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Botanist's Belated Reward : 61 Years After She Found a Plant on the Dunes, It May Turn Out to Be a Unique Species

August 20, 1993|KIM KOWSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tramping through the El Segundo sand dunes in the spring of 1932, botanist Bonnie C. Templeton came across a strange-looking plant that didn't appear in any of her botany books.

She named her discovery Pholisma paniculatum for the tiny flower clusters that appeared on the surface of the sand. But when a well-known botanist published a book on the flora of Southern California a few years later, he refused to recognize her find.

Templeton, who believes that the scientific Establishment at the time was reluctant to recognize female botanists, further despaired when the plant seemed to disappear from the El Segundo sand dunes amid a boom in beachfront construction. The wrong, she feared, would never be made right.

Half a century later, however, the plant has made a surprising comeback on the dunes, which are now being restored. And that has rekindled an old debate over whether the plant, which resembles a tiny head of cauliflower, is different enough from a similar-looking desert variety to qualify as a separate species.

Templeton, who says she never stopped thinking about the odd plant she found in the dunes, hopes botanists researching the matter will confirm her finding, that the plant constitutes a distinct and separate species. But even if they don't, the plant's mere reappearance is a salve for the remembered slight.

"When I first heard they had found it, I almost cried over the phone," said Templeton, who lives with her husband near Glendale, in Glassell Park. "It's like, if you lost a diamond ring, and after all those years, finally it was there. To me, it's that much of a treasure."

Templeton's discovery was no fluke. When she spied the plant in 1932, she was a budding botanist who six years later joined a team of scientists to conduct a formal survey of the plants and animals living in the El Segundo sand dunes.

Despite her early disappointment, Templeton's career flourished. She became the curator of botany at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where she organized dozens of plant shows and often lectured. Her extensive knowledge of plants and their habitats made her popular with police and sheriff's detectives, who frequently called on her to help solve murder cases in which the evidence included plant material.

Her success, however, was tempered by what she believes was a pattern of discrimination against women in the sciences.

At one point, she says, the head of the biology department at USC told her no woman would get a doctorate in botany as long as he had a say in it. Templeton, who had received both her bachelor's degree and master's degree at USC, obtained her doctorate at Oregon State University.

The discrimination, she says, continued throughout her career. Whereas museum officials frequently ordered books for her male colleagues, she had to purchase her own. When she asked for an assistant to help with her workload, officials refused, she said, even though most male department heads had assistants.

"From the beginning I suffered discrimination," said Templeton, who retired from the museum in 1970. "Even after I got my doctorate, it took a whole year before anyone would call me doctor."

The deepest wound by far, she says, came in the early days of her career, when she was unable to get official recognition of Pholisma paniculatum, which she was sure deserved to be designated a distinct species.

Templeton, who declines to give her age, saying only that she is "plenty-nine," does not remember the date she stumbled across the plant, but she does recall her first impression of it.

She had come to the dunes, which at that time covered several hundred acres stretching from the south end of El Segundo to Playa Del Rey, to collect samples of native plants. She had already collected dozens of specimens. But, she recalls, there was something intriguing about this one. It lay scattered like mushrooms on mounds of sand.

"I was surprised when I first saw it," Templeton said. "I thought, 'This is different from anything I've seen on the dunes so far.' I didn't really know what it was."

She dug into the sand to find the plants' root system and was further surprised to see that the flower heads sat atop an underground network of long, succulent branches. The plant, she discovered, was parasitic: The main stem extended up to four feet underground and anchored itself on the roots of coastal buckwheat.

She compared the plant with another parasitic plant, Pholisma arenarium, which is typically found in the desert. But, she thought, this one was significantly different.

Unlike the desert variety, which has bright pink flowers, the dunes version's flowers were white with just a hint of pale pink in the throat. Whereas the desert species had flowers on the end of a solitary branch, the sand dune variety had multiple stems branching out from the stalk.

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