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When Women Seldom Travelled Alone, This Botanist Wandered the CA Deserts in Search of Rare Plants

Hand-colored photo by botanist Mary Beal (primary)
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Botanist Mary Beal
Mary Beal captured by Harold Weight while photographing rare Mojave plant life. | Photo: Desert Magazine, December 1948

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.


Readers of the now-defunct Desert Magazine, known as “DM” to its most faithful, followed Randall Henderson’s popular editorial column entitled “Just Between You and Me.” On this page, the founder and editor of the magazine commented on new developments concerning the desert, recounted recent travels, and announced changes to the magazine. In the November 1939 installment, at the beginning of the third year of publication, he celebrated DM’s success and announced two new regular features: a page for rockhounds, and a botany column to be written by Miss Mary Beal of Daggett.

At the time, Beal was unknown to DM readers, except those who had noticed her second-place photograph in the August photography contest the previous year. Her photograph “Mammillaria Blossoms”1 was just one of many that she would have in DM throughout her 56 plant profiles for the magazine published between 1939 and 1953. Her columns were much loved by the DM audience, many of whom didn’t live in or near or have the opportunity to travel to the deserts of the Southwest. Althea Hill, a DM reader, described the experience of meeting Beal in the January 1940 “Letters” section of the magazine:

Continuing to Daggett we were looking for a camping spot, and asked directions of a lady bound for the post office. Her hospitality included a welcome to a secluded and shady table under the cottonwoods at the Van Dyke ranch. Then we learned that the woman who had been so kind to us was your writer, Mary Beal. She showed me her writing den, with its array of books and nicknacks and Indian baskets. Her next botany article was sticking out of the little red typewriter. She writes with such authority, and her articles are spiced with a sense of humor that attracts even a novice in the field of botany.

Beal’s regular botany column often introduced plants by anthropomorphizing them — “ol’ man mesquite,”2 for example — before she described them extensively, giving readers detailed information about occurrence and identifying features for each plant. Her articles were known for their botanical accuracy, but she also included folklore about the plants. Her first article, for example, featured the desert agave, also known as the century plant—which does not bloom once a century, but rather after one or two dozen years, as she noted.3 Within her first year of DM writing, she featured chia, describing how it has been used historically by local Native Americans for food, and included a tidbit describing how her landlord, desert writer and judge Theodore Strong Van Dyke, would use it “to sustain him for a long day of hunting.”4 She, too, was familiar with this use, and was known to pack chia for her all-day botanizing expeditions — of course long before today’s health conscious discovered it as a nutrient-packed “superfood.”

Desert Magazine articles by Mary Beal
Two Desert Magazine articles penned by Mary Beal showcasing her own photographic images. Left: Samija (Mentzelia involucrata) appeared in June 1941. Right: Ghost Flower (Mohavea confertiflora) was featured in April 1948.

In her most beautiful columns, she managed to find poetic descriptions of desert plants rather than cutesy clichéd ones: her description of the ghost flower captures how its blossoms are like “a swarm of butterflies settled down to rest.”5

Her most exciting pages remind the reader that finding plants can be an adventure. For instance, her June 1941 article describes her rediscovery of a flower known as Stick-Leaf, Samija, or Mentzelia involucrata, after having thought she would never see it again, and even that she had dreamt it into existence:

Since that first discovery of Samija I have looked for other specimens, in Ord mountain and elsewhere, but it was not until many years later I found one lone flower, a rather runty one at that, near Chloride, Arizona. Even in its better known haunts in the Colorado desert it eluded me. If it had not been for the photograph I had taken of that Ord mountain specimen I would have doubted my memory of finding it.6

After the Arizona discovery, she had the fortune to stumble upon Samija in a specimen box delivered to her house, which led her to a “treasure-trove beyond my most wishful dreams” in the Bullion Mountains.

