Nature Notes: Curious Mrs. Pychowska

This mystery lady was from East Hampton and extensively botanized the South Fork in the late 1800s

The author Thomas Berger died recently. After “Little Big Man” one of his titles was “Sneaky People.” It portrayed a kind of negative utopia where women dominated in the business world and elsewhere, and their rise to eminence was based on deception and craftiness. Farcical as his novel was, many would say that’s how men came to rule the corporate and political spheres, and in many cases they would be right.

Women are rapidly catching up but they still severely lag in recognition in some of the arts as well as in math and science. The annual Nobel Prizes were first handed out in 1901. Up until 2013 only one woman, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, had won the prize in physics. Women did better in chemistry; three made it to the top — Marie Curie, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Ada Yonath. In physiology and medicine, the only other Nobel science category, women did better. Rosalyn Yalow, Barbara McClintock, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, Elizabeth Blackburn, and Carol Greider were crowned. Rosalyn Yalow worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for a time, while Barbara McClintock was at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider became co-laureates in the same year. Ten out of 330-plus winners (not counting duplicate and triplicate males) translates to 3 percent, not a big showing by any means.

I wondered how women fared in the biographical pages of the most popular print dictionary in America, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Admittedly, mine was old, published in 1990. I went through the A and B names, 970 of them only, and found 37 women, or 4 percent, not so different from the Nobel Prize percentage of women in science.

Things are definitely changing. Birdwatching is second to gardening among the top American hobbies. Today, there are as many female birders as male birders, and almost as many female naturalists as male naturalists. But, when I was taking my first steps as a beginning naturalist 65 years ago it was hard to find a woman to practice with and learn from. All of the established naturalists were men. All of their tutors were also men.

There is one female botanist who shows up in the early literature concerning the flora of Long Island. She is a mystery to me as I have never been able to find anyone who knew her. I had heard of her and seen her name here and there in New York State Museum publications. Earlier this year I came upon a copy of “The Flora of Long Island” written and published in 1899 by a Pennsylvania psychiatrist and neurologist, Smith Ely Jelliffe. Several of the plants listed for Long Island were found by this mystery lady, Mrs. L.D. Pychowska. She was from East Hampton and extensively botanized the South Fork in the late 1800s, before Long Island’s great naturalist, Roy Latham, who was active through the 1900s until 1979.

Today if I find a plant I can’t identify in the field I take my smartphone and ring up Go Botany, and 9 times out of 10 I will be able to assign a name to it. In the 1800s after the Civil War there were not field guides to the wildflowers like Peterson’s or Newcomb’s to name two popular ones for identifying northeastern United States plants. There were bulky tomes, descriptions often written in Latin, and pen-and-ink drawings, very few photographs and certainly no color photographs.

In that era, one collected and pressed plants between sheets of newspapers or blank papers, putting weights on the pressings to flatten the specimens. One had to know another botanist or travel to a museum in New York to identify a given plant. But here is this curious woman, Mrs. Pychowska, who traveled by foot and sometimes by horse and buggy to get around. She checks out the plants on Sammy’s Beach in East Hampton, in Springs, Amagansett, and elsewhere, collecting this and that one, describing it in longhand, pressing it, perhaps sending it off or hand-carrying it by train to a museum in the city.

What motivated her? There was not glory or gain to be gotten by way of botanizing native plants in the late-19th century. It must have been curiosity. Yes, curiosity. She found rare species in spots where they still exist today. For example, she found and correctly named, scientifically, the yellow-fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris, on a roadside in northeastern Springs. This very rare orchid is listed as endangered in New York State. It must have been rare at the time of her discovery as well, for Mrs. Pychowska got around and yet she found that species only in one small patch, the very place where it barely survives today.

There aren’t too many of us plant watchers. The odds of finding a new species are next to nil. Yet just finding one plant that you have never seen before keeps you looking for another and another and another. It’s also a pastime that you can do until you’re 90. Roy Latham was near blind and very decrepit in his late 80s when he led some neophyte botanists to a rare orchid patch in Greenport. It is said by those who were there that he crawled the last 100 feet and used his sense of smell and touch as much as his poor eyesight to find it.

In my eyes, botanizing, especially in the company of fellow enthusiasts like Karen Blumer or Victoria Bustamante, is one of the most joyful experiences one can know. And it is particularly pleasing in your own backyard, i.e., on the South Fork and an island or two in the Peconics. I sure would have liked to have accompanied the late Mrs. Pychowska on one of her walks. I could have been somebody.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at