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The University of California Herbaria Archives

Dr. Richard G. Beidleman, Research Associate

Drawing from John Lemmon’s “Recollections from a Rebel Prison,” 1866, showing detail from Andersonville Prison (known as Camp Sumpter) including the number of prisoners, graves and the location of stockades and cannons.

“Buried treasure” conjures up visions of hidden caskets on tropical isles filled with Spanish doubloons and sparkling jewels. Certainly, the last place on a treasure map you’d expect to discover such a trove would be in an academic setting. But if, as the dictionary emphasizes, “treasure” represents “a thing of great worth,” then the University of California Herbaria, of all unlikely places, more than qualifies. The voluminous collection of plant specimens housed in the Herbarium, of course, has a world-wide familiarity and significance; but it is the Archives which represent the “buried treasure.”

In essence, the Archives, although often hidden away in a basement or back room, preserve the human-endeavor aspects of the Herbaria. Here are not only the mundane personnel records and fiscal dealings of the institution, but also the flotsam, jetsam, and gems of professional careers, right down to the antiquated dissecting scope, the battered vasculum, even the family flour sifter. Included are the correspondence of the plant collectors, researchers and aficionados, their journals, their drawings and photographs and lantern slides, their book and article rough drafts, the personal bibliographies and autobiographical sketches, the scientific meetings programs, membership certificates and honor plaques and business cards, the trivia and not so trivial... Much archival material arrives at the doorstep of the Herbaria, usually unsorted and in variegated cardboard boxes, after the demise of its owner, sometimes exhibiting the lifetime exposure to the elements, not to mention mice and silverfish. And just in that state, unfortunately, the archival accession may remain, if not curated.

A letter to Mr. and Mrs. Lemmon from John Muir one of the many examples of information beyond the specimens held at the UC and Jepson herbaria that provide a deep insight into the historical context behind the collections.

Willis Linn Jepson was an archivist’s dream. He seems to have saved everything about his professional and personal life for later generations; and it is thus no surprise that his diversified gatherings dominate the UC Herbarium Archives collection. After all, it was Jepson who wrote: “It has always been my practice to conserve my general correspondence file for botanical correspondence and miscellaneous letters from persons in general. Such a file will be, in the future, consulted by many persons and should be available to any one.” Ah yes, Willis was so right! And just to pique further curiosity, he included his private journal, which indeed contained “first and last a lot of dynamite.” Jepson saw to it that much of the correspondence went into hefty-bound annual tomes, each arranged alphabetically, the volumes spanning a sixty-year professional lifetime and occupying many feet of archival shelf space. A recent accession to the Willis Jepson collection from his estate executor Helen-Mar Wheeler adds ten more boxes of Jepsoniana (now mostly indexed), including much personal correspondence (among other things, a favorite niece wrote him once a week for years), early journals, and invaluable new biographical sidelights.

The last field trip entry in W.L. Jepson’s field collection notebooks provides an insight into the wealth of information that is supplementary to Jepson’s specimens. Jepson, who was quite ill at the time was taken into the field (near Antioch) often on a palette, by Helen-Mar Wheeler, Jepson’s former student and executrix.

But our Herbaria Archives by no means terminate with Jepson. Though much remains to be catalogued, the holdings at least extend back to the 1820s! Here is a letter penned in the summer of 1864 by Cal’s first Professor of Natural History, William H. Brewer, from a field camp in the Sierras; Professor Setchell’s lantern slides on plant geography; field labels for Chinese plants received August 1933 from Academia Sinica; a small brown autograph book (dated August, 1868) belonging to Edward Lee Greene, Cal’s first botany professor; the Botany Department’s ice bills for 1896-97; the original manuscript for Herbert Mason’s “The Nature of the Plant Community;” a disintegrating list of flowers seen in Napa and Lake Counties during the summer of 1895; four file boxes filled with field notebooks for an expedition to the Andes; one cloth fan; X-ray photographs of Nicotiana: notes on H. E. Stork’s trip to Costa Rica in 1932 with three boy-scout naturalists....

Photograph of Professor Asa Gray, Mrs Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker in San Francisco in 1877 for the last part of a cross country botanical foray where they visited sites such as Mount Shasta and Lake Tahoe with John Lemmon.

If such items seem peripheral, then consider that the ongoing annotated cataloguing of the Herbarium Archives encompasses over 150 computer pages which include most of the past and present figures in world botany. Here among the historical “greats” are Asa Gray (more than 115 original letters, and an 1877 photograph of Gray with Kew Gardens’ Joseph Hooker in San Francisco, see illustration left), pioneer botanist John Torrey, George Engelmann of Shaw’s Gardens in St. Louis, Joseph Hooker, Edward Lee Greene, the Brandegees (8 boxes, 11 letter files, 1 correspondence folio), the Lemmons collection (12 boxes); Aven Nelson of Wyoming, ecologist Frederick Clements , Sereno Watson of Harvard, the extensive Bolander collection covering the years 1861 to 1889; Alice Eastwood, paleobotanist Leo Lesquereux of Ohio, Berkeley’s William Setchell (who established the University’s Herbarium), Harvey Hall and his South American expeditions.... Then there are the more moderns: Herbert Mason, T. H. Goodspeed, Arthur Kruckeberg, Annetta Carter, Rimo Bacigalupi, Lincoln Constance, John Thomas Howell, Ira Clokey, Marion Cave, Dwight Billings, David Keck, Mildred Mathias, Reed Rollins, G. Ledyard Stebbins, Joseph Ewan, Forest Shreve, Paul Silva, Ynes Mexia, Helen Sharsmith, Larry Heckard, Annie Alexander... Oh, the list goes on ad infinitum. If any contemporary feels left out of this recital, rest assured that she or he exists in the Archives.

Eschscholzia californica Cham., the state flower of California as illustrated in Horae Physicae Berolinensis 1820. The designation of the California Poppy as the state flower was promoted by Mrs Sarah Lemmon for years despite opposition and finally signed into a legislative bill in spring 1903.
Sad to say, the very name “Archives” is suggestive of dark corners, dust, dull documents, dead files, and musky miasma. But like “buried treasure” the worth of archives lies in their use, at which time the archives come alive. When Dr. Alan Smith tried to track down the origin of an unidentified Mexican fern collection in the Herbarium, it was the Archives which turned up some candidates as collectors, botanists who had been in Mexico at about the appropriate time. Alas, however, in this case no candidate proved to be the collector. But when a photograph of Willis Jepson as a boy was need for publication, and only a lantern slide unsuitable for reproduction was available, what slips out of a large envelope of Jepson photographs being added to the Archives but a glossy print of that very same picture. Buried treasure, indeed!