Just as Beal remembered plants through taking photographs of them, she illustrated each of her articles with plant photographs, while other botany contributors sent botanical illustrations to accompany their written pieces. For example, professional scientists Philip Munz and Jerry Laudermilk’s 1944 contribution includes no less than six of Laudermilk’s botanical illustrations to illustrate the water retention strategies of desert plants.7

Hand-colored photo by botanist Mary Beal
A hand-colored photo by Mary Beal. Verso lists “Desert Garden 1937 — West of Power Line, N.E. of Molly’s. Basket Evening Primroses, Sand Verbenas, Blue Gilias, Gold Mats. etc.” | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum

Beal’s preference for photography could be a reflection of her lack of formal botanical training and relative inexperience with botanical illustration. When asked, she would tell questioners that she had learned everything she knew about plants from none other than Willis Linn Jepson — through his “Manual of the Flowering Plants of California,” which was the first comprehensive guide of its kind. (An updated version today remains the standard botanical guide for California plants, and the Jepson Herbarium, founded in 1950 by Jepson himself, contains a large array of botanical specimens.) Kerosene-lamp-lit evenings in her Daggett tent house were the basis for her botanical training, though she later met and corresponded regularly with the famed California botanist.

Beal and Jepson likely met at the Waterman ranch in Barstow, which Jepson frequented both as a base for desert botanizing expeditions and as a retreat for his nerves. He enjoyed his visits to the Mojave so much that he dedicated the second volume of his flora to Abby Waterman, daughter of the late California governor Robert Waterman and mistress of the ranch.8 Beal, meanwhile, lived only six miles away in Daggett, and had befriended Abby while living there. They were both middle-aged at the time (Beal was born in 1878; Abby in 1869). Abby had moved to the desert to cure respiratory ailments, as fresh air and vigorous exercise were often recommended as a tuberculosis cure. (Streptomycin, the antibiotic that treats TB, was not discovered until 1943.)

Botanist Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs
Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs of Desert Plume (Stanleya pinnata) and Desert Candle (Caulanthus inflatus). | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum.

Beal and Jepson’s friendship included routine botanizing expeditions, especially during the late 1930s and early 1940s,9 but is evidenced most clearly in their correspondence and Jepson’s notebooks from the 1930s. During this time, Jepson refers to her as “my botanical collector in the Mohave Desert,”10 which hints at the important role that she played in collecting and sending him more than 2,000 specimens for his growing collection between 1930 and 1951, 1,041 of which continue to be in the collection today. Her letters show how she attempted to raise the spirits of the famously nervous botanist by sending him hand-colored photographs depicting desert mountains and flowers, as well as “desert ‘whiffs,’” fresh plant specimens that still retained their smells.11

Jepson surely enjoyed the photographs, but he particularly appreciated the botanical specimens, writing to Beal in 1932 that “it is nice to have the Mohave odors brought into my laboratory in this way,” before instructing her in proper collection and tagging protocol.12

Beal’s botanical idol often offered her advice — from commenting on her never-published manuscript to offering suggestions on how to find new species: “It is often the obscure things that are new species, not the showy things that everyone sees.”13

Plant specimen collected by botanist Mary Beal
Creamy blazing star (Mentzelia tridentata) collected by Mary Beal in Calico on April 10, 1937. | Photo: Courtesy The University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley

Several species that she sent to Jepson are now listed as rare in California, including the flower creamy blazing star (Mentzelia tridentata), Mojave monkeyflower (Mimulus mohavensis), and Mecca aster (Xylorhiza cognata).14 The locations where she found these plants — Ord Mountain, south of Barstow, and the Mecca Hills — hint at the vast scope of her plant-related travels throughout San Bernardino, Riverside, and Inyo counties.

The list of specimens Beal collected are all now publicly available through the Jepson Herbarium. These records substantiate that Beal had joined the ranks of female botanists who collected in the California desert. Though botany as a profession tended to be more open to women than other sciences, Beal was unusual in that she did not have a spouse and permanently lived in the desert rather than in a city hub. Much more famous female botanists of that time, including Katherine Brandegee and Sara Plummer Lemmon, travelled to the desert too, but often with her husbands, who both were botanists.15 Alice Eastwood, another prominent unmarried female botanist of the time, collected plants in the Mojave Desert.

