The papers of Lester Rowntree, avid seed collector and arboretum supplier, includes photographs, publications, correspondence,
manuscripts, recordings, and notes.
Lester Rowntree (her given name was Gertrude Ellen Lester), was born to a Quaker family on February 16, 1879, in Perinth,
England. Mr. and Mrs. Lester were enthusiastic home gardeners, as many Quakers were, who encouraged the activity in their
children. At the age of two, Mrs. Rowntree was given a small garden, probably about four feet square, where she grew wildflowers.
In 1887, when Mrs. Rowntree was eight years old, the Lester family left England and moved to Kansas where her father had bought
a farm. After a few years, the family well went bad and two of the children died.
Shortly following the deaths, the family relocated to Altadena, California. It was here that Mrs. Rowntree’s love of wildflowers
would truly blossom. After serving as a governess for a time, Mrs. Rowntree attended Westtown Friends School in Westtown,
Pennsylvania (children at Quaker boarding schools were called by their last names, this is how Mrs. Rowntree came to be called
Lester, she preferred it to her other names). In 1902, Mrs. Rowntree graduated from the Westtown Friends School, she was twenty-three
years old. This was the only formal education she would receive, when asked why she did not attend horticultural college,
Mrs. Rowntree would reply that it would have sucked the originality out of her work.
In 1908, Gertrude Ellen Lester married Bernard Rowntree, a well-to-do Quaker man from a distinguished family. Mrs. Rowntree
took it upon herself to surround the couple’s house with a beautiful and opulent garden and to raise their son, Cedric, who
was born in 1911. Sometime around 1926, Mrs. Rowntree was stricken with ovarian cancer and as her dying wish she begged to
move to California. After a short time, Mr. Rowntree agreed and quit his job, allowing the family to relocate. In 1930, after
four years in California the Rowntree’s marriage would end in divorce.
A couple of years later, at the age of fifty-three, the “Seed Lady” began her career as one of the foremost collectors of
wildflower seeds. She was finally free to do as she wished, no longer obligated to her parents, without a husband, and son
Cedric was in his early twenties. Mrs. Rowntree was now free to drive all over the state and country looking for flowers and
collecting their seeds.
She would supply arboretums and botanical gardens all over the country with these seeds. At first she refused to accept any
payment for them, however, eventually she was convinced to accept ten cents per package.
This eventually led to a business selling the seeds to public and private parties. It appears that there were two incarnations
of this business: the first was Lester Rowntree & Co. The “& Co.” referred to a Miss Clevenger who had lived with the Rowntrees
at their home in Carmel. She evidently took orders and did not fill them, as well as generally poor managerial skills. The
partnership ended with Mrs. Rowntree suing Miss Clevenger. It appears that a Mr. Edward K. Balls wound up with the majority
of the assets. This leads us to what is assumed to be the second incarnation of the seed business, with Mrs. Rowntree and
Mr. Balls as partners.
Mrs. Rowntree described herself as a loner, which made her perfect for the job of collecting seeds. She often found herself
hiking by herself or perhaps with a pack animal in desolate and remote areas searching for rare species, sometimes of questionable
existence. There are, unfortunately, no numbers on how many specimens she collected and what she collected, but her notes,
although scattered at times, were very clear about her work.
She was also a prolific writer, producing over thirty-five articles for the Santa Barbara Gardener between 1925 and 1942 alone.
She also gave talks all over the country while on collecting trips. After many years of virtually living out of her car, Mrs.
Rowntree retired to her hillside in Carmel. She worked diligently creating a spectacular and breathtaking garden, which she
would open to the public every now and then.
As she continued to age, it became more and more difficult for her to work and even take care of herself. Cedric and his wife
lived in a separate apartment within the hillside house but eventually were unable to care for Mrs. Rowntree and she moved
to Carmel Convalescent Hospital. Periodically, friends or family would bring her back to her garden so she could sit and enjoy
She received greetings from Queen Elizabeth, President Jimmy Carter and Governor Jerry Brown on her 100th birthday, and on
February 21, 1979, Lester Rowntree died. At the time of her death, Mrs. Rowntree was the Honorary Life President of the California
Native Plant Society; Secretary of the British Alpine Society; President-at-Large of the American Herb Society; Honorary Member
of the Desert Protective Society, and of the American Rock Garden Association.