Sherwin Carlquist (1930–2021)
by Scott Zona*
Asked to write down some of my memories of Sherwin Carlquist and his contributions to Botany, I scarcely know where to begin. His passing on December 1, 2021, brought to a close a life well lived making tremendous contributions in the fields of ecological wood anatomy and island biology. He spent his career and his retirement doing what he loved: indulging his curiosity about how plants adapted to their environments. He died with his boots on, having just returned a revised manuscript to the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
Sherwin (he preferred that grad students call him by his first name) had a stellar career doing everything wrong. He had only one job at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (now the California Botanic Garden); he didn’t seek bigger or more prestigious offers. He worked in the Anatomy Lab, not the eponymous Carlquist Lab. He paid no attention to impact factors and scoffed at the idea of publishing in “prestige” journals, preferring to publish in society journals and RSABG’s own journal, Aliso. He rarely showed his face at scientific meetings and didn’t spend most of his time chasing grants. In short, he did precisely the opposite of what young scientists are encouraged to do these days. Nevertheless, he earned a peerless international reputation through his published work. When I was starting my field work, I learned just how well regarded he was: I needed only to mention that I was his student, and doors opened for me.
Plants always held his interest, even as a youngster in southern California, where he grew up a short bike ride away from the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. He credited the Huntington for igniting his nascent interest in plants. As an adult, Sherwin began his professional career in the 1950s and early 60s, just as jet travel became affordable and available to places like Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Japan, etc. His field trips took him around the world, especially to Australia, South Africa, and islands in the Pacific. His advice to me, when I prepared for my first field trip abroad: Take less clothing and more cash. You can always buy tee-shirts wherever you go.
Sherwin had the luxury of time to explore his field sites (a “luxury” sometimes imposed by infrequent airline service). He wisely used the time to observe plants in their native surroundings. Like Darwin, Wallace, Beccari and Humboldt, he observed nature. In seeing plants in habitat, he saw how they grew, their environment, and how they responded to stress. He often attributed his success in the field of ecological wood anatomy to seeing the living plants from which he took his samples, rather than simply relying on xylarium samples (although, of course, he valued xylaria – wood repositories – and contributed samples to them).
During his travels, he collected with remarkable foresight. He would collect wood samples of his target genera, but he also used his time to collect samples of any other unusual, endemic, or atypical species. By doing so, he banked enough wood samples to last him most of his career and well into retirement.
It was on his first visit to Western Australia in 1962 that he began looking for triggerplants (Stylidium spp.) in the field. It was not a research project; it was just something he did to amuse himself. He loved learning about new plants, and triggerplants, with their amazingly rapid style flexure, were alluring and endlessly fascinating. He had, as his vade mecum, Rica Erickson’s “Triggerplants,” published in 1958. During the 1962 trip, and again 1967 and 1974, he found species that were new to science. Not one to shy away from taxonomic work, he described 51 new taxa over the years, including nine taxa co-authored with Allan Lowrie in the late 1980s and early 90s. Subsequent workers have reduced some of his taxa to infraspecific status, but for the most part, Sherwin’s work, inspired by his hobby and his passion for the organisms, still stands. For his contributions to Stylidium taxonomy, Lowrie named Stylidium carlquistii in his honor.
Sherwin was softspoken and painfully shy (which explains why he avoided conferences whenever he could). He was not the extrovert who could strike up conversation with ease or engage in airy cocktail party banter. He was, however, a fierce critic when his opinion was sought. He didn’t mince words when he reviewed papers with poorly supported conclusions or cherry-picked observations. During the 1970s, when vicariance biogeography gained ascendence, Sherwin’s work on long-distance dispersal was sometimes portrayed as quaint and old fashioned. He stuck to his conclusions, supported by his own innumerable observations, and later, when molecular phylogenetics took center stage, the molecules supported Sherwin’s hypotheses of long-distance dispersal. Sherwin had little time for biogeographers that invoked disappearing land bridges and other geological dei ex machina but doubted that a bird could transport a seed.
Likewise, based on his careful studies of wood anatomy, he concluded that many woody plants on islands (and island-like areas) were derived from herbaceous ancestors. He believed these plants were secondarily woody, not ancestrally woody. He concluded that the tree-daisies of the Juan Fernandez islands, the fabulous Hawaiian lobelioids, the amazing Echium species of the Canary Islands and Madeira, and others evolved from herbaceous, continental ancestors. He concluded that the woody senecios and lobelias of Mt. Kilimanjaro were newly evolved, not ancient relicts, as some had believed. Again, the molecular data have come down on the side of secondary woodiness. His anatomical studies have been much used by the systematic community; more than 100 of his publications are cited on the Angiosperm Phylogeny Website.
Sherwin’s life was not without its dark clouds. His relationships with his mother and sister were strained and tenuous, for reasons that he never shared with me. Even as a young scientist, he was both brilliant and unapologetically gay, which elicited professional jealousy and homophobia from some colleagues. He rose above all of it, pursuing science (and photography, his other love) to the fullest. If those wounds left scars, he never revealed them.
Sherwin once told me that the best way to be remembered is to write your own obituary. I’m told he followed his own advice and prepared an obituary, to be published elsewhere, that focuses on his scientific output. His personal website recounts many of his achievements in his own words. Both will burnish his reputation as one of the greatest botanists of his generation, but neither will tell you about the kind and generous man I knew as my mentor and friend. In an obituary published in the Santa Barbara Independent*, Dana Campagna wrote, “He taught so many to risk being an outsider, to think critically, access courage, and find enormity in the everyday.” That is the mentor and friend I knew, and that’s how I’ll remember him.
*Scott Zona is a US botanist, currently research collaborator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-editor of Palms, the journal of the International Palm Society. Dr Zona was the Palm Biologist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (1993-2008) and curator of the Florida International University Wertheim Conservatory (2008-2017). Scott did his PhD under the supervision of Sherwin Carlquist.