When driving through Glen Ellen on a lovely spring day, it is easy to miss the small red and white sign for Quarryhill Botanical Garden. The unprepossessing entry gives no hint that tucked into the skeleton of an old quarry in the Mayacamas foothills lies one of the most important botanical gardens in the world.
Quarryhill Botanical Garden is home to a 25-acre collection of rare and endangered Asian plants growing in lush profusion among the flowing waters and hilly cliffs of an old quarry. Many of the plants in the garden are the progenitors of our common garden favorites such as the rose, camellia, dogwood, peony, wisteria, rhododendron, lily, and maple. How interesting to see the original rose that was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century and bred into our beloved garden roses. Quarryhill welcomes the public to come have a look. In fact, Quarryhill is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary on Saturday, June 2, with a Spring Celebration.
The purpose of a botanical garden like Quarryhill is to conserve endangered species and educate the public about the importance of these conservation efforts. All of the plants are grown from seeds collected on expeditions in the wild. The nursery at Quarryhill banks some seeds for future study. Some are germinated and placed in the garden or shared with other institutions. Plants from Quarryhill are in botanical gardens all over the world. In fact, Quarryhill is ranked third in the world for its conservation collection of maples, and ninth for its conservation collection of magnolias.
A botanical garden is like a “zoo” for plants. It is a place to see and preserve unusual and endangered species, but generally doesn’t have enough genetic diversity in the gene pool of its collection to reintroduce the species to the wild. An exception at Quarryhill is the 200-tree conservation grove of Acer pentaphyllum, a maple native to Sichuan, China near Tibet. It is hoped this grove provides enough genetic diversity that it can one day be used as a source for reintroducing the tree to its native habitat.
Quarryhill was established in 1987 when Jane Davenport Jansen decided to start a conservation garden with her own funds. She became acquainted with an English Lord, Charles Howick, who was starting an arboretum on his property in Northumberland. Jansen and Lord Howick approached the famous Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in England, about cooperating in an expedition to collect wild seeds in China. In the fall of 1987, Quarryhill undertook its first expedition. Since then, it has mounted month-long Asian expeditions every fall. Jansen funded the garden privately until her death in 2000. She left a small endowment for the garden that still provides some of its funding.
William A. McNamara, the current Executive Director of Quarryhill, joined his first expedition in 1987 and has gone on annual collecting trips nearly every autumn since then. Life as the Executive Director of a botanical garden is anything but tame. These trips in search of native seeds have taken him over treacherous mountainous roads in wild Asia. He has fallen into rivers, pulled leeches from his bloody boots, and nearly stepped on deadly poisonous snakes.
Sometimes McNamara has the chance to observe animal behavior while he is studying the plants. Once on the island of Yakushima, off the coast of Kyushu, Japan, a band of monkeys watched McNamara as he climbed through the Idesia polycarpa, or Igiri tree, picking the colorful orange seed pods and putting them into bags. When he climbed down from the tree, the monkeys jumped into it, greedily grabbing the seeds pods and smelling them. Discovering nothing delicious about the pods, the monkeys threw them to the ground. McNamara says that this was truly a case of “monkey see, monkey do.”
Quarryhill is celebrating twenty-five years of conservation with a Spring Celebration Lunch on Saturday, June 2, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The all-day event includes docent-led tours, a plant sale, a silent auction of unusual plants, a bento box lunch and a speech by Warren Roberts, Superintendent Emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum. The price of this event is $45 for members of Quarryhill, $55 for non-members and RSVP’s are required at www.quarryhillbg.org.
If you can’t make it to the spring event, you can see this remarkable collection Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last entry at 3:00 p.m. (closed major holidays). Docent-led tours can be scheduled, but an excellent self-guided tour map is provided at the entrance. Water fountains are thoughtfully provided throughout the garden. General admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students, and free for seniors on Tuesdays. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary, the garden is free on the twenty-fifth of every month this year.
But keep an eye out for the sign—it’s easy to miss.