular instructor, and he was an active participant in the departmental Calypso Club field trips, which is more than could be said for Jepson. Ultimately, in Jepson’s view this up-and-coming young botanist was beginning to lure away Jepson’s graduate students. And, indeed, he successfully did, starting with Carl Sharsmith. Furthermore, Jepson was incensed when Mason “took over” Madroño, which Jepson viewed as his own. Thus commenced an academic situation which would equal the Setchell-Jepson relationship, until at long last Jepson swore that he never even wanted to hear the name “Mason” mentioned in his presence; and indeed in Jepson’s will it was emphatically emphasized that Mason not share in any of the benefits or endowments.
Meanwhile, in 1934 William Setchell, now a world authority on marine algae as well as being Jepson’s enigma, retired, although he continued carrying on research for some time. As if in celebration Willis purchased a new car, this time a very attractive sporty roadster that attracted excited attention wherever the professorial botanist drove. Jepson now had only 3 more years to retirement. He was the oldest member of the botany department and was not without fame himself, in America and in Europe as well. He might personally anticipate being named chairman of botany, at long last, or at least being consulted; but other pressures and personalities were abroad. A confidential committee of the university had recommended, once again, that botany be incorporated into the College of Agriculture. As a matter of fact, Dennis Hoagland, a plant nutrition authority, became chairman of the amalgamation of botany with the Division of Plant Nutrition. For Jepson, this was the ultimate treachery, with botany for the second time in his academic career losing its specific identity.
This mid-1930’s period for Jepson came to rank with that terrible period in 1915. Worse now, in a sense, because he was older, much more taciturn and peevish, not in particularly good health, and increasingly driven by the necessity to complete the Flora before time ran out. Yet he was honored by the university with the prestigious invitation to deliver the University Research Lecture in Wheeler Auditorium on March 20, 1934. He entitled his address “The Content and Origin of the Californian Flora: A Demonstration of Scientific Methods,” concluding with
. . . the joy of science is in never ending exploration and discovery and acquisition. I thought in the ardor of youth to build me a temple to my science. As I cleared the ground there in full view were the foundations of a previous temple, and under that the foundation of another and still others builded by the men who had gone before me. And in some parts the walls were sound, and in other parts only ‘the ruined footings ran.’ And I knew that in due time my temple too would be but as rubble and as ruin. As I thought of the future, of the far horizons that will open to view in the greater days to come, in the words of the great poet of Sussex, in his very words, I carved upon the lintel stone: ‘After me, cometh a Builder, Tell him, I too have known.’
It was this year when the first edition of his Shrubs & Flowers of the Redwood Region was issued by the Save-the-Redwoods League, a popular publication still in print. Even amidst the Depression Jepson was receiving university research funds for his Flora work and was able to hire both artists and clerical help. As mentioned earlier, the second volume of the Flora would appear in 1936 (Capparidaceae to Cornaceae). Little could Jepson anticipate that the last part of his uncompleted Flora Vol. 4, Part 2, on the Rubiaceae, would be published in 1979 and would be written by Laura May Dempster, who had been not only one of his graduate students but artist and personal assistant for the Flora into the 1940’s. In the early fall of 1935, having been granted a 6-week leave of absence, Professor Jepson attended his last International Botanical Congress (the Sixth), this time in Amsterdam, with the usual stay at Kew Gardens. At the Congress he presented a paper on “Centers of Plant Endemism in California in Relation to Geological History.” Back in Berkeley, just before Christmas, he was honored by delivering the keynote address for the University of California Forestry Alumni Dinner.
Jepson took delight in proclaiming that he was the only American to attend all of the International Botanical Congresses, but in truth he did not attend the First, in Genoa in 1892. True, he was in Europe in 1905, where the Second Congress took place in Vienna during June, but he didn’t arrive there until July, and the meeting for which he was a delegate was an international congress for agricultural education. However, Jepson did take part in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, and he was an official delegate for the last two.
The academic year of 1936–1937 would be Jepson’s final association as an active member of the University of California faculty, and his major voiced regret was that he was retiring just when he had encountered his two most talented graduate students, Robert Hoover and Joseph Ewan. Incidentally, Hoover received his Ph.D. in 1937 and actually worked as an assistant for Jepson until 1942. He was recognized by Jepson as “one of the ablest collectors in California. He had a trained eye for material of importance.” Hoover would eventually go on to his own successful career in academia. Ewan, on the other hand, left for a teaching position at the University of Colorado and would never complete his Ph.D. But moving eventually to Tulane University, he pursued the subject of early American naturalists throughout his lifetime, something in which Jepson had interested him, eventually becoming an eminent historian of American natural history.
