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Most botanists would be proud to be honoured in the name of a single plant genus; Alice Eastwood is remembered in two

Alice Eastwood, Canadian-American Botanist


By —— Bio and Archives--January 29, 2018

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Alice Eastwood, Canadian-American Botanist
Toronto’s Necropolis is the last resting place for many a distinguished person. One such is Alice Eastwood, acclaimed Canadian-American botanist credited, amongst many other achievements, with building the botanical collection at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.

Her path to a successful botanical career was not an easy one. Born in Toronto on 19th January 1859 her father was a steward at the Toronto Asylum for the Insane on Queen Street. His wife died when Alice was but six, so she spent some time living with a physician uncle, an ‘avid gardener and amateur botanist’ who introduced her to botany and scientific terminology. At eight, she and her younger sister were sent to board at a convent in neighbouring Oshawa. This was another stroke of good fortune since there she met a young priest who was another amateur botanist as well as naturalist.

Meantime, her father had moved to Denver, Colorado and she joined him there in 1873 with her younger sister and brother. While an outstanding student at high school, upon graduation there was no money to send her on to university, and so became a teacher at her old East Denver High School.

This did nothing to discourage her hobby. She became the enthusiastic field botanist she was to remain all her long life. It was almost unheard of in those days for women to tramp the wilds let alone as she did, with her skirts cut away for easier hiking and with a plant press on her back. At the time the West was truly wild and not always safe. She was robbed on one occasion, and another time became lost and forced to spend the night on a canyon ledge.

A decade of teaching came to an end with a windfall real estate sale during Denver building boom of property she and her father had invested in allowed her to abandon teaching and concentrate on botany.

Already she was known as a brilliant if self-educated botanist, guiding visitors to the west in its floral extravaganzas. So, when she herself visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco she was not stranger to the staff there. So it was, in 1894, she became curator botany there, a post she was to hold until 1950, only retiring at the age of 90.

In that more than half-century, Eastwood’s achievements were outstanding. She was a frequent correspondent with, among others, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London, the British Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Gray Herbarium while publishing over 310 scientific articles. In she, 1929 helped form the American Fuchsia Society, having even survived the famous San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, personally saving the botanical collection along with much of the library from destruction.

Given all these activities—and more—it is unsurprising to learn that Alice Eastwood was never interested in marriage and feared romantic attachment would interfere with her first love, botany. Having mentored many another female botanist, Alice Eastwood finally succumbed in her ninety-forth year to cancer in San Francisco cancer.

Most botanists would be proud to be honoured in the name of a single plant genus; Alice Eastwood is remembered in two: Eastwoodia with a single species, and Aliciella with at least two dozen. Added to these are at least 17 plant species, including Eastwoodia elegens, Fritillaria eastwoodii, Salix eastwoodiae, Erigeron aliceae. Yet us not forget either the lovely hybrid lilac named for her, Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Alice Eastwood’ blooms a few weeks earlier than the familiar S. vulgaris with profuse and fragrant double deep purple flowers.


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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.


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