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THE REAL DIRT ON: Katharine Brandegee

By Susan Krzywicki.

Mary Katharine (Layne) Brandegee was born in 1844 in western Tennessee and frequently moved westward with her parents and nine siblings until settling in Folsom, California. She has been quoted as saying, “My father, an impractical genius, afflicted with Wanderlust, moved continually till stopped by the Pacific Ocean, which we reached before my ninth year.”

Katharine became a teacher (despite her spotty education due to the frequent childhood relocations) and married Hugh Curran, who died of alcoholism eight years later. Undeterred by the loss, Katharine moved to San Francisco and became one of the first women to enroll in and graduate from medical school. Her studies drew out her interest in the natural sciences, where she decided to devote herself professionally. She began as a volunteer for the California Academy of Sciences herbarium and was appointed curator in 1883, making her the second woman in the United States to hold a paid professional position in the field of botany. She also established and produced the Bulletin of the California Academy of Sciences, the first of a life-long list of academic writing and editing roles.

In the winter of 1886-1887, Dr. Townshend Brandegee, originally from Connecticut, decided to steer his career path away from civil engineering and toward botany. At this time, he made his first visit to the Academy, where he met Katharine and the two quickly developed a rapport over their mutual love for botany and natural science.

The San Diego Years: 1894-1906

In 1889, as Brandegee’s ship returned to San Diego after a collecting trip in Baja, Katharine traveled south from San Francisco to meet him and, soon after, the couple married. They founded the botanical journal, Zoe, in 1890 and developed a private herbarium on their home site in what was an undeveloped mesa, and now is the Bankers Hill home to San Diego Self-Realization Fellowship Temple.

According to the San Diego History Center, F. A. Walton, editor of the British Cactus Journal, visited San Diego in 1899 and described the Brandegee property as such: “The wild land around the herbarium…is full of interesting plants that are growing in a state of nature while being studied and described.” And regarding the owners of the so-called wild land, he noted them to be “Enthusiastic botanists who have built a magnificent herbarium…they are the kind of people that do permanent good work in this world [and] they live in the midst of nature, surrounded by a natural garden and have the very best opportunities of studying plant life at their leisure.”

The Brandegees were gifted with rare plants by the likes of Kate Sessions. Katharine also collected in locations from Placer County to Baja to Nevada, while her husband’s collection trips supported his specialization in the flora of Mexico and the Southwest. Consisting of over 76,000 specimens, it was estimated that they had built the richest private herbarium ever assembled in the United States.

Back to the Bay Area

After twelve years in San Diego, the Brandegees donated their San Diego plant collection to UC Berkeley and returned to the Bay Area to be closer to the Academy of Sciences, UC Berkeley, and other institutions they worked for and supported. Katharine died in 1920, followed by Brandegee in 1925.

The Not-So-Rare Brandegee’s Clarkia

The California Native Plant Society’s Rare Plant Treasure Hunt (initiated in 2010) volunteers found that Brandegee’s clarkia (Clarkia biloba subsp. brandegeeae) is more common than previously thought. As such, its California Rare Plant Rank status has been downgraded from CRPR 1 to CRPR 4.

Brandegee’s clarkia (Clarkia biloba subsp. brandegeeae)

is more common than previously thought.

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