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People Commemorated in Eastern Sierra Plant Names

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Austin's Beardtongue, Penstemon floridus var. austinii
(Eastw.) N. Holmgren (Scrophulariaceae)

by Larry Blakely

References and Notes

(First Posted: 1999 11 23; Last Revised: 2002 12 19; Text appeared in the newsletter of the Bristlecone chapter, CNPS, November, 1999/Vol. 19, No.6)

Austin's Beardtongue

Austin's Beardtongue, Penstemon floridus var. austinii (Eastw.) N. Holmgren (Scrophulariaceae)
Check the CalFlora website for more information and pictures.
Photos © by Larry Blakely

Few Eastern Sierra plant groups can match the Penstemons in their many species of striking beauty. Some of their specific (and varietal) epithets evoke their charms (e.g., floridus, spectabilis, speciosus, azureus); some, providing grist for this miller, honor botanists (austinii, davidsonii, eatonii, newberryi, purpusii); others are a tad mysterious (confusus, heterodoxus, miser). The subject of this essay not only combines the first two of these properties but there is also a bit of mystery surrounding the person named in the honorific. We know his name and dates - Stafford Wallace Austin, b. 1860, d. 1931 - and that he was the husband of one of the most famous former residents of the Owens Valley. However, while considerable information is readily available about Mary Austin, it's hard to get concrete details about Wallace (as Mary called him).(1)

Mary Austin House in Independence

The Mary Austin house in Independence

He was born in, and grew up in, Hawaii, where his father had been a government secretary and, later, owner of a sugar plantation. When Wallace was 20 the family moved to the Bay Area of California, where he completed his education, culminating with a degree from UC Berkeley. Mary, a native of Illinois, was tutoring children on a ranch near Bakersfield when, in 1890, she met Wallace, resident then of a neighboring ranch. They entered into a hasty marriage, and, after a brief time in San Francisco, they traveled (most of the last leg on the narrow gauge railroad) to Lone Pine, arriving in 1892. When in San Francisco, Wallace and his brother had devised a scheme to develop irrigation systems in the southern Owens Valley. Unfortunately, the plans did not meet with success, and Wallace and Mary, now expecting a child, fell on hard times. For a while Wallace could not find reliable employment, and was reduced to working various odd jobs and an unsuccessful stint at homesteading in the Alabama Hills. But, probably because of his educational credentials and an obvious desire on his part to stay in the Eastern Sierra, he began to come into more substantial positions. He taught for a while at the school in George's Creek, then was appointed Inyo Co. Superintendent of Schools in 1898 (1a). In 1900 the Austins designed and built their house on Market Street in Independence.

In 1902 or 1903 (1a) he took up the position of Register in the Desert Land Office in Independence. In 1905 the Austins did battle against the City of Los Angeles when the city's water plans became evident to them, Wallace being in a position to see what was going on. (2a) In 1906 (1a), Wallace was again out of a job when the Desert Land Office closed. (1), (2)

Mary, who roamed far and wide, later chastised Wallace for clinging to Inyo County, rather than joining her after she had begun to make a living at writing. She had few words of praise for him. While she did say that he had a zest for acting in the Shakespearean plays she produced in Independence, she was negative about most other aspects of Wallace's life and character. (3) An author of a recent article characterizes their marriage as a "nightmare"; "While she was turbulent, egocentric, and abrasive, he was mild, often insensitive to his wife's needs, and inept."(4) Mary claimed that it was she who got Wallace into botany, "always a consuming interest for her" she wrote. However, she was not complimentary as to the result. In her autobiography (written partly in the third person) she remarked that "he was never able to carry [botany] to more than a collector's accent, the mere naming and classifying of kinds and orders, avoiding her concern with adaptations and local variations." Mary further tells us that Wallace was an avid outdoorsman, continually dragging her off on hiking and camping adventures in the Eastern Sierra which taxed her physical abilities. Mary left him permanently in 1906, and divorced him in 1914 (neither remarried). Yet Wallace remained friendly towards Mary through the rest of his life, writing and sending her gifts, and leaving her an insurance policy on his death. (5) (5a)

In May of 1898, Purpus, who collected in the Eastern Sierra and desert mountains, wrote of meeting Wallace at Indian Wells. Wallace described his wife to Purpus as an "enthusiastic botanist"; Purpus believed that the Austins "will be very valuable acquaintances." (8)

