Press "Enter" to skip to content

Chronicler of Butterfly Valley’s Killer Lily

Portrait of Rebecca M Austin
Rebecca M. Austin, ca. 1880-1887. [2013-0197], California State Library

Erstwhile school teacher Rebecca Merritt Austin and husband James move to Plumas County from Kansas in 1865, setting up their household in the Black Hawk Creek gold mining camp. When she isn’t cooking or washing for the miners, she studies and collects native plants, some 1,700 specimens in one year.

She takes particular interest in the California Pitcher plant, called Cobra Lily due to its cobra-like features, which grows in Butterfly Valley near the town of Quincy.

“A mystery, full of life and death,” she says of the carnivorous plant.

Austin is the first person to describe in detail how the plant kills its prey by drowning it in secretions and playing host to larvae, which live at the bottom of its long stem and dine on the prey, leaving the nutrients for the plant.

She makes this discovery while feeding the plant raw mutton.

Shows several cobra lilies
Cobra Lilies. From Walcott, Mary. North American wildflowers. Smithsonian Institution,1925. Volume 5. Page 389. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Without any formal training in plant biology, she nonetheless carries on correspondence with leading botanists of her day, including Harvard professor Asa Gray, the most important American botanist of the 19th Century. Austin’s pitcher plant observations are included in Darwiniana (1876), Gray’s defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

She also collects native plants for the Smithsonian Institute and the California Academy of Sciences. She discovers several new plants, starts a business selling native plants to institutions and collectors, and is one of the first botanists to explore plant life in California’s northeastern counties.

Butterfly Valley is designated a botanical area by the US Forest Service in 1976 because of the unique plants there, which include four other insect-eating plant species besides the pitcher plant.