A potent symbol of nature is rooted in a rare white flower
In all the world, the pretty white flower Carpenteria californica grows wild only in small portions of Fresno and Madera counties.
Indeed, one of the few places it’s to be found is on this lone foothill called Black Mountain.
Through the decades, people who lived on the mountain — including a Utopian socialist and a secretly rich chemistry professor — fell in love with the mysterious flower. In the end, it was their regard for the flower that protected the mountain and now is fueling a conservation effort in California’s Sierra foothills.
Like the giant sequoia and redwood trees, Carpenteria is a relic of an ancient, wetter California. Explorer John Fremont discovered it on his third expedition west in 1845. But he was lost at the time and mislabeled the spot where he picked up a few withered winter blossoms. It was some 30 years before anyone found it again.
A Swedish zoologist rediscovered Carpenteria and sent seeds to Europe. The plant bloomed at London’s famed Kew Royal Botanical Gardens.
“People lined up for blocks to see the mystery shrub with the spectacular flowers,” said John Stebbins, a botanist at Cal State Fresno. “It was a rock star.”
But in California, most people didn’t know about the endemic plant with the tiny range. They still don’t.
“I suspect there’s a lot of people with Carpenteria growing in their English-style gardens who don’t realize it’s one of California’s rarest plants,” Stebbins said. “They only know it’s extremely showy and you’re not going to find it at Home Depot.”
This year spring came late to Black Mountain. Usually by June the foothills have turned gold and crunchy, but on this day green hillsides drip with pink mustang clover, yellow pretty face and violet Chinese houses.
The Carpenteria bush by the ruins of the old Kneeland homestead is just hitting full bloom, a 12-foot shrub of white flowers with bright yellow centers, looking like fried eggs sunny side up.
Clarissa Kneeland probably had no way of knowing that Carpenteria was a living fossil, but still she saw it as a symbol of endurance.
She and her brother Ira grew up in an American Utopian colony in Mexico’s Sinaloa state but moved back to the U.S. in 1913 because of the Mexican Revolution.
By then, the only land left to homestead was land in places like the top of Black Mountain — too steep and rocky for farming, too dense with shrubs for grazing. Locals had always considered the area useful only for hunting.
The Kneelands’ holdings would grow to about 1,500 acres they called Black Mountain Sanctuary. No hunting allowed.
“On the sanctuary, not one foot of which is for sale, there is no open season on anything but poison oak and rattlesnakes,” Clarissa Kneeland wrote. “We cannot, of course, save the whole country but we can do all in our power to save this much.”
A children’s book author, she penned a column for the local paper detailing the comings and goings of Black Mountain’s birds, skunks, squirrels and even field mice. She often wrote about the flower she called “the white mountain rose” before discovering its scientific name, Carpenteria californica.
In time, the “socialists on the hill” won friends in the community, which was then — like now — largely conservative politically.
But World War II took a toll on the usually indomitable Kneeland.
She would climb to the top of black Mountain and watch planes she thought were bombers leaving from the San Joaquin Valley. Her mind was dark with thoughts that she was witnessing the end of the Earth.
In private journals she wrote of seeking solace at the foot of the Carpenteria. She came to believe that as long as this particular flower bloomed, the world would continue a little longer.
In 1950 Ira and the younger Clarissa Kneeland died within days of each other. Their homestead fell into disarray. The land was subdivided and sold.
But the notion of Black Mountain as a sanctuary and Carpenteria as a powerful symbol lingered.
Bill Miller, a chemistry professor at Cal State Fresno, bought land on Black Mountain in the late 1960s to build an oddly shaped house.
“He said it was in the form of a benzene ring, his favorite molecule,” said Chuck Peck, land protection director of the Sierra Foothills Conservancy. “That was Bill.”
He lived in Santa Rosa and appeared to be near-penniless.
“He bought his clothes secondhand,” Peck said. “If he invited you to lunch you’d want to make sure and eat first. He’d make you a little cheese sandwich on a solar stove he built out of strange metal scraps.”
In 1990, Miller signed over his 360 acres to the national organization Nature Conservancy. Miller’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, who had died of cancer, loved wildflowers, particularly Carpenteria. Miller wanted Black Mountain protected.
Peck and his wife, Peg Smith, were working to form a local foothill conservation organization. The valley below was the fastest-growing region in California, the foothills held the most biodiversity of any inland area in the state and there were few protections in place.
“The problem is that the foothills tend to be just what people drive through to get somewhere else, like the mountains,” Smith said. “They don’t stop to look around.”
The Nature Conservancy transferred Miller’s land to the new organization and Miller then sent a $120,000 donation. He had inherited some money.
“It kind of embarrassed him. It was against his principles to be rich,” Peck said.
The piece of land Miller most wanted protected was the Kneeland homestead with the ruins of the houses and Clarissa Kneeland’s favorite Carpenteria bush.
Miller eventually donated $750,000 to the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, which used his money to obtain grants and matching funds. The organization uses Carpenteria as calling card and fundraising tool.
“There are a lot of amazing things on Black Mountain, but the Carpenteria is what stops people in their tracks,” Peck said.
Miller died in 2007. He requested that half of his ashes be scattered on his wife’s grave in Paso Robles and half on Black Mountain.
It was two years before the second of his wishes was fulfilled. Peck waited until the conservancy had finally bought the Kneeland place and the Carpenteria was in bloom.
A small, eclectic group gathered at Clarissa Kneeland’s Carpenteria shrub in the Mary Elizabeth Miller Preserve: Peck and Smith, Stebbins, chemistry students, botanists, even a retired Prather electrician also named Bill Miller. The two Bills had become friends over mail mix-ups.
Each took a teaspoon of ashes and dropped them on ground Clarissa Kneeland had long ago declared a sanctuary while they said a few words about Miller.
Peck said his friend was a man who lived by his principles and had left them with a mission.
“The way I’ve been thinking about Carpenteria, especially on that day,” Peck said, “is that it’s a beautiful obligation. When we have something this genuinely rare and beautiful in our own backyard, it’s our own job to take care of it.”
Marcum is a Times special correspondent.
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