A Living Laboratory Is Botany Teacher's Legacy

Times Staff Writer

Strolling around Compton College with 75-year-old Louise Cramer is like strolling around her private garden or, more accurately, her private arboretum.

"Now, that's a primrose tree," Cramer said, moving past a squat, leafy specimen.

"That's a bay tree right there," she said, eyeing a towering timber up ahead. "That's what they crowned the victor with in the Olympic Games--laurel. Its real name is Laurus nobilis."

Perching her small, gray-haired frame on a cement bench in the center of the campus commons, the retired botany instructor continued the lesson.

"Well, actually, that's an Arizona cypress," she said, gently correcting a visitor who thought all cypress trees were Mediterraneans.

"That one's a strawberry tree," she said, pointing out an "Arbutus unedo."

Switching to sycamores, she said, "That's a plane tree. . . . It's the kind of sycamore they have in Europe. London plane they call it."

There probably is not a person on campus who can tick off the tree names as quickly or with as much authority as Cramer. Not only did she spend 34 years teaching botany students about the trees at Compton College, she also planted hundreds of them. As a result, the campus probably has a larger variety of trees than any other community college in the state.

"And, of course, that's a Norfolk Island palm. Comes from Norfolk Island down by Australia," Cramer said, pointing out a Christmas-like tree whose branches are perfectly symmetrical.

"These trees back of us . . . are interesting ones," she said. "That is the ginkgo, g-i-n-k-g-o. They're fossils. It wasn't really until fairly into the modern era that they found they were living. They had been planted around Buddhist monasteries in China."

Cramer retired in 1975, then returned for five years before retiring for good in 1983. She now lives in Long Beach, after having lived in Compton for most of her faculty career.

She came up with the idea to turn the campus into a living botany lab when the college received a grant from the National Science Foundation in 1962.

"This was just a big open space. There was nothing here but a few eucalyptus," she said. "There wasn't much for botany students to look at."

Grant Was $1,000

The grant gave her $1,000 to spend on trees. "Nowadays, $1,000 wouldn't buy what's right in front of us," she said, looking up at a towering pine tree that she and her students planted more than a quarter-century ago.

Limited finances demanded frugality and ingenuity, she recalled. "I got most of the plants in very small containers with the idea that they would eventually grow."

From the beginning, she said, the planting plan was drawn up with the classroom in mind. "I looked up plants with compound leaves, doubly compound leaves, pinnately compound, palmately compound."

The plan, she said, stressed common ornamental varieties from all over the world.

Take palms, for instance. Among those on the Compton campus are windmill, blue Mexican, pindo, seaforthia, fountain, Canary Island, queen, lady, Mexican sego, fishtail and the Senegal date.

Recovered From Stroke

Forced to walk with a cane now after suffering a stroke years ago, Cramer does not visit the campus much, except when somebody wants to talk to her about the trees. Most of them are thriving, although a few have been lost to disease.

"I had a very nice albizzia over there next to the library and that died," she said, recalling the silk tree, as it is also known.

It does not seem to bother Cramer that the science of botany is no longer taught as a separate class, having been incorporated into broader life-science courses.

She is not sentimental about the living legacy she has left the college. When she dies, who will remember that she planted the trees?

"Nobody," she said, laughing loudly. "But the trees will be here and if some enterprising botanist comes along, well, they can always pick it up and go right on."

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