By Wynne Brown – It was most likely a bitter cold December day in 1869 as the wooden side-wheeled steamer churned through the New York City harbor. Sara Plummer, still slight and single at age 33, stood on the deck, waving a tearful good-bye to her father and her younger sister Mattie.

She was on her way – alone – to California, where she knew no one. 

This journey wasn’t by choice. Instead it was the only way she knew to remain alive. 

Had she known the challenges of that trans-continental move, had she foreseen the financial struggles, the loneliness, and the homesickness of years passing before seeing her family again, she might have reconsidered her strategy.

But then she’d have missed out on adventure, exploration, recognition for her work—though so much less than she deserved—and true love.

Besides, had she remained in the Northeast, the next winter probably would have killed her. 

Sara Allen Plummer was born in Maine in 1836, a September baby and the middle child of five. She was educated in Massachusetts, not far from Dover where the family had moved and where she landed her first teaching job in 1858.

1861 was a big year, both for the nation and for the Plummer family. In April the first shots of the Civil War were fired – and two months later, Mattie got married. Perhaps that’s why Sara moved to Brooklyn where she graduated from the Greenleaf Female Institute with honors and double degrees in chemistry and physics.

Sara Plummer Lemmon

Next she won a three-year scholarship to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a prestigious New York City school that was open to both genders and all races.

While in school Sara supported herself by teaching art and “calisthenics” (known to us as phys ed). In her free time, she attended concerts and gallery openings, hung out with poets and progressives, while attending the Unitarian church every week.

She also volunteered at Bellevue Hospital taking care of wounded Civil War soldiers. That’s doubly ironic, first because she would eventually marry a survivor of the infamous Andersonville Prison hell-hole who would need all her nursing experience. But what’s even more ironic is that Sara’s own health was abysmal – and her near-death from measles and her tendency to catch bronchitis, pneumonia, and “catarrh” was what drove her to leave the Northeast winters behind. 

A few weeks after disembarking in San Francisco, she realized her lungs wouldn’t tolerate the dank climate there either, and she headed south to Santa Barbara. When she arrived in February of 1870, she was welcomed as one of “the town’s first intellectuals.” 

There she stayed for the next ten years. 

She continued to write home every week and commented once to Mattie, “It is like death to me to be idle.” So she kept more than busy establishing Santa Barbara’s first library in the back room of the local stationery store. She was also one of the founders of the natural history society and began to teach herself botany by drawing the local plants. Then she set up a lecture series, which is most likely what attracted John Lemmon, who was considered one of the top Western botanists. 

Four years older than Sara, John was born in Michigan, graduated from the Normal School in Ypsilanti, Mich., and also became a teacher.  He was promoted to county superintendent of schools and had started attending classes at the University of Michigan until enlisting in the Civil War in the summer of 1862. 

After 30 battles he was captured and held in both Florence and Andersonville prisons under deplorable conditions. In 1865 he was released, one of only 136 survivors (out of 5,000) who could still stand up. He wrote later that after a “year of liberal diet,” his weight increased to 90 pounds. 

Sara Plummer’s and John Lemmon’s botanical comradeship blossomed into love, but when he proposed, she responded, “… It is most conclusive to my common sense that two unhealthy persons should not come together. Let the love be ever so strong, one at least, should be in excellent health.”

But within a year she contracted spinal meningitis and nearly died. She then decided that “plunging into the matrimonial vortex” was a good idea after all. 

They were married Thanksgiving Day, 1880, and Sara moved to Oakland to join John – and his mother — in a collegial household that became known as the Lemmon Herbarium. 

Sara and John Lemmon

The following spring they celebrated their honeymoon, at ages 44 and 48, by exploring the Santa Catalina Mountains, just north of Tucson. It was a hot, hard slog, but on the fourth attempt and with the help of a local rancher, they made it to the top, which was later named Mount Lemmon – in honor of Sara’s being the first white woman to reach the peak. 

Later that summer they botanized other Arizona mountains where Sara discovered not just a new species but a new genus, Plummera floribunda, that was named for her by the famous Harvard botanist Dr. Asa Gray. “I was so excited I danced around the herbarium, knocked over all the chairs,” she reported to her family. Although that particular plant was recently re-named, half a dozen others still carry her maiden name.

In 1884 the couple spent six months in New Orleans because Sara was in charge of all the Pacific Slope plant exhibits at the World’s Industrial & Cotton Centennial Exposition (later known as the World’s Fair).  

Sara and John spent the rest of their lives collecting and describing hundreds of new trees and flowers, all illustrated by Sara. 

Sara Plummer Lemmon

Her letters document their often-harrowing trips through the Arizona Territory, maneuvering through flash floods and dodging the still-active Apaches. 

In 1903, the California Poppy was named as the state flower thanks to her efforts over ten years. 

As she moved into her fifties and sixties, this remarkable woman still remained far from idle, and she added lobbying for forest conservation to her long list of projects. She also wrote the history of the Red Cross on the Pacific Slope—no one knew it better since she had helped establish it. And after a terrible fall that required her to be nursed back to health, she founded the first training school for nurses on the West coast. 

In 1905 she and John celebrated their silver wedding anniversary by again climbing to the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Sara was 70, John 74. 

By then she was an acknowledged botanical expert, teacher, and lecturer in her own right: She was the second woman invited to join the California Academy of Sciences—and the first to address the group. She spent hours working in their herbarium and gave many of her paintings to the organization. 

That choice may have led to the loss of much of her work … 

Because at 5:12 a.m. April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake shook much of the Bay Area. Within hours, fires swept through the city, destroying many structures, including the California Academy of Sciences. Although Sara and John were “both safe, ‘tho shaken,” both were shattered. Neither returned to their previous level of work. John’s health, frail at best, declined even more. He died of pneumonia in November of 1908. 

Sara never recovered from losing him, and in 1916, she was committed to the Stockton State Hospital for senile dementia. She died January 15, 1923. 

The two of them lie under a gravestone labeled “Partners in Botany”

All photos by Wynne Brown. Originals at the University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley


About the author: Wynne Brown, a freelance writer/editor/graphic designer, is obsessed with Sara Lemmon and has nearly completed the biography of this remarkable woman. You can read more about Sara at the project newsletter. Wynne can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter.