Quarryhill becomes Sonoma Botanical Gardens

It will be a blend of what it has always been – an Asian garden filled with rare, cultivated imported plants surrounded by California natives, something Scot Medbury calls “Cal-Asia.” But now, the gardens formerly known as Quarryhill Botanical Gardens are called Sonoma Botanical Gardens, a renaming that is part of a reimagining of the 67-acre estate on Sonoma Highway in Glen Ellen.

Medbury was brought in as executive director of Quarryhill in February, 2020 -- just before the pandemic broke out here, there, and everywhere. He immediately saw potential for honoring the gardens’ legacy while appreciating the region’s native species.

“Caring for the Asian garden is our first responsibility,” he said. There are some 2,000 species – mostly rare and endangered brought across from Asia over 30 years of collecting and development. But the Asian plants that make up the gardens require more water than do the California natives, and water is a precious commodity.

“We shouldn’t expand the irrigation footprint at all,” Medbury said.

Three Springs Ranch, purchased in 1998, is a 22-acre section of the property that has largely been left alone; it is covered with chaparral, seven oak species, native wildflowers and some threatened plant species, all of which Medbury said deserve recognition and celebration.

The meandering slope of what will be a new trail at the garden is symbolic of what the executive director sees as the future of a local gem. The new “California Trail” is being developed to take visitors on a path through oak woodlands, past native wildflowers, a waterfall, and barns that will be used for shade and interpretive learning.

There is a lot of work going on – the barns are getting needed repair and painting, non-native plants are being removed, and fire mitigation efforts are underway. The lower canopy of trees is being lifted so that when – not if, Medbury said, but when – a fire comes through it will burn grasses, underbrush and tree trunks, which are able to withstand fire.

“We are lifting the canopy to make way for the fire, because the fire will come,” he said.

Removing lower branches of trees helps fire pass through on the ground and prevent the tops of trees catching fire where embers can fly off and away potentially spreading fire to other trees and structures.

The gardens faced the wrath of the 2017 fires and the historic 1964 Hanley fire, and will likely burn again, he said. But these plants “were born to burn,” he said, and the land will recover.

The topography and entrance to the Asian gardens is a barrier to some, and Medbury said the new California Trail will make it more accessible. The trail is a gently rising slope that will allow mobility-challenged visitors a path through the native growth to the Asian gardens, which are located on hilly terrain of the property in what was once a quarry.

The quarry is how the botanical gardens got its original name. But as the topography created a barrier, so too does the name Quarryhill Botanical Gardens.

“I don’t think people understood it,” said Harvey Shein, a board member. “Many people thought it was a winery,” in part because the gardens do have a vineyard in front, he said. Yet Quarryhill is “known more around the world and in major horticultural institutions than it is in the U.S., the Valley and regionally,” Shein said.

This is where rebranding comes in, and Medbury’s expertise in this area. Medbury is well known in the botanical garden and horticulture circle, and has a pedigree that includes overseeing the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens for 14 years, and renovating San Francisco Botanical Garden and Conservatory of Flowers, to name a few.

“He is the perfect executive director now as we talk through” reimagining the gardens, Shein said. “It seemed like you needed a Ph.D. in horticulture to understand these plants.”

Jerry Newell, chair of the board of directors at Sonoma Botanical Garden, said the name change will bring “a closer identification with our community, including both the town of Sonoma adjacent to our Glen Ellen location and all of Sonoma County. We are the only botanical garden in the North Bay and want to make certain our community knows we’re here. We want our friends and neighbors to come and experience this unique destination.”

In addition to a native plant gardens, Medbury sees other opportunities for Sonoma Botanical Gardens. Serving tea seems a natural as it ties in with both Asian and native herbal concepts. He envisions renovating and repurposing the house that garden founder Jane Davenport lived in, too.

Medbury also has plans for improving the overall presentation of the gardens and facilities by including more way-finding signs – he has already replaced “Quarryhill” with “Sonoma” on existing signs – to make the walk through the gardens more meaningful and friendlier.

Medbury believes that the Cal-Asia and a “glocal” concept may help people develop an appreciation for all plants and nature. Those who love the Asian gardens and the effort in preserving those species may fall in love with California natives, too.

The two ecosystems are different, but they are intertwined by a need to be preserved, he said.

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