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GARDENS : CALL OF THE NATIVES : Gathering Wildflower Seeds in the Mountains and Deserts,Ed Peterson Preserves Southern California's Plant Heritage

January 10, 1988|NANCY SPILLER | Nancy Spiller is a Los Angeles-based writer.

THIS OCTOBER MORNING IS near the end of the seed-collecting season in what has been a very dry year, Ed Peterson warns in his high, sprightly voice. The 82-year-old retired gardener for the Los Angeles City School System doesn't want anyone's hopes raised too much as to what might be found. "Some things didn't even bloom this year," Peterson says. "Others didn't set." He'll be happy if he can add to his collection of penstemon--a low, trailing bush with small, bright, trumpet-like flowers. "I'd like to pick up some rabbit brush, too," he says, his pale blue eyes optimistically scanning the horizon from beneath the brim of a squashed porkpie hat. Wild buckwheat, its countless varieties known to Peterson, tints the San Gabriels rust red as he and I head up the Angeles Crest Highway. The mountains are hidden in the late-fall smog as we leave Sun Valley by way of the Tujunga Wash, but the higher we get and the further from civilization, the cleaner the air becomes, and the sky returns to its original blue. Ed Peterson is an anomaly of the Southern California landscape. In the summer and fall, he regularly ventures into what remains of the surrounding woods and fields to collect the most basic of nature's creations--seed. From the chicken-egg-size seed of the California buckeye tree to the microscopic seeds of the monkey flower, he methodically gathers, cleans and prepares hundreds of species for distribution through the Theodore Payne Foundation for Native Wildflowers and Plants in Sun Valley. For the past 25 years, the foundation has been his excuse for wandering in the outdoors.

While four-wheel-drive vehicles and low, sporty cars zip by at a hectic pace, our van travels at trolling speed, as if we were fishing. "It's better than fishing," Peterson says. "We always come back with something."

He knows the road well, able to predict which plants will be growing at what bend, construction site, telephone pole or mile marker. He knows the life cycles of the plants just as intimately and can identify them not only when they're lush with bloom but also when they're withered with age and gone to seed.

While taking a moment to admire the Big Tujunga Dam, Peterson catches from the corner of his eye a healthy redbud planted at the edge of the parking turnout. "We wouldn't be above taking some of that," he says in his gentlemanly fashion as he reaches into the back of the van for a brown paper bag. A few crunchy handfuls of the pods are gathered, and the bag is marked "redbud--Tujunga dam."

In the course of a year Peterson estimates that he collects no more than 20 pounds of seed, the bulk of that weight being acorns and walnuts. The foundation will sell about 200 pounds worth, but most of that comes from commercial sources. What Peterson collects are the esoteric items, of more interest to botanical gardens, government agencies and scientific institutions than to home gardeners. He's shipped California native seed as far as Israel and Bangladesh. Peterson, who has a degree in botany from UCLA, class of '30, became involved with the Payne Foundation as it was getting off the ground in the late '50s. "Mr. Payne," as Peterson always refers to him, was a nurseryman who came to Southern California from England at the turn of the century to collect plants to take back home. California natives were all the rage in England and today continue to be more popular in British gardens than they are here. Payne noticed even then that development and the landscaping notions brought by Midwesterners to the area were eliminating the natives. Payne made California his home and, as a nurseryman in Los Angeles, attempted to cultivate an appreciation of local flora among the populace.

"It was difficult to make a living selling natives back then," Peterson says. "Now, we're fortunate; there's a growing interest in drought-tolerant plants, and we do a good little business."

We stop along the roadside to investigate a stand of rabbit brush, alive with bees. It's too early for seeds, though, and attention is drawn away from it by plump bushes of Spanish broom, filled with fragrant, orchid-like blooms. Peterson shuns it.

"Those aren't natives, they're a nuisance," he says. "A lot of non-natives were planted along the highways because they're colorful. Even the forest service planted them. They do tend to replace the natives. People think there should just be natives. After all, that's what gives you the local flavor."

The prime lesson he's learned from his years gathering is that seeds must be opportunists to survive. "They grow where the conditions are right," Peterson says. "In the process of evolution, they've come to take advantage of certain conditions. On deserts, they have wings. They'll blow or be rolled by the wind until they stop beneath a bush or in a hollow. That's where it's damp the longest in the desert and where they've got the best chance of survival.

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