Quarryhill grows up
1,500 species, 25,000 plants, just a little piece of Eden
“They are like my children,” Josephine Nickolai reportedly said in 1990, when she and her daughter, Dorothy, spent long hours transplanting fragile seedlings into 4-inch pots. Behind them as they worked stretched 40 acres of rough, rocky ground on a steep incline. Like other children, these flourished and grew; they were the first plants that would become the lush haven that is now Quarryhill Botanical Garden, 22 acres of Asian woodland almost anonymous in Glen Ellen.
Back then, seeds hand-collected in Asia were germinated in Berkeley because Quarryhill had only a tiny greenhouse, and the garden was more dream than reality. Jane Davenport Jansen, a wealthy San Franciscan, had purchased the 40 acres in 1968 and built a summer cottage there. Four years earlier a monstrous fire had raced through the area and taken all vegetation with it. Since the conflagration, just a thicket of pines and madrone poked up through the ashes, and the land’s history as the location of several gravel quarries was revealed in scattered rock piles, rubble and pools.
In time, Jansen saw that it could be something else, something extraordinary. She collaborated with the Howick Arboretum in Kew and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, to sponsor expeditions that to gather seeds and plant specimens that would radically transform the site.
Today Quarryhill is truly grown up. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the garden’s tall trees, exuberant shrubs and swathes of flowers, deeply shaded glens and pathways, ponds and waterfalls make the 22 cultivated acres look like they’ve been there forever. A first-time visitor finds it hard to imagine the garden’s barren beginnings, and the fact that every single tree and bush and flower started out in a 4-inch pot.
And there is much more to celebrate: The once tiny greenhouse has become spacious, with a nursery to match. And today’s volunteer might very well be guiding a group of human children—unlike Josephine’s plant children—fourth- and fifth-graders, in fact, through the garden as part of Quarryhill’s new educational program for schoolchildren.
A gift shop has just opened and a heritage rose garden of Chinese roses will be dedicated in July, with Chinese botanists present for the ceremony. Diverse Japanese maples line the creek, and a grove of 200 very rare maples (Acer pentaphyllum), almost extinct due to the construction of 22 dams in their western Sichuan habitat, are being grown here for reforestation in China.
Attention to these maples and others has ranked Quarryhill’s maple collection as third in the conservation of maples worldwide, an astonishing achievement for such a young garden.
It’s truly remarkable that, in slightly more than two decades, Quarryhill has become world-renowned in other ways too. Now the garden is home to one of the largest collections (1,500 species, 25,000 plants) of scientifically documented, wild-source Asian plants in North America and Europe, many of which represent ancestors of horticultural favorites found throughout the Western world, especially roses, half of which originated in China. Awards have been won: Executive Director William McNamara proudly shows off the plaque denoting the prestigious Rose Garden Hall of Fame Award that Quarryhill received in 2011.
For the average Sonoman, maybe a weekend gardener, maybe not, more than anything the garden is a serene and beautiful place right in Sonoma’s backyard that, inexplicably, few people seem to know about.
When the world is spinning too fast and the To Do list is more like a scroll, Quarryhill is just what’s needed. Seat yourself on a bench by a water-lily-filled pond, watch red, orange, turquoise dragonflies zip about, and pick the one you’d want to be.
Read, reflect, meditate in the fragrance of summer lilies and roses, be lulled by the nearby waterfall. The extreme quiet, except for the comforting sounds of nature, the intimacy with the natural world, the absence of crowds, promise to be restorative and perhaps even spiritual. Take in the words of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho that leads off Quarryhill’s Web site: “The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”
Birds and wildlife abound too. The casual walker can see great blue heron as well as hawks and pheasant and quail. Volunteer Gay Collins reported recently seeing a pileated woodpecker, about which she said, “I thought I would never see one in my lifetime.” Otters swim for fish in the upper pond in winter, and over time McNamara has seen coyotes, a bobcat, wild turkeys, egrets. Signs along pathways warn that rattlesnakes make their home here too.
For the avid gardener or horticulturist, of course these acres are much more than a place to find rest. This is, after all, a botanical garden (implying a scientific component), and a unique one at that, where all the plants come from Asia, and many are endangered species brought here to be conserved.
The garden’s mission is “Conserve, Educate, and Cultivate,” and the events and activities there attend scrupulously to these goals. Horticulturists come to speak, garden societies come to tour and learn, scientists come to explore and take note, Master Gardeners give workshops all year long. Seeds are exchanged with other gardens across the world.
All the plants in the garden have been brought here as seeds by Executive Director Bill McNamara, and others who make far-flung and sometimes dangerous expeditions to Asia about once a year to find new specimens. So far, McNamara has tramped and climbed these remote and often mountainous regions for seeds more than 25 times. Plants have been gathered from a wide arc of Asia, curving gently from the west and the Himalayas and Nepal, east through central China and up to Japan. In this swath, the climate is warm, temperate, meaning warm, rainy summers and dry, cool winters, the opposite of Sonoma’s Mediterranean climate but made possible for growing at Quarryhill because of well-draining soil and much natural irrigation for the summer months.
On McNamara’s most recent trip, he concentrated on magnolias, which are rapidly disappearing from China as the bark and buds are used for medicinal purposes there, and are being studied here for antidepressant effects and treatment of certain cancers.
In fact, China’s rapid urbanization has increased the urgency of conserving numerous plant species that are found nowhere else.
McNamara holds a broad view of the interconnectedness of all living things and is convinced that the dying off of plant species, similar to the loss of animal species, could lead to a planetary crisis or even “collapse,” the word he uses. For him, the pressure is intense to save as much as he can while he can.
McNamara’s feelings for the garden at Quarryhill are profound and emotional. Like a proud father, he shows off specimens dried and pressed in Asia and saved between newspaper pages in his office. He comes out to talk personally to groups, both adults and children, who visit the garden. He seems to cherish this land as a perfect merger of science and art. When asked about his favorite place in the garden, he is unable to name only one. “It’s just my little piece of Eden,” he says.
Quarryhill Botanical Garden is located at 12841 Highway 12, just north of Glen Ellen and 7 miles north of the city of Sonoma. It is open daily for self-tours, and docent-led tours are given by reservation. For information about tours, classes and events, call 707.996.3166 or go the Web site Quarryhillbg.org.