Desert Notes: Eastwood’s Monkeyflower

Robin Patten

Photos by Robin Patten.

The alcove was shallow, though its back wall was shaded, seeping with enough moisture to support a modest hanging garden. With autumn taking hold, most of the plants had decayed into crumpled leaves and drooping stems, yet within the brown was a bit of green and a flame of color. Eastwood’s monkeyflower still bloomed in that alcove habitat, its brilliant red blossom fresh and vibrant in the sheltered site.

The hanging garden was unexpected and the monkeyflower even more of a surprise. I’d walked near that alcove many times, but not to that very spot where the red caught my eye, so bright in the shaded space. I gasped in sheer delight, for in all my wanderings of recent years I’ve not come across the plant. Any nearby lizard or raven might have been startled by my exclamations: “Oh! What a joy! What a beauty! Yes, yes!”

Eastwood’s monkeyflower, Mimulus eastwoodiae is a small gem, its scarlet flower about an inch long, blooming out of a short stalk of deep green leaves. The flower looks somewhat like a single snapdragon flower, and in fact the plant was once considered part of the snapdragon family, Scrophulariaceae. In the way of taxonomy, things have changed, and it is now in the lopseed family, Phrymaceae. Like several other alcove plants, the monkeyflower is endemic to the canyonlands of the Four Corners region, growing here and nowhere else in the world. It is a unique plant, and inspiring in its beauty.

Mimulus eastwoodiae is named for Alice Eastwood, a botanist who explored southern Utah in the late 19th century. Digging through a history book, looking for information on the Wetherill brothers, I’d read about her the same morning I came across the flowering alcove. While walking, I thought of Eastwood and the monkeyflower who honors her, for this woman intrigues me. My thoughts drifted away to other things as I meandered, until something lured me off into an unplanned direction, where I found the alcove with its hanging garden of red blossoms.

Only later did I realize the synchronicity. The joy of the flower carried forward.


Alice Eastwood lived from 1859 to 1953, a time when Euro-Americans were exploring and colonizing the American West, a time when women usually held roles of wife, homemaker, mother. Eastwood never fit into those molds; she was apparently a “feminist, Sierra Club member, and flouter of social conventions.” [1]  Following her passion for the natural world, Eastwood turned from the norm of the time to become a highly respected botanist.

A skilled student, Eastwood was offered a teaching position at her own Denver high school immediately upon graduation. During her years of teaching, she studied the available botanical texts and guides, educating herself in the skills of the discipline. In 1889, at the age of thirty, Eastwood stepped off the teaching track to devote herself to botany. Five years into her botanical career, she was hired by the California Academy of Sciences, one of the few scientific institutions of that time that supported and hired women. Her contributions to the field were large and lasting: she named 395 plant species, published 310 scientific articles, and had 17 species named for her.

Not one to cloister herself in an herbarium, Eastwood often ventured into the field, traveling extensively as she identified and prepared plant specimens. Her influence was widely felt, especially in Colorado, California, Utah, and the Four Corners region. She joined Richard and Al Wetherill at the Mesa Verde archeological site from 1889 to about 1895 and traveled with Al Wetherill on lengthy collecting trips in southern Utah.

Working in a male-dominated field, Eastwood doesn’t fit the usual image of the 19th century explorer-scientist. She brought her own flair to her work, an inspiring and unexpected presence in the desert.


Weeks after that first finding, I came across another hanging garden with an abundance of monkeyflowers, a swath of flowers against rich green foliage. This was more than a scattering; it was a profusion of red, spread across the sandstone where water seeped from rock. Eastwood’s monkeyflowers reproduce with stolons, or runners, that reach out to cover large areas, a fact that might explain the abundance, but does not begin to capture the impact of such a display. 

There is an image of “desert” carried in thought, running through literature, supported by ecological fact: the desert is a dry and rocky place, heat and aridity shaping its character, scarcity and absence prevailing, brown and beige and terracotta hues the theme. Yet within that environment are rich hanging gardens, an integral part of the desert, their flowers and foliage a delight in juxtaposition to the stonier side of “desert”.

