When They Were Wild: Recapturing California's Wildflower Heritage

Mar. 8, 2013Jul. 8, 2013
MaryLou and George Boone Gallery

Planning a trip to see wildflowers this spring? Make sure your itinerary includes a stop at The Huntington, where a major new exhibition draws on a rich heritage of wildflower illustration to take a closer look at California’s natural and horticultural history.

“When They Were Wild: Recapturing California’s Wildflower Heritage,” showcases more than 300 items—drawings, paintings, herbarium specimens, photographs, and other objects—that trace the journey of California’s plants from the flower fields into the home garden.

The exhibition is a collaborative project of The Huntington, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, Calif., and the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, Calif. Works from all three collections, along with loans from several other public and private collections, will be on view in the Huntington show, with related displays at the two other institutions and at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

“We couldn’t be more grateful to be collaborating with our colleagues on this project, presenting what might be the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted on the horticultural history of California wildflowers,” says Huntington botanical educator Kitty Connolly, who is co-curating the exhibition along with James Folsom, the Telleen/Jorgensen Director of the Botanical Gardens. “To be working across disciplines, looking at the intersections of science and art, has been especially rewarding.”

California has one of the most diverse floras in the world, spread across several distinct floristic provinces—regions of plant distribution defined by shared climate, geology, and geography. Three of the state’s primary provinces are the Californian (chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, and grassland), Vancouverian (mixed evergreen and coniferous forests), and Desert (cacti and desert scrub).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the breathtaking abundance of plants that grew across these regions captured the imagination of  numerous horticulturists, botanists, and amateur naturalists, many of whom were also talented artists. Through the work of individuals such as Alice Brown Chittenden (1859–1944), Clara Mason Fox (1873–1959), Ethel Wickes (1872–1940), and James Milford Zornes (1908–2008), the exhibition not only allows viewers to rediscover the iconic beauty of California’s flora but underscores the connections between the passion for nature and personal expression.

Yet the artists are not the focal point of “When They Were Wild,” says Connolly. “This exhibition is about the plants themselves and the role they played in the development of California horticulture as many native species passed from wildness into cultivation.”

Among the wildflowers depicted in the exhibition are California’s largest native bloom, Romneya coulteri, commonly known as the Matilija poppy or “fried egg flower”; the wild California peony, Paeonia californica, which grows along the shaded margins of the chaparral; the lovely “fairy orchid,” Calypso bulbosa, at home in the rich, moist soil of the evergreen forests of the Coast Ranges; the Mojave aster, Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia; and many representations of the Golden State’s official flower, Eschscholzia californica, the California poppy.

“When They Were Wild” is arranged thematically into four sections:
Heritage explores the conditions that gave rise to the most diverse flora in the United States.

Discovery and Use looks at pre-European cultivation and use of wildflowers, scientific interest in native flora, and domestication for horticultural profit.

Cultivation examines how wildflowers shaped the image of California at the turn of the 20th century and looks at their resurgence of popularity with home gardeners today.

The Flower Field surrounds visitors with a profusion of more than 100 illustrations representing the amazing range and diversity of wildflowers that once covered California. Among the highlights of the exhibition is the first-ever public display of the works of Clara Mason Fox, whose lively watercolors captured the plant life of Silverado Canyon in Orange County. Until this exhibition, the paintings resided in the herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden alongside dried and pressed plants, serving as a scientific reference for plant distribution and identity. Forty-six of her works are included in the exhibition and evoke the rural past of Southern California. Additional Fox works will be on view at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

To supplement the exhibition, an online database allows the public to explore in greater detail the rich legacy of illustrations of California flora produced by amateur naturalists.

“When They Were Wild: Recapturing California’s Wildflower Heritage” is made possible by generous support from an anonymous donor in honor of Robert F. and Lois S. Erburu and in memory of Melvin R. Seiden.

Additional support was provided by Gwen and Guil Babcock, Judi and Bry Danner, Stephen Rogers, Helen and Peter Bing, Joanne and Ethan Lipsig, Toshie and Frank Mosher, the Ahmanson Foundation Exhibition and Education Endowment, and the J. W. and Ida M. Jameson Foundation.

Related Exhibitions

Jane Pinheiro Remixed: Reprints of Rare, Mid-Century Wood Blocks in the  Theodore Payne Foundation Collection
March 15 - June 22
The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants

Where They Grow Wild (at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden)
March 9–June 9
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

A Celebration of California Wildflowers: Art from the Blaksley Library
April 1–30
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden