G. Ledyard Stebbins

G. Ledyard Stebbins

Remembering G. Ledyard Stebbins

1906 – 2000
G. Ledyard Stebbins lived many of his later years here in El Dorado County, enjoying use of a cabin at Wrights Lake where he spent time exploring the area’s native plants. Along with with Judy Hutchinson, he authored a small book titled, “A Flora of the Wrights Lake Area.” He was instrumental in starting CNPS, and with his friend Don Smith, wandered El Dorado County in general.

While exploring an area of Pine Hill in Cameron Park, Stebbins found a new morning-glory that was verified and named Stebbins’s morning glory, Calystegia stebbinsii.

G. Ledyard was often accompanied by his friend, Don Smith, and it was always fun to hear Don tell about some of their adventures, notably including Stebbins’s trowel on a leash, sometimes trailing behind him as they walked along.

Stebbins spent time looking for the “lost” Lewisia that had been discoved near Lake Tahoe and subsequently not found again in the area. He was sure the habitat near Wrights Lake was right for the plant.

G. Ledyard Stebbins
G. Ledyard Stebbins in 1963. Photo courtesy of the Stebbins family; published by CNPS in Fremontia, January 2000.

A Lost Species Rediscovered

by G. Ledyard Stebbins
Reprinted from a CNPS Bulletin from about 1968

At Wrights Lake, El Dorado County, where we recently acquired a mountain cabin, we are surrounded by fishermen. When I am hiking up the trails to the nearby Crystal Range, everyone whom I meet invariably asks: “How’s the fishing up there?” or, on the way down, “How many did you get?”

At first, the blank, non-committal answers that I had to give to such questions, and the complete absence of any kind of fishing gear anywhere on my person, were a source of embarrassment. Soon, however, I developed my own rationalization, which, although it didn’t make sense verbally, nevertheless succeeded in restoring my own self-esteem, and enables me to answer these questions with self-assurance. For me, as for the fisherman, a well-defined goal exists. My “limit catch” is a range extension for a plant species, or the sight of a species that I have never seen before. For these goals I can gather excitement by poring over maps on the day before an excursion to find out where to go. I can start up the trail in the crisp, cool Sierran morning with a thrilling sense of anticipation. I can rest beside my “limit,” if found, with a satisfying feel of the soft turf under me and rewarding glances first at the gaunt rocks, flower-studded meadows, and gushing brooklets nearby, and then at the distant hazy views of faraway mountains that most likely hide still undiscovered botanical treasures. I can then return home refreshed and content, no matter how long and hard a grind over rocks and scree the “limit find” has demanded of me.

Moreover, just as the fisherman, once a season or even less often, has the extraordinary thrill of catching that “big one” that he has sought for so long, so do we plant-hunters have our extra feeling of excitement when we run across a previously unknown species, or one described long ago which hasn’t been seen recently. This article is about my “big one” of 1968. One Sunday last July, while with two fishermen friends, I was descending from the crest of the Crystal Range toward Top Lake, a favorite with the fishermen and a place where I was hoping to find my “limit” range extension for the day. As we were crossing some bare granite slabs, l noticed, peering out from the cracks through which were trickling rivulets of water from the melting snow drifts above us, the delicate pale pink flowers of a Lewisia that I did not recognize. Its location and altitude of 8600 feet, as well as the position of its peduncular bracts, were right for the high Sierran species, L. pygmaea and L. nevadensis, but the flowers of the specimen I noticed were much larger than is typical for the two species named, which we had seen already several times that day. I took specimens and that evening identified them as Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala, of which the range given in Munz’s California Flora is “Sierra Nevada, s.w. of Truckee.” Since the Crystal Range is about 40 miles south of Truckee, I thought that I had my limit range extension for the day.

