Kenwood plant lover was selling natives before native plants were cool
Few gardeners were talking about native plants 50 years ago. Pesticides were popular and many people thought nothing of taming nature to suit their tastes, no matter how exotic or unsuitable their plants were for California’s summer dry climate.
But a small group of horticultural enthusiasts looked around the Sonoma County landscape at the manzanitas, iris, buckwheat, fuchsia and other plants that naturally thrive here and decided Mother Nature knew best when it came to landscape design. Under the leadership of the late Betty Guggolz, a self-educated botanist, the Milo Baker chapter of the California Native Plant Society was born to help preserve and protect the state’s native flora.
It was 1972, two years after the first Earth Day. That year the fledgling group held their first plant sale in Old Courthouse Square, selling an array of plants rarely seen in area nurseries. A few passersby might have dismissed the offerings as weeds. But these plants were native to California and Sonoma County, grown by those first members in their own gardens.
It was the beginning of a revolution in gardening. On Oct. 9, at the west Santa Rosa nursery it shares with the Laguna Foundation, the society will hold its 50th annual plant sale, with 2,300 plants, all adapted to Sonoma County and all naturally adapted to withstand the area’s long dry season. And right there in the thick of the volunteers at the sale will be Liz Parsons.
The 80-year-old Kenwood gardener has been a key coordinator of the annual sale since 1977, another year when the state was suffering an extreme drought. With the death of Guggolz last year at age 96, the affable Parsons, who seems to always be smiling, is now dean of the group she joined in 1975.
She was taking horticulture and field botany classes at the time, after moving to Sonoma County from Illinois in 1971.
“It was just so interesting. California was so different from Illinois, with six months without water. Whereas Illinois was green all summer,” she recalled.
Although her college degree was in psychology, she took up plant science, combining botany and horticulture. Growing native plants seemed the perfect nexus of the two.
For 30 years, Parsons has gardened on a 1.7-acre plot at the end of a road along a creek in Kenwood. It’s a pretty spot, with mature trees and a St. Francis Winery vineyard spreading out on the other side of her fence. Just up the highway is Adobe Canyon Road where Milo Baker, the beloved Santa Rosa Junior College teacher for whom the society chapter is named, lived and gardened until his death in 1961.
“It’s nice to remember him because he was a premiere botanist of the North Coast,” said Parsons, taking shade under a new arbor in her garden.
Parsons almost lost her house in the Nuns fire that bore down on Kenwood in 2017. Half the houses on her street were destroyed. While her own home was spared, her garden, one she had created with her late husband Milton Van Sant, was not.
But Parsons, ever the optimist, replanted, making a smaller garden this time. She is no less happy and finds it more manageable now that she is in her 80s.
Parsons is not a strict purist when it comes to natives. She plants what she loves. But the garden is primarily one of natives. At this time of year, it is aflame with coral and orange California fuchsia, including a cultivar she discovered on her property and which now bears her name, “Liz’s Choice.’
It has been featured at the fall plant sale many times in the past although it will not be this year. But there will be very similar varieties.
“We have eight different cultivars of California fuchsia, so plenty to choose from,” said Betty Young, who oversees the sale as well as the nursery where the society grows all its plants in a carefully controlled environment to stop the spread of pathogens.
Parsons loves the California fuchsia, which is splashing color all over her garden, because it blooms at a time when the landscape is otherwise so dry and lacking in color.
She is particularly fond of a vignette that takes center stage in her garden that includes fuchsias, with a backdrop of Arctostaphylos ‘White Lanterns,’ a manzanita rarely found in nurseries. It is carried by the local native plant nursery Cal Flora. It is densely mounding and heavy-blooming, with clusters of white blossoms that open from pink buds. It has a long bloom in late winter, providing cool-weather beauty and nectar for hummingbirds and bees. Once established in full sun to light shade, it requires little to no irrigation.
Within the same grouping is a Salvia leucophylum ‘Pt. Sal,’ a low-growing purple sage that presents pinkish whorls of flowers in spring.