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Only in Arizona: Pioneering botanist braved tough conditions and conquered the peak along with her husband and guide

If the spelling isn’t enough of a giveaway, Mount Lemmon near Tucson wasn’t named after fruit.

No, the dramatic 9,152-foot summit of the Santa Catalina Mountains received its moniker after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a respected botanist from New Gloucester, Maine, who arrived in Arizona after living in coastal California.

It’s fair to say that Lemmon was way ahead of her time. Feminist scholar and author Susan Hallgarth describes the pioneering women who headed west during the rough-and-tumble 1860s as “unwed, unreluctant and unrepentant.”

MORE: Arizona’s ‘Fab Five’: Where are the women now?

After attending college in Massachusetts and teaching art in New York, the single Plummer boarded a train for booming California on a friend’s recommendation. She opened a bookstore in 1869 in Santa Barbara that focused on the serious science works of the day. Her bookstore would later become the foundation of Santa Barbara’s first public library.

Plummer’s Arizona fate was sealed when she attended a botany lecture in 1876 led by her future husband, John Gill Lemmon, and the whirlwind romance was on. After four years of courtship, the two wed and worked together cataloging the flora of the West, which would lead them to the Coronado National Forest in the southern section of the raw Arizona Territory.

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Second time’s the charm

“(The couple) came up the mountain for their honeymoon and to hunt for new plant species,” says Leanne Mack of the Mount Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop. “And the guide who led them was so impressed by how she fared that he recommended naming the mountain after her.”

Up until that point, the only folks to make it to the Mount Lemmon summit were the Apaches and outlaws who hid from law enforcement amid its craggy peaks and dense forest. The Lemmons camped on the mountainside documenting the indigenous vegetation, Sara drawing detailed illustrations.

Their first attempt at the summit approaching from the south failed. The walls of rock, thick terrain and wildlife proved too daunting. They told local officials that they encountered a mountain lion so big that it “carried a huge buck away without dragging feet or antlers.”

After that setback, the Lemmons enlisted the help of rancher E.O. Stratton of Oracle, who knew the area and offered horses for their journey approaching from a route to the east.

“We went to the highest peak of the Santa Catalinas,” Stratton wrote in his memoirs. “and christened it Mount Lemmon in honor of Mrs. Lemmon, who was the first white woman up there. I chopped the bark off a great pine tree on the very top and we all carved our names.”

Indeed, Mount Lemmon remains one of the few North American peaks named after a woman. She and U.S. Army specialist Lori Ann Piestewa must be looking down with pride.

Contact “Only in Arizona” columnist Mark Nothaft at marknothaft.onlyinaz@gmail.com. Send him the weird and fun facts and places found #OnlyInArizona.

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