Willis had spent the summer of 1936 in his favorite redwood country of northwestern California. During autumn he taught his advanced graduate seminar. But after Christmas he was frequently in poor health, and was in and out of the sanitarium at St. Helena until the end of April, 1937, with Herbert Mason handling his classes. Then he recovered sufficiently to make a collecting trip to the Sierra around Jacksonville, and for several weeks in May back to the Mohave Desert and Barstow.
Although the academic year of 1936–1937 didn’t end until August 19, the University granted Jepson a leave of absence from July 1 to that date. During the latter part of July, 1937, he drove north to visit two former graduate students, Helen Gilkey at Oregon State in Corvallis, and Lincoln Constance, who was on the faculty at Washington State, whom he warned not to take the offered position at Berkeley. Then on July 31, near Crescent City on his way home, Jepson stopped at a roadside spring to get a drink, caught his foot on a shrub branch, and seriously fractured his ankle. He went into the Knapp Hospital in Crescent City until August 18, and then was at the St. Helena Sanitarium until the end of September. This was not an enjoyable introduction to retirement, and to compound matters he had to have his immense herbarium moved down into the basement of his home on Mosswood, where it shortly began to suffer from insect attack.
Now no longer with academic obligations, Jepson was free to get into the field when he pleased, health permitting. He spent almost two weeks in April of 1938 in the northern Sierra, going up the Sacramento River Valley to the Red Bluff countryside in June after a May of intermittent botanizing in some of his favorite old haunts around Vacaville and the Napa Valley, with a brief stay at the sanitarium. Undoubtedly the high moment this particular year was when he was invited to deliver the banquet address for the Silver Jubilee of the California Botanical Society, which he, of course, had started; and his fitting though perhaps self-serving topic was the Society’s beginning years.
Jepson had been involved on and off with Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden since 1926 when he supported its establishment. He consulted with Mrs. Bryant and her staff and became a councilor in 1933. During April of 1939 he combined a council meeting there with an extended collecting trip in southern California. In June he attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Pacific Section) meetings at Stanford, spending three weeks later in the summer up in the Feather River region of the northern Sierra. The next year his field schedule would have exhausted a botanist much younger than he when he spent almost a month afield in the Death Valley region, then three weeks in June and early July for a junket to Seattle for a AAAS meeting, driving up and back through the Sacramento Valley and central and western Washington. During October he was back at Rancho Santa Ana for another council meeting.
Jepson’s last extended excursion of his career was during April of 1941, toward the end of his 74th year, although he would continue to take short field trips after that time. He had driven from Berkeley down to Rancho Santa Ana for another meeting of the Botanic Garden Council on April 19. But this time the meeting was a “peaceful” event for Jepson because he had “no duties, no obligations,” and initially only the staff was aware that he would be present. But after Dr. Carl Wolf’s public lecture on conifers in the auditorium, Jepson was absolutely delighted upon being recognized, because “a little procession of visitors lined up” to get his autograph.
He and Wolf had planned for an excursion after the Council to the Old Dad Mountains (actually the Granite Mountains) in the eastern Mohave, the pair to meet for the trip at the Van Dyke Ranch in Daggett, which Jepson had often visited over the years. This was the ranch started by “Judge” Theodore Van Dyke, brother of the author of the classic The Desert, John C. Van Dyke. The Judge was a writer in his own right as well as Daggett’s longtime justice of the peace. The Judge had died in 1923, and Jepson’s host in 1941 was his son Dix, also a “desert writer.” Still in residence at the ranch was Abby Waterman’s friend Mary Beal, with whom Jepson first became acquainted during-his prolonged stay in the Mohave three decades earlier. Suffering from tuberculosis, Mary, on the recommendation of John Muir (whose daughter Helen was recovering from the disease at the Van Dyke Ranch), had left her librarian job in Riverside and moved to the desert about 1911. Over the years Mary became an authority on the desert vegetation, photographing and writing about the flora, and was one of Jepson’s prime collectors and collaborators. As he observed, she “knows every plant in her desert that has anything of popular interest.”
Leaving Rancho Santa Ana, Jepson drove over Cajon Pass to Barstow, where he received the sad news that his old friend Abby Waterman had passed away just two days earlier, on April 19, in Berkeley. Continuing east to Daggett, Jepson reached the Van Dyke Ranch where sleeping quarters were found for him. At the ranch Mary Beal invited him to use the enclosed front porch of her cottage as his laboratory. Also, because Jepson had never been enthusiastic about the Dix cooking, Mary fed him his meals. The two took some local collecting trips, and back at the cottage Mary changed his plant driers, spreading damp specimens out in the sun. Meanwhile, Carl Wolf showed up on April 27, and he and Willis departed in Wolfs field vehicle for a thorough investigation of the Granite Mountains and the Kelso Dunes. This was Jepson’s second desert excursion with Wolf, the two having been together during late April of 1935, when Jepson had been so impressed not only by this up-and-coming young Rancho Santa Ana botanist, who proved to be “a capital companion,” but by the innumerable mounts for plant driers festooning the top and sides of Wolf’s automobile.
It was on his return from this 1941 expedition that Jepson was invested by the University of California with an LL.D. degree, an honor which in part made up for what Jepson felt were years of neglect. However, when he was first told about the proposed honor, he actually wrote a letter (unsent), in essence declining the degree as an honor too late and too little. On December 7, 1941, of course, World War II commenced, which irritated Jepson on several scores. He lost his research assistants and research funds to the war effort, and as a staunch Republican he had to suffer under a Commander-in-Chief by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
During Willis Linn Jepson’s last decade, his obsession with completing the Flora, now focusing on the demanding Scrophulariaceae-to-Compositae, was shared with a desire to elucidate his lifelong accomplishments. With a sense of manifest destiny, from his earliest days Jepson had felt a compulsion to save everything pertinent “as part of his life and autobiography”—his extensive correspondence, field notes, photographs, honors, mementos, passports, business cards, programs, rough drafts of articles, and so on. As he jokingly observed, “You would think . . . all this old stuff of mine were as valuable as pearls—real pearls!” Secretaries and assistants were busied organizing the correspondence, preparing letters so that they could be bound into volumes, which eventually would total 51 tomes, including a comprehensive index. Each bound volume includes 300-400 pages of epistles, with the total exceeding 15,000 items, all of which are now part of the Jepson Herbarium Library. In addition, there are reams of correspondence which have never been bound. The year before he died, Jepson perceptibly wrote with respect to this vast collection of correspondence that “Such a file will be, in the future, consulted by many persons and should be available to any one.”
Some of Jepson’s correspondents were remarkably faithful through the years. His Vacaville boyhood chum Ralph H. Platt sent chatty, homespun letters from 1888 until his death in 1928, often with a jocular salutation such as “Dear Billious.” Equally delightful were the dozens of humorous letters and postcards between Jepson and Harry Dutton, a San Francisco businessman, Stanford graduate, and amateur botanist, between 1908 and 1945. The pair frequently greeted each other in correspondence with localities which they had visited: “Dear Vallecito,” “Yours, Mission San Luis Rey.” Willis Jepson’s dearest relative throughout his adult life was his niece Dorris Pellet, daughter of his sister Mary and Frank Pellet of St. Helena. Dorris had a varied professional career in public service around the world, never married, and was considered a mirror image of her uncle in terms of personality, profile, and interests. Their letter writing extended over the years, and during Jepson’s last few years Dorris wrote him lengthy epistles every Friday almost without fail. Not to be overlooked are the number of letters and notes starting in 1941 that went between Jepson and his latter-day unofficial “secretarial assistant,” geneticist Helen-Mar Wheeler, whose father and Jepson had been on campus together as students. Helen-Mar would eventually become executrix of Jepson’s estate.
With respect to Jepson’s five dozen field books, he began, going back over them, enhancing many of the entries from his remarkable though on occasion faulty memory, arid he had compiled 20 additional volumes which brought together his notes on California botanical collectors (four volumes), observations on systematic botany, plant common names, field records, addresses of botanists and other individuals, three indices, etc. These, too, now make up part of the Jepson Herbarium Library collection.
He began penning a series of reminiscences on early Vacaville days for the Vacaville newspaper and continued to write articles on California’s botanists, his last one on his old friend and lily enthusiast Carl Purdy being published after Jepson’s death. But the book that he had long planned, The History of Botanical Exploration in California, would never be completed, nor the work on California plant geography, nor his booklet on plant common names, nor, fortunately, his many-chaptered, often venomous diatribe, “Man and Manners,” which mixed “many delightful things in the manner of John Adams” with what Jepson caustically termed .the “gangsterism” in academia. Other things, however, were being taken care of. As Jepson over the years had built up his herbarium, he had generally not put the plants on sheets, feeling that he and graduate students could make more successful use of them if they were loose. Now at last many of the specimens were being mounted.