Botanist Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs
Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs of Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum

Beal’s letters to Jepson only hint at her home life in Daggett, a small town equidistant from the silver-mining boomtown of Calico and the growing city of Barstow. Daggett was known to be a rough-and-tumble town that boasted three saloons, three stores, two Chinese restaurants, one drugstore, and one lumber mill.16 Its reputation was made in part through a three-part editorial series by Harry Carr, the Los Angeles Times reporter and editor. Carr opened the second article in a series on the construction of a Mojave railroad with a description of Daggett: “A high carnival of crime has started in this town.”17 What follows echoes what historian Peter Wild describes as an Americanized version of a penny dreadful,18 a Daggett filled with thugs and loose women. Though local author and Beal’s landlord Dix Van Dyke implies that Carr was overdramatic in his depiction of Daggett,19 he too described it as a tough town:

It had never been deemed a tough town, although during its brief history there had been a few shooting scrapes, a couple of murders, and a lynching. Occasionally, festive souls blowing a stake got rowdy and became a nuisance that needed abatement, but there was nothing new in that... Many small towns were then partially supported by vice, which was condoned as a necessary evil.20

Dix may have inherited the opinion that Daggett was not a tough town from his father, T. S. Van Dyke, who had once told a friend that the town was quiet and peaceful before accompanying him to the railway station armed with a double-barreled shotgun.

As the silver and borax booms ebbed and the Santa Fe Railroad rerouted, Daggett began to empty. Though it maintained its reputation through force of inertia, it became the sleepy town that it hadn’t been since its naming in 1883. By the time Beal moved to Daggett in the early 1910s, the town had already started its long decline that many say continues through today.

Botanist Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs
Mary Beal's hand-colored photographs of Cassia (Senna covesii). | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum

Beal, known as Mamie to other Daggett residents, lived at the Van Dyke ranch, one mile east from downtown Daggett — at first, in a tent house, and later in a small cabin that she built. The ranch, founded by T.S. Van Dyke, was a common stop for important desert visitors, from naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir to art historian John C. Van Dyke, Theodore’s brother and author of the acclaimed book “The Desert.” In the 1930s, movie director W.S. Van Dyke, nephew of Theodore, used Daggett and the Van Dyke ranch as a backdrop for his films — mostly Westerns.21

Beal may have seemed out of place among these famous men, but she held her own. She had come to the desert after meeting Burroughs and also corresponding with Muir about her chronic health condition. Muir, whose youngest daughter Helen also had an unspecified respiratory ailment, relocated to Daggett in 1907 and stayed on as the dry desert climate helped to ease what was troubling her.

Hand-colored photo by botanist Mary Beal
A hand-colored photo by Mary Beal showcasing Bigelow coreopsis (Coreopsis bigelovii). | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum
Hand-colored photo with a note by botanist Mary Beal
Verso of Coreopsis bigelovii image with hand-written notes by Mary Beal. | Photo: Courtesy of the Mojave River Valley Museum

Forgoing her position as a librarian in Riverside, Beal moved to another house of books at the Van Dyke ranch.22 And along with being an avid reader, Beal had many skills. When Jepson visited, she cooked his meals rather than subjecting him to Dix’s disastrous bachelor fare; when Burroughs came, they shot rifle targets together in the Calico Mountains.23 When her friend and fellow DM contributor Harold Weight described her in a December 1948 issue of the magazine, he introduced her by saying:

If you should come upon a small active woman in some isolated corner of the Mojave, wrapped about with photographic equipment and clinging to the canyon wall with fingers and toes while she decides whether to study a flower or investigate a mineral specimen, it will be quite safe to say: ‘Hello, Mary Beal.’24

Weight’s introduction is accurate: Beal often traveled through the desert on her own, or accompanied by her horse Dolly Varden (presumably named after Charles Dickens’ character or fashionable 19th century dress) or her dog called Nig.25

Beal seemed to enjoy her time alone, refuting her friends’ assessments of the desert as god-forsaken, deeming it a place of solitude that she steadfastly loved.26 Perhaps this is why she was so well-suited for DM, a magazine wholly dedicated to showing its readers the wonders of the desert in a no-nonsense, straightforward fashion. Her modesty and work ethic reflected the values of DM readers, making her precisely the kind of person one would want as company on a botanizing expedition.

