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Ed Peterson, 100; Seed Collector Helped Preserve California's Native Plants

November 20, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Ed Peterson, a wildflower expert who helped preserve California's native plants by collecting and cataloging seeds for 40 years as the primary seed gatherer of the Theodore Payne Foundation, a Sun Valley group that promotes the preservation and use of indigenous plants, has died. He was 100.

Peterson, who celebrated his centennial last spring by camping under the stars in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, died in his sleep Monday at Kingsley Manor Care Center in Los Angeles, said his niece, Jeanne Reyes.

In 1962, he founded the seed-collecting program a few years after meeting Payne, the British horticulturist who dedicated his life to preserving California's flora after arriving in Los Angeles in 1893.

When Payne failed to find someone to carry on his work with native plants at his 10-acre nursery on Los Feliz Boulevard, he started an organization in 1960 that would. "Mr. Payne," as the gentlemanly Peterson always referred to him, died three years later at 91.

Peterson, who earned a bachelor's degree in botany from UCLA in 1930, helped establish the foundation and soon became its head seed man.

"He was a superb amateur botanist and an expert on the propagation of native plants from seeds," said Bob Cates, historian of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club, which Peterson joined in 1938.

Even when macular degeneration caused him to become legally blind five years ago, Peterson continued to go into the mountains and deserts with friends to search for seeds and identify native plants after hearing them described.

"We still took him out seed collecting because of his incredible memory. He could always pull the Latin names," said John Cox, a friend and fellow volunteer. "He was a very good-hearted, calm person, and there's few of those around."

Seed hunting, Peterson once enthused, was better than fishing, because "we always come back with something."

Collecting nature's most basic creation -- seeds -- helped "give purpose to my life," he said in a 1998 interview. "It has kept me going through these years."

Over the course of a year, Peterson estimated, he collected no more than 20 pounds of seed, about a tenth of what the foundation annually packaged and sold. Much of the rest came from commercial sources.

Often by himself, Peterson wandered into the woods and fields, or stopped by the roadside to gather the seeds of native wildflowers and shrubs. He then cleaned and packaged the seeds for sale.

He knew the Santa Monica Mountains so well he could predict where a clump of purple lupine would pop up or lead an expedition to a backcountry spot where California poppies bloomed in carpets.

One of his favorite jokes about collecting was "search and re-search," said Holliday Wagner, the foundation's nursery manager who began working with Peterson in the seed department in 1994.

"He loved to play with words," she said as she explained the joke: First you had to find the plant whose seed you wanted to capture, then guess when the plant's seeds would be ready to collect and go out and "re-search" -- or find -- the plant all over again.

Edward Leslie Peterson was born April 8, 1905, in Los Angeles, the eldest of four sons of Claus and Alice. His Swedish immigrant father was a third-generation tailor who had been lured west from Iowa by the Alaskan gold rush.

Peterson grew up in Hollywood near Western and Franklin avenues in a two-story house his parents started building in 1908. Milk was delivered over the back fence in a five-gallon pail, courtesy of a neighbor's Jersey cow.

When he was 6, his family began spending summers in Idyllwild, a full day's journey by trolley, train and stagecoach. The trip was simplified once the family bought a Model T in 1921.

After high school, Peterson worked at Beverly Hills Nursery, then at Doheny Drive and Sunset Boulevard, for three years before attending UCLA.

Afterward, he spent 25 years as landscape supervisor at Los Angeles City College.

At 70, he married for the first time. His wife, Gladys, was a retired kindergarten teacher whom he met on a church outing. She had never camped before but quickly learned, and they were married 13 years. She died in 1990.

In the late 1940s, Peterson won a contest to name the newly launched newsletter of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.

The name, Southern Sierran, "came to me immediately," he said in the publication earlier this year. "We were all Sierrans and we were in the south part of the state, so it just seemed natural."

His wordsmith skills earned the man who would become the chapter's oldest member a lifetime subscription to the newsletter.

In addition to his niece, Peterson is survived by a brother, Wilbur, of Grant's Pass, Ore., and a nephew.

In the spring, his ashes will be scattered at Mt. San Jacinto, where he camped as a child with his brothers and first learned to appreciate the wilderness.

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