Charming Adventurers

After all these years, my carpenteria is blooming! Let’s hear it for delayed gratification.
Carpenteria californica is also called “bush anemone.” As Willis Jepson said of its white flowers: “The buds… on opening, instead of remaining horizontal, turn to a vertical position and look frankly at you in a most engaging way.” It’s related to mock orange (Philadelphus species), and we have a couple of those native here too: P. lewisii and P. microphyllus.
Not too closely related, though. C. californica is the only carpenteria there is. It’s a relict species, an evolutionary leftover, the last survivor of a genus that otherwise exists only in the fossil record. It seems that any place as wrinkled, various, and ornery as our state has a few such footprints of time scattered in it. Delayed gratification? When I think of the vagaries of history and climate that left  us this Little Ice Age souvenir, I feel  like a piker.
Carpenteria was “discovered” and a few cuttings and seeds sent east by the inimitable (I hope) John C. Fremont in 1845. Fremont had quite a life, between his variously successful exploratory trips and his quasi-military, arguably imperialistic expeditions. As a dashing literary figure, Fremont was more or less invented by himself and his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, an early proponent of Manifest Destiny. Fremont was the leader of California’s abortive Bear Flag Revolt, and one of two military commanders to free slaves in their jurisdictions before Lincoln got around to it (a strategic indiscretion that led to the loss of his rank, though evidently not his Great Pathfinder status). He was also the survivor — and author — of some few hair-raising adventures and misadventures.
In that, he has something in common with carpenteria. Aside from its relictual status, having ducked the glaciations and dryings-out and general geologic-scale havoc that are California’s history, the plant’s still threatened in the wild just by the size and location of its home range. It’s native to gullies between 1,500 to 4,000 feet up in the foothills between the San Joaquin River and Big Creek, a tributary of the Kings River, about a 12-by-17-mile box. Part of that is on public land, including an official Carpenteria Botanical Management Area off State Route 168 in Fresno County. A good chunk of it, though, is on vulnerable private land.
Carpenteria’s best bet for posterity and prosperity, ironically enough, is with humans.
In 1850, John  Torrey published Plantae Fremontiae, a set of scientific descriptions of plants Fremont had collected in California. Torrey’s introduction mentions some of the disasters that accompanied Fremont on his collecting trips: a mule loaded with a thousand miles’ worth of baled botanical specimens went irretrievably off a precipice in the Sierra Nevada (presumably this was rather more disastrous for the mule); more of the collection was lost in a flood of the Kansas River; still more to what Torrey calls “the numerous and unavoidable mishaps of such a hazardous journey.”
In publishing the first scientific description of the plant, (“Calycis tubo late hemispheraerico; basi ovarii adnato…”) which he had to piece together from dried specimens, Torrey got to bestow its name. What Torrey couldn’t specify was where the stuff came from, other than “probably on the head waters of the San Joachin [sic].”
It took another 21 years for anyone to find the location again, and even that went unnoticed by local botanists. Carpenteria’s early botanic history reads like a Restoration comedy: In 1887, the University of California’s Edwin L. Greens scratched his head publicly about Torrey’s mysterious, half-described plant; UC had seedlings growing, but was still puzzled about their origin. Meanwhile, zoologist Gustav Eisen had found the plant in 1876 in the wild, in flower, finished the description, and sent specimens to Asa Gray, who published that find in 1880.
Also meanwhile, the plant had been in the garden trade a few years: Seeds had gone from Washington, DC, through Nancy, France, and turned up in Kew Gardens. In 1885, Gertrude Jekyll was growing it in a greenhouse at Munstead. Evidently a Canon Ellacombe of Gloustershire, a Mr. Ewbank of the Isle of Wight, and one Mrs. Kate L. Davidson of Salisbury also had flowering carpenterias by then. French and German gardens had it in flower by 1884.
Carpenteria’s range had extended considerably and it was long past the danger of extinction. It seems that one very good survival strategy for a plant is to seduce gardeners.

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