Colton High “Fact of the Day” – Oct. 10


Oscar Clarke, a renowned botanist and naturalist, is one of Colton High’s most distinguished alumni. Here he is in 1995, teaching in the field about the habits of desert iguana.

Colton High School opened in 1895. It is one of the oldest high schools in the Inland Empire. In this daily feature, we celebrate Colton High’s rich history.

Renowned botanist and naturalist, Oscar Clarke, was one of Colton High’s most distinguished alumni. Clarke, who graduated with the class of 1937, founded the Herbarium at the University of California, Riverside in 1966, published a book about the plant life to be found in the Santa Ana River region, and was an active educator and conservationist.

Clarke was born in Colton in 1919. It was in the sand dunes of undeveloped Colton that he discovered his love of nature, finding all sorts of wildlife to observe and enjoy. After Clarke’s father passed away, a local ornithologist, Wilson Hanna, mentored the young man, taking him on early morning Sunday trips to collect bird eggs. Hanna helped Clarke discover his passion for botany by studying the plants used by birds to make their nests.

In school, he struggled with a speech impediment, issues with his eyesight, and a distinct shyness that kept him on the margins of school social life. He still found a way to be active in clubs, participating in Colton High’s Latin Club, Chemistry Club, and Hi-Y Club. Clarke also played in the school band.

After graduating from Colton High, Clarke worked a number of jobs, including with the Forest Service as part of their fire suppression crew. He sustained third-degree burns fighting a 1941 summer brush fire in the San Bernardino mountains where California State University now stands. Clarke also tried enlisting in the military before the U.S. entered World War II, however due to his eyesight he was classified as 4-F. The military became less selective after Pearl Harbor, and Clarke was drafted in September 1942. He served as a hospital technician, caring for the wounded.

When the war ended, Clarke entered the world of botany. One of his biggest claims to fame was the rediscovery of a plant that was thought to be extinct since 1933 called Hemizonia mohavensis. This small, yellow, daisy-like, desert flower got Clarke’s attention and he turned over samples to a researcher named Andy Sanders. Sanders finished the research, then took credit for the plant’s rediscovery.

While that was no doubt a frustrating moment in his career, Clarke built upon it by founding and serving as the curator of UCR’s Herbarium. He became recognized as an expert in plant identification. Today, the Herbarium houses over 281,000 vascular plant specimens and more than 16,000 specimens of lichen. It is an essential resource for botanists in California, the U.S., and around the world.

In 2013, Clarke was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and passed away shortly thereafter at home with his family. However, his legacy continues.