This find, however, proved to be only the beginning of the story. Four days later I was exploring the broad glacial cirque that forms the northwest slope of Mt. Price, about five miles south of Top Lake. I first climbed upward over soft banks, white and pink with the bell-shaped flowers of Cassiope and Phyllodoce, those two heathers that have brought an aura of Greek mythology the far-distant slopes of our high Sierra. Then I crossed granite slabs furrowed with dark, moist crevices, from which again the long petaled Lewisia was exerting its delicate flowers. Here also, however, was typical, small flowered L. pygmaea, growing mostly on turf covered ledges, but sometimes only a foot or two away from plants of subsp. longipetala. This called for an intensive search to see whether the two “subspecies” showed any signs of intergrading with each other. This search was repeated at several places in the cirque at altitudes of from 8600 to 9400 feet, always with the same result; no intermediates could be found. Lewisia pygmaea subsp. pygmaea and subsp. longipetala were behaving everywhere like perfectly good, sharply distinct species. In addition to having larger flowers, Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala always had but one flower on each peduncle, while the flowering stalks of Lewisia pygmaea subsp. pygmaea usually bore two or three flowers. Moreover, plants dug for herbarium specimens exhibited rather different root systems. Those of L. pygmaea subsp. pygmaea were relatively short and tapered strongly, turnip-like, at the base, while those of Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala reached far down into the crevices where they were.

While enjoying the warm sun and the satisfying panorama after having climbed the ridge of Mt. Price, I looked down into the basin surrounding Lyons Lake in the direction of Pyramid Peak. There were more granite slabs streaked with dark furrows. I made a bet with myself: another locality for Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala, and in half an hour l had won the bet. The reward for this day, therefore, was not only a range extension of six miles, but also the demonstration to my satisfaction that the species that C.W. Piper originally had described as Oreabromo longipetala (Oreobromo is a name given by some botanists to the high montane species of Lewisia) is a perfectly good species in its own right, and should not be reduced to a subspecies of L. pygmaea. When I returned to Davis I telephoned Roman Gankin, who had just done me the honor of naming a beautiful new species of Lewisia after me, and I told him about my new discovery. The result was more than gratifying. I could almost see him jumping up and down with excitement at the other end of the phone. The reason for this was that he had just read the account of Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala in a monograph of Lewisia recently published by an English botanist and horticulturist, R.C. Ilhott. This author wrote that Fiper’s O. longipetala was based upon a single specimen collected by J.G. Lemmon.

A request for a loan or photo of the specimen, however, revealed that it had been lost, and that no other specimen of O. longipetala existed. Nevertheless, Elliot noted that plants that fit its description were growing in several English rock gardens under the name Lewisia pygmaea. He concluded that these plants represented a cultigen, not found at all in the wild, since no specimens of it were available in spite of the intensive plant collecting that has been done in the Sierra since 1875. Fortunately, he reproduced a photograph of the English cultigen. It was an exact match for the plants just seen in the Crystal Range! This situation called for a collaboration with another Lewisia devotee and loyal CNPS member, Margaret Williams of Reno. In answer to my letter telling the story, she wrote that she had searched for Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala in the mountains west of Truckee, but hadn’t found it. Since I now knew the kinds of places that it likes, we agreed that another search would be worthwhile. Accordingly, she invited Roman and me to Reno, and on August 10 we visited the mountains west of Truckee, taking the jeep trail that goes above US Highway 80 along the west side of Castle Peak, and onto the northwest ridge of Basin Peak immediately to the north. When we reached the right altitude we made our way over the ridge to its east slope, where we were attracted by late-blooming clumps of pink Mimulus, paint brush, and other flowers in a wet, gravelly flat below a large snowbank. We were, however, on the volcanic formation that caps the Sierran granite on this mountain, so that the spot appeared to me quite unsuitable for Lewisia pygmaea subsp. longipetala. With the ardor of the chase filling my mind, I couldn’t be held long by beautiful but common Sierran flowers, so headed down to where the granite slabs would be exposed. From a high promontory I spotted what looked to me like a hopeful site and returned to lead the group down to it. I had climbed half way back to the snowbank when I was greeted from a distance by a chorus of yells and a frantic waving of arms. My fears that something might be wrong quickly were dispelled: L. pygmaea subsp. longipetala right below the snowbank. lt was there in abundance.

Again the three remained quite distinct from each other; careful searches by all failed to reveal a single intermediate or intergrading plant. If this isn’t the locality west of Truckee where Lemmon originally found the species, his locality must be near there and at about the same altitude. In later visits to both the Crystal Range and Basin Peak, the plants have been well photographed.

To sum up the matter: Oreobroma longipetala of C.W. Piper, first seen by J.G. Lemmon in 1875, grown in English gardens since then, presumably from seed collected by Lemmon, and rediscovered in its natural habitat in 1968, is a very distinctive and beautiful species of Lewisia; it will be re-christened with its correct scientific name in a future botanical journal. For me, however, it is chiefly notable as a bold but delicate beauty that is perched upon high places of California’s “Range of Light,” and also “big one” that didn’t get away.

External links