Jepson began reflecting on his botanical collecting experiences throughout California and contemplated his favorite habitats. The White Fir belt of the Sierra Nevada had “a strong appeal,” and the alpine slopes had a “strong grip” upon him. But better was the “magnificent” redwood country of the northwest. The deserts had “irresistible fascination” for Jepson and he came “back to them again and again,” always regretting missing a fine season. But he had “no native affection for the desert ranges because of their ruthless implacable defiance.” The Great Valley plains were “magnificent” but their immensity was overpowering. As he told fellow botanist Carl Wolf, “I like best the Coast Range valleys and their bounding ridges where still primitive or nearly so,” from Lake County south to Parkfield, as well as the San Diego backcountry. The Vacaville foothills and St. Helena with nearby Mt. Howell had a special affection. At the bottom of his list was the ocean shore line, “the utter cruelty and hopelessness of the sea” depressing his spirit both with respect to collecting and traveling across the ocean aboard ship.
Inevitably, Jepson had early developed a perceptive ecological, as well as a biogeographical sense, resulting from his extensive field work in California and abroad, broadening experiences which many taxonomists of the day seemed to lack. As early as 1902 he contemplated taking up “a treatise on the plant geography of the state,” and he actually did delineate major areas and even local plant communities such as those of spring (“vernal”) pools. In his writing he frequently included ecological considerations. Collecting during July atop Mt. Lyell in Yosemite he noted that more plants were blooming on the summit than below on the north-facing slope. He made a point of saying that from an ecological standpoint the diversified flora of Moraga Ridge, over the hills beyond Berkeley, was his favorite example.
Somewhat ahead of his time, a dozen small-type pages in the first section of Jepson’s 1925 Manual dealt with an “Outline of Geographic Distribution of Seed Plants in California,” discussing floral distribution related to Merriam’s life zones, with a section devoted to “Irregularities in the Life-Zones,” a consideration of plant distribution and geologic history, and several pages about “The Endemic Populations” with a map showing some endemism areas in California. And although Jepson had an antipathy towards introduced species, he included a section on “The Alien Populations.” For comparison, in Abram’s contemporary first Flora volume only three pages discussed such topics.
Jepson rightly chided American ecologists for paying too little attention to correct identification of plants, and he viewed with interest mixed with skepticism the increasing botanical interest in cytogenetics on the part of systematists, but rationalized that with the demands of completing the Flora he could not, despite his mild interest, afford the time at his age to become accomplished in this emerging botanical field. But Jepson did anticipate that eventually genetics would get around to consider all organisms, “and then we would really know how many there were.” Professor Robert Ornduff, looking back on Jepson’s accomplishments 40 years after his death, concluded that “I continue to marvel at Jepson’s insights into matters just now being explored by botanists.”
As mentioned earlier, Jepson had begun numbering his plant collections definitively in the year 1899. His professional career’s last numbered specimen, No. 27,571, in his final field book, was, of all things, Salsola kali L. var. tenuifolia Tausch (Salsola tragus L.), collected at the Antioch Sand-hills. The herbarium sheet is in the Jepson Herbarium, incorrectly dated November 11, 1945. In actuality, Helen-Mar Wheeler had driven Jepson to the sandhills on October 28. Later Rimo Bacigalupi had added the following note to the sheet: “This is the last specimen collected by Dr. W. L. Jepson.” Yet even for this ignominious exotic weed Jepson not only penned a detailed description, as had often been his wont through the years for collected specimens, but added a sketch of the pistil and stamens. Jepson was in his 78th year. In mid-April of 1945 he had suffered a heart attack, overstrained by cutting down a dead almond tree at his Little Oak Ranch. He would never completely recover, spending much of his time in the sanitarium at St. Helena and later in a hospital in Alameda. Finally, on November 7, 1946, at his beloved home on Mosswood in Berkeley, Willis Linn Jepson passed away peacefully.