 There is a sense of discovery on coming across the unexpected, especially when it is scarlet and spectacular within that desert subtlety. There is an elation on finding such things, a “Yes, yes!” spark of wonder at the beauty of the natural world – what I felt each time I came across gardens blooming with Eastwood’s monkeyflower.

Of course, Euro-Americans are rarely if ever the first to discover any of the diverse species that grow in the high deserts of southern Utah; the indigenous people knew and still know the plants and animals that reside within this region. The red flower now labeled as Mimulus eastwoodiae most certainly had a previous name, and its small fruit, a four-chambered capsule, was apparently not only eaten but also used as a cure for hiccups by at least some Diné.[2]


Because of her work with the Wetherill brothers at Mesa Verde, Alice Eastwood is considered one of the early paleoethnobotanists, identifying numerous plants used by the indigenous peoples. She determined what plants were cultivated – primarily corn, bean, and squash – and took the artifacts found by the Wetherills to sleuth out what species were used in the making of sandals, clothing, and other aspects of the peoples’ lives. Her notes include observations such as “Coarse grass with stiff stems, Oryzopsis cuspidate, was tied into bundles to make brushes, probably for their hair.”[3]

Eastwood ventured off into the desert with Al Wetherill on collecting trips during those years at Mesa Verde. On the first journey in 1892, she traveled in Utah from Thompson Springs, down through Moab and Monticello to Montezuma Creek then headed east along the San Juan River. She joined Al in 1895 for another expedition, this time heading west through Bluff, riding under Muley Point then turning up John’s Canyon. In those two trips she collected 475 specimens and identified 19 new species, writing reports and preparing collections that provided a “baseline study of the San Juan flora.”[4] She also proved her worth as an intrepid outdoorsperson and horsewoman, adapting her skirts to ride astride. This was a woman comfortable in rough camps and the intense canyonland environment.

Yet, Eastwood was of a different ilk than most of the field scientists of her time, holding a deep respect for “the sacredness of life,” and acknowledging the uniqueness of the living beings around her.[5] This passionate regard for the greater community of life was the foundation of her botanical work and fostered her dedication to preservation. The website for Arches National Park’ notes Eastwood’s unique view on the plants she observed and cataloged in the Canyonlands area.

“So distinct, so individual are those blossoms that they seem to have souls. They speak a wonderfully enticing language to draw the wandering insects to their honeyed depths…The bands of color on both divisions of the perianth are bewildering, impossible to describe; but more than aught else, they cause each flower to say proudly, with uplifted head, ‘I am myself; there is no other like me.”[6]

She might have written that last about herself.


It was Per Axel Rydberg, not Alice Eastwood, who “discovered” Eastwood’s monkeyflower in 1911. I wonder that Eastwood herself didn’t find the plant, though perhaps she was in the region at the wrong time of year to see the flowers, or didn’t take that unplanned turn that took her to an alcove holding a scarlet abundance.

I suspect my own sense of discovery pales next to what Rydberg must have felt, for I already knew of the flower’s existence. To come across something so unique and vibrant, with a flair of its own must have excited a sense of wonder. Did Rydberg also exclaim aloud on finding the flower, startling a lizard or two?

And when finding this brilliant red blossom in the midst of the desert, a surprising and charismatic endemic, did Rydberg immediately think of Eastwood? It seems an eloquent choice, the flower that now holds her name a fitting tribute to a woman who took her own elegant style into a man’s world and made a difference in the understanding and appreciation of desert life in southern Utah. 

[1] Aton, J. M., & McPherson, R. S. (2000). River flowing from the sunrise: an environmental history of the lower San Juan. Utah State University Press.

[2] BRIT – Native American Ethnobotany Database

[3] Quoted in Gulliford, Andrew. March 2020, Durango Herald. “Pioneering passion for plants: Botanist Alice Eastwood explored the Southwest.”

[4] Aton and McPherson.

[5] Aton and McPherson.

[6] Quoted in “Alice Eastwood”, National Park Service,