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.
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.