Dr. Jepson, that son of Vacaville pioneers, would express in his darker moments the fear that “one is always without honor in his own country.” Yet Professor Jepson has been memorialized for the Jepson Herbarium, which now with more than 90,000 specimens celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2000, and for his diversity of publications, about 230 ranging from major books and scientific treatises to a three-page popular article in Sunset Magazine on “Where Ducks Dine,” and indirectly including the new Jepson Manual. To Lincoln Constance, on one occasion, Jepson well expressed the obligatory relationship between plant collections and publishing: “It matters not how much knowledge may be accumulated about a given species,- how many monographs discuss it—always botanists wish to go back to the plant, to authentic specimens. A flora which cites no specimens whatsoever may be a useful flora but it is not a scientific flora.”
David Keck in his 1948 obituary for Jepson in Madroño tabulated who had named the largest number of California plant species by that time, and Jepson ranked number nine. Only one other erstwhile Californian outranked him, his mentor Edward Lee Greene, who had a reputation for generating scientific names. Speaking of appropriate names, there is the saxifrage genus Jepsonia, designated by John K. Small of the New York Botanical Garden. And the scientific names of innumerable species and subspecies of California plants honor Jepson, as well as those having been coined by him. Finally, although Jepson claimed he disliked the “folk names” for plants, he was always quick to point out the ones he had popularized. In fact, he once proudly claimed that “I have invented more common names of native plants for nonbotanists than any one else in the New World.” Among his favorites were undoubtedly Mountain Misery (hike through it for miles and you’d appreciate why Jepson, as he emphasized, called it that), Johnny-tuck, and Red Maids, or “Kisses” as they were known in Sonoma County. Jepson named Johnny-tuck after an elderly hired man on the Little Oak Farm, whom he remembered as a child standing in a field of those flowers in his Sunday-goingto-meeting finery. When Jepson queried a little farm girl why she called Red Maids “Kisses,” she shyly replied “You don’t always know why, you just do!” Jepson, by the way, was quick to chide authors who published his common names without crediting the source, yet he didn’t seem concerned that the country folk who gave him many of his names seldom received any specific recognition from him.
At the western edge of his boyhood town there now stands the Willis Jepson Middle School, dedicated on May 23, 1960, with appropriate floral plantings and colorful mural, bordered by streets named Jepson Way and Jepson Court. At Tomales Bay State Park there is the Jepson Trail, leading to the Willis Linn Jepson Memorial Grove of Bishop Pines, dedicated on November 8, 1952. There is a Jepson preserve on the Klamath River in northern California, one of his collecting haunts, and the Jepson Prairie in the Suisun Marsh country, another Jepson botanizing locale. In 1902 it was Jepson who discovered the world’s largest Coast Madrone (now recently fallen) in Humboldt County and named it the Council Madrone, after coast and interior Native American tribes that used to parlay there. Two years later, Jepson planted a redwood beside the Vacaville cottage into which his mother moved from Little Oak Ranch after her husband’s death, and that redwood now towers over the cottage in this new century. Jepson would serve on the Council of Save-the-Redwoods League from its establishment until his death. He was also the honorary vice-president of the Sierra Club the last five years of his life. On April 15, 1923, members of the California Botanical Society gathered near Lower Crystal Valley Reservoir south of Millbrae to dedicate California’s second largest Bay Tree as the Jepson Laurel.
In 1972, a quarter of a century after Willis Jepson’s death, the United States Geological Survey designated a jagged 13,390-foot wilderness peak as Mt. Jepson, in King’s Canyon National Park near Mt. Whitney and close to Willis Jepson’s old Sierra Club hiking route. In silhouette Mt. Jepson, rising dramatically far above timberline beyond a U-shaped glacial gorge, remarkably resembles the distant skyline peak portrayed in Jepson’s book plate, with its inscription “Something lost behind the ranges—over yonder—Go you there.” This appropriate alpine monument in the high Sierra would indeed have pleased “The Botany Man.”
This biographical treatise on Willis Linn Jepson is based upon an extensive variety of original primary and a limited number of secondary sources, the most important of the former being the volumes of Jepson Correspondence, Jepson Field Books, and the Jepson/Helen-Mar Wheeler Collection, all in the University of California Jepson Herbarium Archives, with other valuable sources including the various published obituaries of Jepson, and the oral interviews with Laura May Dempster, Joseph Ewan, and Lincoln Constance in the Jepson Archives. Minor points of clarification were derived from a number of published books and articles, but most quotations are from original documents at the Jepson Herbarium Archives.
Beidleman, Richard G. 2000. Willis Linn Jepson—“The Botany Man.” Madroño 47(4):273–286.
© 2015 Regents of the University of California
University of California, Berkeley
University and Jepson Herbaria
1001 Valley Life Sciences Building #2465
Berkeley, CA 94720-2465