Bill McNamara is Glen Ellen’s ‘Indiana Jones’ of rare plants

For a onetime landscaper from California, it was a Cinderella moment - standing beneath the glass vaulted ceiling of the Edwardian Lindley Hall in London, accepting one of the world’s highest honors in horticulture.

The crowd that applauded American Bill McNamara as he accepted the prestigious Veitch Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society on Feb. 22, included finely dressed members of England’s titled gentry and some of the biggest names in the botanical realm over which Great Britain still rules.

“It was such a big honor, it was a shock,” said McNamara, now comfortably back in his bluejeans at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, a refuge for rare and endangered Asian plants that he gathered himself from seed in wild and remote corners of China. In just 30 years, a mere baby in the world of botanical gardens, Quarryhill has come to be considered one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world, numbering close to 2,000 species plants in their natural form, unchanged by man through hybridization.

No less than Steve Blackmore, director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and “The Queen’s Botanist,” nominated the man from Glen Ellen for The coveted Veitch Medal.

In June, the quiet-mannered McNamara, 66, will travel to Alexandria, Va., to accept the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, the American Horticultural Society’s highest honor, for significant lifetime contributions to horticulture.

He received the prestigious Scott Medal in 2010 from the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, an award reserved for people who have made “an outstanding national contribution to the science and the art of gardening.”

With the announcement of the most recent awards, McNamara enters a rarified world. He is one of only seven people to receive all three of what are considered the highest horticultural honors available to an American. And he is the only one of his peers to receive high honors from the American and British societies in a single year.

“It’s the highest award we give. It’s an enormous honor for whoever receives it,” said Holly Shimizu, the interim director of the American Horticulture Society who leads its awards selection committee. McNamara, she said, stood out for his unerring commitment to conservation.

Giving them a home

She likened collections such as Quarryhill to the work of pre-eminent zoos whose mission is to preserve species.

“With Chinese plants,” said Shimizu, “he’s giving them a home and then nurturing them and then having them thrive and, in some cases, being able to get them back to China where they’ve become rare, extinct or otherwise not available.”

McNamara has been described as botany’s answer to Indiana Jones, an explorer who sometimes calls upon his training as a third-degree black belt in Aikido to face down danger and potential death in his mission to find and rescue rare plants on the brink of extinction.

“He is extremely knowledgeable and a good plantsman,” said Tony Kirkham, director of Arboretum, Gardens and Horticultural Services for London’s internationally known Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Quarryhill adviser. When you are in the field you need to place lots of trust in your fellow plant hunters as you often work in harsh and hostile conditions with poor places to stay at night.”

“He once saved me from a snake when we were in Hokkaido,” said Kirkham. “I hadn’t seen the snake, and he pulled me away from it as it was about to strike.”

Dr. Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the United States, said McNamara is in the tradition of 19th-century explorers who set off for China, one of the richest botanical areas of the world for species of plants beloved in horticulture, such as roses and rhododendrons and maples.

“He’s really brought out more plants and has been a more effective explorer for wonderful horticultural novelties than almost anybody,” said Raven, who also is a Bailey award recipient and another Quarryhill adviser.

Rising stardom

McNamara is having a hard time grasping his own rising stardom.

In recalling his recent trip to London, McNamara’s most awestruck moment came before the award ceremony, when he attended a meeting of the International Dendrology (the study of trees) Society, held in Linnean Hall at Burlington House. The building is named for the great Swedish botanist and physician who came up with the binary nomenclature for identifying plants and animals and who spent most of his time in London.

“All kinds of august things happened there. In one of the rooms we were in there was a plaque that said ‘It was in this room in 1859 that Darwin and Wallace first discussed the theory of evolution with the public. Being in rooms like that with all these people ...” his voice trails off, at a loss for words.

The garden that is bringing to McNamara international acclaim is 25 acres of exuberance hugging a rocky hillside in Glen Ellen. The pebbly paths scrolling through a dense landscape of flowering shrubs, tall conifers, wild roses, irises and magnolias on the verge of exploding, offer the only hint that this garden didn’t just spring from nature.

In fact, much of it was designed and planted by McNamara and a small team literally from the ground up - every plant and every tree started from seed collected in the wild, brought back to Quarryhill, cultivated in the garden’s greenhouse and then placed in the ground as a seedling. There are now 5,000 plants with more added all the time - with everything placed so it looks like it grew there naturally.

The beginnings

The property was purchased in 1968 as a weekend home by Jane Davenport Jansen, heir to the Southern-based Krystal fast food restaurant fortune, who planted vineyards.

McNamara first met her around 1985 when she hired him to install a small landscape outside her country home, now offices for Quarryhill. By that time she already had in her mind a vision of a garden and nursery, such as the famed Western Hills in Occidental, spreading over the hillside.

It seemed impossible. The land was pocked with depressions that pooled with water in winter. They were remnants from the days when the land was quarried for road gravel. The vegetation was a dense thicket of madrones growing from stumps and knob cone pines, airdropped after the 1964 Nun’s Canyon Fire destroyed the natural vegetation.