It was on a July 4 outing in 1899, along Oak Creek, that Wallace collected specimens of the plant now known as Austin's Beardtongue. One or more of the specimens found their way into the hands of Alice Eastwood (the Eastw. in the full name) who was curator, over the remarkably long period of 1894 to 1949, at the Herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). Miss Eastwood named Wallace's plant Penstemon austini in 1905. The next year she apparently saved the specimen, along with nearly 1500 other type specimens, from the crumbling CAS building soon after the big earthquake struck. (6)(7)

The plant was later deemed (in 1937) to be a supspecies, then later still (1979) a variety of P. floridus (a plant first found by the German plant collector Carl Albert Purpus near Lida, NV in 1898, and named in 1899 by Eastwood's CAS predecessor, Katharine Brandegee; Purpus' P. floridus became P. floridus var. floridus).

Mary, "a woman of genius", (5) may well have had the deeper botanical insight, but perhaps Wallace was the more botanically driven. It appears that he may have collected a very large number of plants. His latest specimen in the University and Jepson Herbaria (U-JH) (among 65 S. W. Austin specimens listed upon querying the CalFlora databases (9)) bears his collection number 8200. A specimen of his July 4, 1899 collection of P. floridus var. austinii is found there and bears his number 187.

Further research would be needed to confirm that he collected over 8000 specimens; possibly, some were at the CAS, and were lost when the CAS building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. His specimens in the U-JH (listed on CalFlora) cover the period February, 1899 through July, 1906. Most were collected in the years 1899, 1900, and 1906. Except for two from over the Sierra crest, they are all from Inyo Co.

Oak Creek Canyon

Looking over the Owens Valley to the Inyo Mtns. in the distance, from the 6000' level up Oak Creek Canyon

Curiously, of the 12 specimens (the one collected by Wallace plus 11 others) of P. floridus var. austinii listed for the U-JH collection, and the 9 locations given on Mary DeDecker's specimen card for this plant, only the one collected by Wallace is from the Sierras. All others were found in the Inyos and desert mountains to the east. Local botanists I have consulted are not aware of any definite Sierra location for variety austinii - another little mystery. (Mary DeDecker collected P. floridus var. floridus in Oak Creek canyon.)

P. floridus var. austinii is the only plant named for Wallace. Several other California plants contain "austin" in an honorific, but they are named in honor of Rebecca Austin (1832-1919) (9a)) who collected extensively in Northern California; she became well known among botanists for her studies on the Cobra Plant, Darlingtonia californica Torrey.

In names of plants honoring her, the honorific is in the female form: austiniae. As far as CalFlora records go, none of "her" 8 plants occur in Inyo Co., and "his" does not occur outside of Inyo Co.

Wallace Austin

Wallace later in life.
(Courtesy Searles Valley Historical Society)

In 1909 (he had been in law practice in Oakland after leaving the Eastern Sierra in 1906) Wallace was appointed Receiver for a troubled minerals company engaged in borax recovery on Searles Lake. His work there, which lasted through 1917, was carried out under trying circumstances but was hugely successful. Road building, exploratory and production drilling, construction of a large processing plant, and the building of the town of Trona were initiated during his stay there. He subsequently became Los Angeles manager for the company which owned the Trona operations. Those operations, under different owners, continue to this day. The value of the mineral reserves in Searles Lake, first carefully explored after Wallace arrived on the scene, is currently estimated at 250 billion dollars.

Today in Trona one will find Austin Street, and lingering fond memories of Austin Hall, the social, cultural, and commercial center of town life for 50 years. (10)

Austin St and Main St sign in Trona

Corner sign in Trona.
Click on the sign for a SLIDE SHOW of Trona and environs and some S. W. Austin memorabilia.

I haven't run across any evidence that Wallace engaged in plant collection after leaving the Owens Valley. He kept yearly diaries during his years in Trona which chronicled his management, but not personal, activities. The diary for 1914 did reveal an apparent vacation trip to Hawaii, and there is a photo of him and some Trona men on a fishing expedition (see the SLIDE SHOW), but mostly it seems that life for Wallace was a relentless nose-to-the-grindstone matter. A perusal of his diaries makes it appear likely that he was just too busy to do much botanizing, too busy doing things like thwarting claim jumpers, acquiring land, travelling to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. to attend to legal matters, all the while micromanaging (11) affairs at Trona. He was, in the words of a Trona historian giving tribute to the man who so successfully saw the minerals company and town through numerous difficulties, "a fighting man". (12) Still, during wet years especially, he must have cast a wistful eye on spring blossoms in the desert and foothills around Searles Lake.

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  1. Some biographies of Mary Hunter Austin:
    • Lanigan, Esther F. 1989. Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick. Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson.
    • Austin, Mary. 1932. Earth Horizon. Univ. of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
    • Webster, Beverly. 1992. Owens Valley's Mary Austin. The Album, V(4):43-51. Chalfant Press, Bishop, CA.
    • Rush, Elizabeth. 1998. Desert Maven, Desert Maverick. California Wild (California Academy of Sciences)
    • Thanks to the Eastern California Museum in Independence for access to their files on Mary Austin.
    1. These dates, gleaned from the sources in (1) and (2) may be incorrect; other information that has come to hand indicates that he became Superintendent of Schools in 1894, and Register of the Land Office at Independence in 1898, a post he held until 1909. I will attempt to clear this up for a later update.
  2. Chalfant, W. A. 1933. The Story of Inyo. Chalfant Press, Bishop, CA.
    1. Kahrl, William L. 1982. Water and Power. UC Press, Berkeley. See pp. 75-79, 107-108, 119-121; Wallace stirred up a hornet's nest which forced Los Angeles interests to publicly acknowledge their efforts to acquire Owens Valley water, and which led to the dismissal of the Bureau of Reclamation's agent in the Valley, Joseph Lippincott.
  3. Austin, Mary. (1) In the index of Earth Horizon she lists these entries under Austin, Stafford Wallace:
    . . . unsuccessful as a vineyardist, 227; unsuccessful irrigation project at Lone Pine, 233-36, 239; . . . ignorance of economy and lack of foresight, 241, 242; never looked with his wife, 243; . . . no well-defined way of life, 269, 270; made no use of his success in teaching, 270; failure to grasp significance of his situation, 271; . . . always expecting, 284, 285; . . . clings to Inyo County, 294; hereditary taint, 294;
  4. Rush, Elizabeth. (1)
  5. Lanigan, Esther F. (1)
    1. Pearce, T. M. 1979. Literary America 1903-1934. The Mary Austin Letters. Greenwood Press. Pearce included one of Wallace's letters in this volume, preceding it with a brief biographical sketch. Somewhat distressingly the sketch differs from biographical details given by others and includes some clear errors. He gives Wallace's dates as 1860-1932, while data in the museum of the Searles Valley Historical Society give them as 1861-1931. He quotes from Wallace's death certificate; I have since acquired a copy of that certificate, which contains these data: born in Hawaii, May 16th, 1860; died in Los Angeles, Sept 12, 1931. Mary's brother, George Hunter, M.D., signed the death certificate; Wallace had been a patient of his since 1925.
  6. Wilson, Carol Green. 1955. Alice Eastwood's Wonderland: The Adventures of a Botanist. Calif. Acad. Sci., San Francisco.
  7. The holotype of Penstemon austinii Eastwood is listed among the type specimens in the herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS 918; Fiche No:203/A4).
  8. Ertter, Barbara. 1988. C. A. Purpus: His Collecting Trips in the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley, California, 1895-1898. in Hall, C. A., Jr., and Doyle-Jones, Victoria (eds), Plant Biology of Eastern California: The Mary DeDecker Syumposium. Univ. of California. pp. 303-309.
  9. Thanks to Tony Morosco, Botanist, CalFlora & Digital Library Project, UC Berkeley, for his help with this search.
    1. Nilsson, Karen B. 1994. A Wild Flower by any other Name. Sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants. p. 91. Yosemite Association.
  10. Many thanks to Margaret (Lit) Pipkin Brush, curator of the Searles Valley Historical Society in Trona, for giving me access to the Museum's Austin materials. The value of the mineral deposits in Searles Lake bed was given by Jim Fairchild (long-time chemical engineer with the company at Trona) during an oral presentation to a meeting of the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert in Ridgecrest, October 18, 1999. Further thanks to Margaret Brush for a transcript of an article on Wallace's death, which appeared in the Trona Pot-Ash of September 19, 1931. The following is an extract from that article:

    He practiced law in Oakland from 1906-1909. At this time he came to Searles Lake as receiver for California Trona Company. He conserved the holdings of this company as receiver and later as President until its dissolution in 1926.

    He represented this company and its successor, the American Potash and Chemical Company, in acquiring titles to their properties at Trona. From 1919 to April 1929, Mr. Austin was Manager of the Los Angeles office of American Trona Corporation and American Potash & Chemical Corporation. Since this time until his death he executed various special missions for the corporation.
  11. Trona Mercantile

    Trona Mercantile Co. ca. 1915-1920
    (From a page on David Stevens website, used with permission)

  12. The last entry in his last Trona diary (Nov. 30, 1917) begins "Tom Swaile today reported that the following quantity of fruit had been harvested from the Joe Peterson Garden and delivered to Trona Merc. Co." Then follows a list of items (Pears - 990 lbs, Figs - 735 lbs, etc.). Throughout the diaries there are frequent references to payments for supplies delivered or for work done, to hirings, and other details.
  13. George Pipkin, father of Mrs. Brush (10), lived and worked in Trona for some decades beginning in 1928. He wrote books and articles on desert personalities and events, including a series of articles published in regional newspapers during the 1960s called "Desert Sands". In one of the latter he paid tribute to Austin Hall - discussing its central place in Trona history for 50 years - when it became known that the Hall would be torn down. He also paid tribute to Wallace in these words:

    Austin Hall was named in honor of S. W. Austin, who was the husband of Mary Austin, author of the book, " Land of Little Rain." Mr. Austin was serving as registrar at the public land office at Independence, when, in December 1909 [Mary Austin seems to imply in Earth Horizon that he lost that job in 1906], he was appointed by the united District Court for the northern district of California as receiver for the California Trona Corporation, the predecessor of the American Trona Corporation. It was his duty to take over the properties and perform the necessary assessment work to protect the claims on dry Searles Lake. The group of claims comprising some 3320 acres was under his juridiction, when, in 1910, C. E. Dolbar a former manager of the California Trona Corporation, and his associates attempted to take possession of the building on the property, Mr. Austin and his men were successful in thwarting the attempt. Later that year in October, another claim jumping party of 44 men appeared on the scene, headed by Henry E. Lee, an Oakland attorney. The party consisted of three complete surveying crews, the necessary cooks, helpers and laborers and about 20 armed guards or gunmen, who were under the command of the legendary Wyatt Earp, were fought off by Mr. Austin and his associates. A U. S. Marshal was called in, and he arrested the entire party, including Wyatt Earp, and carted them away.

    Mr. Austin, and his associates were also in the thick of the legal fight which was waged from 1909 to 1918 over who was entitled to rightful ownership of the valuable claims on Searles Lake. In December, 1917, he and his committee, representing the American Trona Corporation appeared before the law board and Secretary of the Interior at Washington D.C. They presented a strong case and won out against the protestants. In 1918 the Department of Interior issued four patents, covering the 3320 acres, to the Company. [In 1926 American Trona Corp. became American Potash and Chemicals Corp.]

    If and when Austin Hall is demolished, it is our earnest hope that a historical monument will be erected on the spot in commoration to a fighting man, S. W. Austin, and to Austin Hall the old building which so proudly bore his name.

On October 23, 2002, a plaque in memory of Austin Hall and its namesake was erected at the former site of the hall. The plaque reads:


Austin Hall, the much loved focal point of the Trona community, once stood on this site. Built in 1912 the unique structure, with its one-foot thick concrete walls, boasted 45 arches on three sides. The building provided a cooling shelter from the blazing heat with its patio center and oleander trees. Early employees were housed and fed in its spacious rooms and eventually all the town's businesses were housed here. The patio became an open-air theatre with adjoining pool hall, a barber shop, post office, library, grocery and department store, and a telegraph office with a switchboard for the single phone line into trona.

The building was named for Stafford W. Austin, the court appointed receiver for the troubled California Trona Company. Austin guided the company through its evolution from the John Searles owned San Bernardino Borax Mining Company to the enventual successful American Potash & Chemical Corporation. The building was removed in 1965.

Plaque placed by the Searles Valley Historical Society, Trona, CA in 2002.

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