Beal died in 1964, but in 1952, 12 years before her death, it became possible to botanize with her — at least in name. The Mary Beal Nature Trail in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, located near the currently closed Mitchell Caverns, offers a self-guided nature trail with a brochure describing desert plants and animals.

The author would like to thank the Mesa Refuge and the University of California’s Human Rights Center for providing the space and time to think about this piece, as well as the University and Jepson Herbaria, the Mojave Valley River Museum, and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association for sharing their archival resources for this story.

Click here for a mapped selection of Mary Beal’s collecting locations.


1 Beal, Mary. "Mammillaria Blossoms." 1938, photograph. Desert Magazine. Oct. 1938, p. 3.

2 Beal, Mary. “Handy-Man for the Homesteader.” Desert Magazine. January 1940, pp. 12-13, 37.

3 “Food and Fishlines for the Tribesmen.” Desert Magazine. December 1939, pp. 13-14.

4 “Food, Drink, and Medicine for the Natives.” Desert Magazine. October 1940, pp. 34-35.

5 “Ghost Flower Named by Fremont.” Desert Magazine. April 1948, p. 24.

6 “Flower with the Clinging Leaves.” Desert Magazine. June 1941, p. 12.

7 Laudermilk, Jerry, and Philip Munz. “To Save Their Lives — They’re Tough.” Desert Magazine. July 1944, pp. 8-12. See Desert Magazine. April 1956 (26) for more information about Laudermilk.

8 Beidelman, Richard. “The Botany Man.” Madroño 47.4. 2000, pp. 273-86.

9 Mary Beal’s diaries indicate that Jepson visited during April 1935 and May 1937, though he also could have visited later as well. See Alan Golden papers at the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association.

10 "Jepson Field Notebook," Jepson Herbarium, Berkeley, CA. 21 April 1941.

11 Letter from Mary Beal to W.L. Jepson, Mary Beal archives, Jepson Herbarium, Berkeley, CA. 25 April 1932.

12 Letter from Willis Linn Jepson to Mary Beal, Willis Linn Jepson papers, Jepson Herbarium, Berkeley, CA. 5 May 1932.

13 Letter from Willis Linn Jepson to Mary Beal, Willis Linn Jepson papers, Jepson Herbarium, Berkeley, CA. 9 Feb 1939.

14 CNPS Rare Plant Program. "Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants." Online edition, v8-02. California Native Plant Society, Sacramento, CA,, 19 Aug. 2016.

15 See Creese, Mary R. S. "Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science," 1800-1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Scarecrow Press, 2000.

16 Alan Golden papers, File 6, Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, Goffs, CA.

17 “Wolves on the Desert After Greek’s Cash.” Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1905, p. 2, 1.

18 Wild, Peter. "The Old Van Dyke Ranch on the Mojave Desert." Shady Myrick Research Project, 2003, Johannesburg, CA., p. 224.

19 Van Dyke, Dix. "Daggett: Life in a Mojave Frontier Town," edited by Peter Wild, The John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 57.

20 Van Dyke, 1997, pp. 52-53.

21 Wild, 2003.

22 Weight, Lucile. “The Floral World of Mary Beal.” 1969. Wild 2003.

23 See Wild 2003. Beal, Mary. “When John O’Birds Saw Calico.” Calico Print 7.8, Aug. 1951, pp. 1,3.

24 Weight, Harold. “Rock Trek in the Colorful Cadys.” Desert Magazine, Dec. 1948, p. 11.

25 Horse’s name from Beal, 1951. Dog’s name from Beal, 1939.

26 See Weight, 1948.

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