McNamara said Jansen was inspired by another landscape designer but when the pair had a falling out, McNamara saw an opportunity. He initially volunteered for the project simply for the love of it.

“I quickly said, ‘I can’t continue doing this for free.’ So I got a small stipend and pretty soon I unloaded my business and was here full time,” he recalled.

Self-taught, McNamara fell into landscaping by necessity. Raised in Palo Alto, he paid his way through UC Berkeley - where he studied English - working at nurseries. That experience cultivated his love of plants. A summer spent as a firefighter for the California Division of Forestry in the Santa Cruz mountains, sparked a special fascination with conifers.

After graduation, he returned to nursery work to raise capital to travel the world. When he finally returned home he fell back to what he knew.

The responsibility of supporting a growing family prompted him to launch his own landscaping company, which led him to Jansen.

Garden showcase

It was decided the garden would be a showcase of Asian plants from temperate zones that could live in the Sonoma Valley’s Mediterranean climate. McNamara volunteered for the first plant-hunting expedition to northern Japan in 1987, traveling on his own dime with Lord Howick - “Charlie” to McNamara - master of the renowned Howick Hall Gardens in England, home of Earl Grey tea. The two became fast friends and have since shared many adventures in their search and rescue effort.

With China rapidly developing, McNamara feels an urgency to gather as much as possible before the bulldozers arrive. He recalls hunting down a prized Magnolia wisonii, with its fragrant hanging white flowers, on a mountainside in 1992.

After searching hours in dense forest they found only one tree, with only one fruit from which they collected only six seeds.

“Two went to Howick Arboretum, two went here and two went to Kew. Each of us germinated only one plant. I went to the same mountain two years later, and it had been clearcut and planted with spruce trees with a plantation for pulp,” McNamara lamented.

“When the plants go extinct, the animals that depend on them go extinct. And it’s completely ignored,” he said. “Most biologists who are aware of this are convinced that by the end of the centurym if current trends continue, we will lose half of all animals and half of all plants will be gone.

“There will still be plants and animals everywhere. But they will be the weedy species that can adapt to human-disturbed habitats. Like rats, coyotes, and crows, and in the plant world, pampas grass and French broom.”

A find can produce a thrill that to a botanist is like scoring the holy grail. For McNamara that moment came in 2001, when he found a Chinese maple that had been collected in 1929 and successfully cultivated for trade from a single surviving specimen at San Francisco’s Strybing Arboretum.

But in the wilds it was elusive. McNamara began searching for it in 1988. In 1991, he heard rumors it was in a certain valley. But a road washout forced the search party to turn around. It would take another 10 years to actually get back to the location, where they found a small stand of seven trees, from which they gathered seeds.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said, “when you find something like that.”

Another triumphant find was a Chinese tea rose, a key parent to all roses in horticulture known to occur in three places. A friend sent McNamara a seed from one in the Himalayas. He collected another himself in Yunan. But the holy grail was thought to be within the treacherous opium growing hills of Burma.

The American Rose Society coveted it but couldn’t find anyone to risk the journey. McNamara took up the gauntlet,

He followed the field notes of Sir Henry Collett, the last botanical explorer who had collected it, in 1888, The British officer described its location as a hillside, 4,000 and 5,000 feet, between the 19th and 21st parallels.

“So we hired a driver and we crisscrossed all these bad roads within those parameters,” said McNamara. “Within three days we were about to give up. The land was pretty much devastated.”

Small mountain

They she spotted a small mountain dotted with temples. On a hunch, they found someone to take them to the top.

“About two-thirds of the way up I yelled ‘Stop!’ There it is.’ It was right on the side of the road, a big sprawling thing with a big giant flower,” said McNamara.

“Now, we have one growing here. It created quite a sensation in rose societies.”

McNamara’s frequent traveling companion is his second wife, Joanna. The pair, who between them have five children, live in a house on adjoining land that Jansen purchased before her death in 2000.

Writes for journals

Right now McNamara continues his fieldwork, missing only one annual expedition in 30 years. As executive director, he oversees a staff of 15.

From his office in Jansen’s old house, where a giant map of China consumes one wall, he writes articles for scholarly journals. In 2005, he earned his master’s degree in conservation biology from Sonoma State University.

During Jansen’s lifetime, Quarryhill was only known to people in the plant science world, remaining under the public radar.

But McNamara is on a mission to turn that around. It’s a question of survival. Jansen left an endowment to maintain the garden, but they’re drawing down the funds.

They recently built a small amphitheater for outdoor presentations and are working on beefing up memberships. They’re hoping to spread the word that the garden is open to the public for self-guided tours and picnics.

He dreams of creating a California native plant garden on the still open site.

McNamara describes himself as an “animist,” who believes that everything is alive, even rocks.

He feels passionate about being a champion for the world’s fragile flora.

“We’re completely dependent on them. The rich diversity is central to how we evolved as a species,” he said.

“I’m also completely convinced that although most of the world does not (agree), that every species, even the lower ones, has intrinsic value in its own right. It has a right to be here - because it is here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter ?@megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette