Jepson, Willis Linn

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Jepson, Willis Linn

(b. Little oak Ranch, Vacaville, California, 19 August 1867; d. Berkeley, California, 7 November 1946)


Jepson became the “high priest of the California Flora.” Of Scottish-English ancestry, he was the son of William and Martha Potts Jenson, originally from New England. Early in his schooling he was fascinated by the identification of plants through keys in Volney Rattan’s local floras. On visits to the California Academy of Sciences he was cordially received by Albert Kellogg. His student years at the University of California at Berkeley coincided with the professorship of Edward Lee Greene, whose influence on Jepson was deep and lasting. Although Jepson never shrank from the defense of Greene’s frailties, he disavowed Greene’s views on the fixity of species. Jepson’s decision to follow the great nineteenthcentury British systematists in making taxonomic judgments as he organized the scattered writings on the California flora proved to be fortunate for the future of botany in California (Keck, 1948).

Jepson took his bachelor’ (1889) and doctor’s (1899) degrees at Berkeley, interspersed with terms at cornell (1895) and Harvard (1896-1897). His association at Harvard with the conservative taxonomist Benjamin L. Robinson was critical. Jepson’s teaching was enriched by field excursions to redwood wilderness, mountains, and deserts . He was at ease with lumberjacks and prospectors and was admitted into a tribe of the Hupa Indians.

Jepson’s collections and voluminous notes, totaling nearly sixty closely written field books, provided the data for his Trees of California (1909), Silva of California (1910), and Manual, of the Flowering Plants of California (1925). The latter, the leading book in its field, described 4,019 species and was extensively illustrated with line drawings by closely supervised artists. A Flora of California, monographic documentation to the Manual, with references, notes on types, citations of supporting specimens, and ecological notes, shows Jepson the taxonomist at his best. He followed his manuscripts through the press with fanatical care, yeet in his zeal for priority of publication at times maneuvered unscrupulously.

Jepson studied the significance of revegetation after fire, rainpool ecology, endemism, and floristic provinces. He founded the California Botanical Society in 1913, was a founder and spokesmen for the Save-the-Redwoods League, and spokesman for Point Lobos Reserve, near Monterey. His scientific prose was sensitive and facile, as attested by his articles in Erythea, Madrono, and the Dictionary of American Biography.

He never married. His personality ranged from that of charming host to implacable hermit. He delighted in esoteric allusion—designating a plant collected by Katherine Brandegee, whom he intensely disliked, as “Viper Parnip”—in the dramatic, and in rigorous tests of loyalty.


I. Original Works. Jepson’s A Flora of Western Middle California (1901) was based on his doctoral thesis; first-edition stock was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake-fire of 1906. The introduction (pp.1-32) and concluding parts (vol. 1, pt. 8 and vol, 3, pt. 3) of A Flora of California are as yet unpublished.

The first two volumes of Madrono, an undetermined number of issues of Erythea, and all issues of Nemophila, “meeting and field guide” of the California Botanical Society, were edited and wholly or party written by Jepson, although some articles are unsigned.

His correspondence (1887-1946), in 62 vols., is in the Jepson Library, department of botany, University of California at Berkely, and was arranged and indexed annually; under his supervision. A bibliography of his scienrific writing (1891-1962), compiled by L. R. Heckard, J. T. Howell, and R. Bacigalupi, in Madroño, 19 (1967), 97-108, is provided with topical indexes of plant genera and biographical sketches.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries and historical appraisals are listed by Heckard, Howell, and Bacigalupi, op. cit., 97-98. Unlisted there are animadversions by Marcus E. Jones in his intermittent publication Contributions to Western Botony (privately printed, Claremont, California), 15 (1929), 2-8; 18 (1933-1935), 9-10. Jepson’s estimate of jones appeared in Madroño, 2 (1934), 152-154. See also D. D. Keck, “Place of Willis Linn Jepson in California Botany,”in Madroño, 9 (1948), 223-228. For recent commentary on Jepson see J. Ewan, ed., A Short History of Botany in the United States (News York, 1969), passim.

Joseph Ewan