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Practicing a Bit of Botanical Philanthropy

Volunteers from a Sun Valley group hunt down seeds to help propagate California native plants.

September 07, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

In the foothills of the San Gabriels, with paper bag in hand, John Cox gives the soaring yucca a practiced shake.

"This is a good one because the seeds are low," Cox explains as dozens of tiny seeds fall into the bag.

In the summer, Cox and fellow volunteer Holliday Wagner go out almost every weekend to collect the seeds of native plants. Although they insist they are doing nothing especially admirable, the pair are practicing a form of botanical philanthropy. They find and collect seeds for the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the preservation and use of plants indigenous to California.

Some of the seeds they gather end up in one of more than a dozen seed mixes sold at the foundation's Sun Valley headquarters, including a blend that produces vegetation to please the palate of the desert tortoise. Other seeds will be grown into plants, which will then be sold or planted in gardens that demonstrate the virtues of non-thirsty native flora.

For the seed gatherers, every plant on the dun-colored hillside presents its challenges. The seeds of the Yucca whipplei -- commonly called Our Lord's Candle because of its taper-like clusters of white flowers -- are often beyond the reach of all but the tallest collectors. But this particular specimen is low-slung and accessible. Cox and Wagner won't have to spread a bedsheet under it and shake the entire plant to get its seeds.

So far this season, the foundation's handful of volunteers have gathered the seeds of more than 50 species, from Achillea millefolium, or the common yarrow, to Viola purpurea to the handsome yellow goosefoot violet. They are still looking for at least 50 more.

Wagner spots one of their target species. "I see some golden eardrops, which we don't have!" she shouts triumphantly to Cox.

Theirs is a decidedly low-tech operation. They avoid fancy tools and prefer to transport their tiny prizes in brown paper bags. "If you put the seeds in a plastic bag, the whole thing becomes a damp, soggy mess," explains Wagner, an administrator at East Los Angeles College who has a doctorate in plant ecology.

What they lack in pricey equipment, the volunteers make up for in hard-won expertise.

There is no manual offering advice on where to find the elusive seeds. Collectors learn in the field, guided, if they're fortunate, by a veteran seed gatherer.

Theodore Payne, the British horticulturalist who made Southern Californians aware of their botanical heritage at the turn of the last century, was mentored by local Native Americans. Smitten by the California poppy and other natives, Payne eventually made more than 400 species available to home gardeners, selling seeds and plants out of a Los Angeles nursery founded 100 years ago. He died in 1963 at the age of 91.

Carrying on Payne's work, Wagner, Cox and a third volunteer collector, Clare Marter Kenyon, were initiated into the green science by Ed Peterson, now 98, who started the seed collection program in 1962.

Peterson, who knew "Mr. Payne," as he calls him, still joins the occasional expedition, although he can no longer see. Wagner and Cox know Peterson to be a local treasure -- a unique repository of information about native flora, down to the exact hillside where the coveted mariposa lily -- the Calochortus -- or other native is likely to be found.

Peterson's joke about how to collect seeds is that you have to "search and then re-search." Wagner and Cox explain that you first have to find the plant whose seed you want to capture. Next you make an informed guess about when the plant will fruit and its seed will be ready to collect. And then you have to find the plant all over again.

It's a tricky business, as Peterson explained a decade ago in the newsletter Growing Native. The rule of thumb is "to collect a week after the plant blooms. Some say a month. But the plants are all so different, rules of thumb often aren't very helpful.... In the case of Coreopsis, the last petal has scarcely dropped off before the seeds are formed, and if you wait any longer, they'll blow away. In other cases, there'll be quite a good many months between the flower and the ripe seed."

A major complication is that a plant whose seed is ripe often looks nothing like the same plant in bloom. What was once a vibrant green specimen bright with orange or purple blooms may look like a clutch of brown sticks when its seed is ready to gather. So, to maximize their chances of finding a likely plant the second time, the volunteers use a pedometer and carefully note the plant's location. Sometimes, they mark the spot with a discreet Popsicle stick or a bit of yellow nylon twine.

You don't want to draw too much attention to a rare native because of plant poachers.

"Sometimes we'll get to a population we've collected before and people will have taken it all out," Wagner says with a grimace.

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