This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Shrub, two to four feet high, somewhat pubescent, leafy throughout: leaves oval or obiong, short-petioled, coriaceous: corolla " scarlet" or pink red, hardly an inch long, thrice the length of the lanceolate sepals, and the tube thrice the length of the narrow lip. (Gray's Synoptical Flora of North America. See also Brewer and Watson's Flora of California.)
IT is only by rare good chance that we have been able to illustrate this plant, which is one of the rarest as well as of the most beautiful of the wild flowers of the United States. It was first collected by Mr. William Gambel, in 1842, on the island of Catalina, off the coast of California, and does not appear to have been found again till 1875, when it was gathered on another island off the same coast - Guadalupe - by Dr. Edward Palmer; and it was from seeds collected ,by him that the plants were raised in the gardens of the Arnold Arboretum of the Bussey Institute, near Boston, from which our artist made the drawing for this plate.
The plants collected by Mr. Gambel were examined by Mr. Nuttall, and described by him in the first volume of the "Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia," under the title of "Plantae Gambelianae," and this particular one believed to constitute a new genus, and which he called Gambelia; but which has since been decided by Dr. Gray not to be distinct from Antirrhinum, the well-known "Snap-dragon." Mr. Nuttall himself seems to have perceived the close relationship of the plant to Antirrhinum. He says of it: "A bush about three to four feet high, full of bright scarlet flowers, and apparently an evergreen; corolla about an inch in length and tubular, with a conspicuous saccate spur at the base. Though so different in habit, yet closely allied to Antirrhinum, - the tubular corolla, smooth palate, and entire stigma being all that distinguishes it from that genus. The seed may also prove different, but that is at present unknown. It is a plant highly worthy of cultivation, and flowers early in April." It seems to have been one of those cases where the distinct habit and appearance were relied on to furnish characters that descriptive science fails to perceive, for few untutored persons would imagine there was any relationship between our plant and the familiar Snap-dragon.
It is to be regretted that the attempt to honor Mr. Gambel in this genus could not be sustained, for he seems to have been one of those very meritorious persons, who, triumphing over early obstacles, succeed by their perseverance in serving their fellows, and often, as in this instance, at the expense of their lives. He passed the early part of his life in Philadelphia with his mother and sister, who were in humble circumstances. He pursued successfully a course of study in the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, taking the degree of M. D., in March, 1848, adopting for his inaugural thesis "Organic Forms or Species." His death occurred on the 13th of December of the year following. His services to science commenced in 1842, when, at the solicitation of Mr. Nuttall, whom some think was his uncle, he made an overland trip to California, collecting numerous birds and plants, returning early in the spring of the following year, when he was made a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences for his distinguished services. He was subsequently elected Recording Secretary of the Institution, which office he resigned in order to make another collecting tour across the continent, on which journey he set out in the spring of 1849. His track was from Independence, Missouri, to the Kansas river, and from thence to Fort Kearney. From here he struck off on a comparatively unknown and rugged trail in the hope of getting more novelties, crossing the Sierras at the head of the Sacramento valley. The trials and sufferings he encountered on this route were terrible, and he had scarcely reached the land of California when he was seized with typhoid fever and died. A letter to the Philadelphia "North American," in 1850, from one of his companions, says: "He sleeps in peace beneath the towering pines which cluster on a sunny hill-side, stretching up from the bright waters of the Rio del Plumas. He has departed early, but not unhonored. Philadelphia owes to his memory a lasting tribute of respect for his science, virtue, worth, talent, and energy." The exact spot wherein was laid all that was mortal of this promising young explorer will now perhaps never be known; and his lonely grave in what was then the great Pacific wilderness seems sadly suggestive of the lines of Bryant:
" Take the wings Of the morning, traverse Barca's desert sands, Or lose thyself in the continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound, Save his own dashings - yet, the dead are there."
Our very pretty wild flower seems confined to these small islands along the Californian coast, and this fact has led to interesting speculations as to the origin of this and some other species so confined within such restricted limits. Guadalupe Island, where Dr. Palmer found this plant, is only twenty-six miles north and south, and only ten miles across on the widest line, with volcanic rocks and extinct craters. Of the flowering plants Dr. Palmer collected there, one-fifth have so far not been found in any other part of the world! Mr. Sereno Watson believes the flora as of the same primordial origin as that of the mainland of California, and that it shows that at some remote period there were closer connections with California than now exist, but that the land has been submerged, taking with the submergence whole groups of families, and leaving here and there a few scattered individuals of some species to tell us the tale of their comrades' misfortunes.
Dr. Palmer says he found our species "Frequent in the crevices of high rocks in the middle of the island, very ornamental, the bright scarlet flowers continuing all summer." This fact may help those who desire to cultivate the plant. Though ice forms sometimes an inch thick on Guadalupe Island, it is not likely the species would be entirely hardy enough to endure the open air of any but the extreme Southern States. But it can be kept alive in what are known as cold-houses, and it would probably well repay any care in this respect by blooming freely most of the next summer, from the earliest spring months, when planted in the open ground. It is easily raised from cuttings, as we know by some which are growing freely as we write. There could certainly be nothing more beautiful in one's garden than a shrub "three or four feet high," covered by such showy colored flowers as appear in our plate.