Glen Ellen’s Quarryhill Botanical Garden is having a spectacular spring

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If You Go

Hours: Open daily 9am-4pm

Address: 12841 Highway 12, Glen Ellen

Phone: 707-996-3166

More information:

Upcoming events

“Wild Collections: Expeditions for Education” fundraiser, May 18, 5:30pm-8pm; $145/$125

“What’s in Bloom Walks with Bill,” final walk May 16, 10am-noon; free

Bill McNamara pauses under the dappled green light of heart-shaped Katsura leaves, China’s largest broad-leafed deciduous tree. Under a large Iigiri tree, he recalls monkeys watching as he collected its orange berries for seeds on the Japanese island of Yakushima.

Delicate Lady Banks roses border an arched bridge over placid ponds. Foraging ducks quack among water lilies, gifts from UC Berkeley. A Cooper’s hawk circles high overhead. The garden teems with butterflies, buzzing bees, and other pollinators.

McNamara points out a spectacular salmon-colored rhododendron, adding that China has almost 600 native rhododendron species.

The fragrant big-leaf magnolia is a showy beauty. But McNamara’s favorite is the endangered, hanging white wilsonii. Hiking in Sichuan, he found just one fruit, from which he could get only six seeds—two of which came here. That original site in China has since been clear-cut. Fortunately, the seeds proved viable.

As to garden highlights, McNamara has, after 32 years, and on the eve of his retirement, a succinct but clear answer: “Diversity in such a small location.” Seeing large groups of a single genus, like maples, together, is impossible in the wild, he points out. Of some of the rarest international maple species, 99 are in China, and 46 are here.

Painstakingly raised by McNamara and his colleagues over the past three decades, Sonoma Valley’s secluded Quarryhill is an exotic garden of exceptional biodiversity, vital to international researchers. Distinguished by multiple prestigious awards, McNamara, 68, will retire in October. A May 18 fundraiser for the garden’s educational program will be his last, and his final guided walk, “What’s in Bloom Walks with Bill” will be May 16 (see sidebar).

Recently McNamara led a guided walk at Quarryhill, starting by profusely blossoming Cherokee rosebushes. The garden contains the world’s most important collection of wild roses.

The Evergreen Dogwood is a May-June bloomer with large cream-colored flowers, from Sichuan, China.

Quarryhill is renowned worldwide as one of the West’s largest collections of wild-sourced Asian plants, started from seed and unhybridized. This wild woodland garden isn’t fertilized, and is barely pruned. Important scientifically, it’s also a tranquil haven for the general public — in any season, but especially spring.

Visitors can enjoy photography, birding, waterside picnics, or meditative self-guided strolls along shaded paths.

Founder Jane Jansen started her private garden in 1987, on a former quarry property purchased in 1968. It’s now 25 acres of exclusively Asian plants. McNamara graduated in 1975 from the University of California, Berkeley. A landscaper, he came to Quarryhill in 1987, eventually becoming executive director (2007), then president (2015).

He’s been going on Quarryhill’s international sourcing expeditions ever since the first, to Japan in 1987. McNamara worked with horticulturalists from London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Northumberland’s Howick Hall Arboretum, other international institutions, and local botanists; seeking plants in Japan, China, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

Asia’s development and habitat destruction threatened its plants—which Quarryhill selects according to rarity, preserving genetic materials for research.

They developed a searchable database; sharing plants, seeds, and information with botanic gardens, arboretums, scientists, and the public throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. The garden’s approximately 25,000 plants represent almost 2,000 species.

These exotics are unlikely to become invasive, McNamara says. Quarryhill collects in warm temperate regions of Asia; but here rain falls in winter, so escaped seeds transported by birds or wind would likely die in the dry summer heat.

If You Go

Hours: Open daily 9am-4pm

Address: 12841 Highway 12, Glen Ellen

Phone: 707-996-3166

More information:

Upcoming events

“Wild Collections: Expeditions for Education” fundraiser, May 18, 5:30pm-8pm; $145/$125

“What’s in Bloom Walks with Bill,” final walk May 16, 10am-noon; free

McNamara’s worked with a staff of 16, and over 100 volunteers to create and preserve this repository of plants nearly extinct in the wild. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

He earned a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology in 2005 at Sonoma State University. Among other honors, in 2010 he received the Scott Medal and Award from the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College; and in 2017 both the American Horticultural Society’s Liberty Hyde Bailey Award and Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal — three of the highest horticultural honors available to Americans.

California is another of the world’s most biodiverse areas. McNamara recognizes the need to save native plants, and hopes to start a native garden at Quarryhill.

Conservation is crucial because all species are interrelated, and affect the health of our planet. Scientists estimate current worldwide losses at 50-200 species daily, and that by 2100, half of the earth’s plant and animal species will be gone.

Quarryhill’s upcoming annual fundraiser “Wild Collections: Expeditions for Education” seeks community support for its science education program. Guests can savor Asian cuisine and cocktails in the garden, accompanied by harp and flute (see sidebar). Also, rainforest canopy biologist Meg Lowman will speak on the importance of science education.

With a goal of inspiring future scientists and nature lovers, Quarryhill approached Sonoma County elementary schools, hosting over 1,000 4th and 5th graders last year. McNamara is very proud of the program.

Retirement won’t be spent resting on his achievements: He intends to keep writing for scientific journals, and to continue as an ambassador for Quarryhill.

Lectures are planned in Nanjing, China, and Kolkata, India.

McNamara says his animist beliefs, that we’re of nature, “seem so obvious to me.” But with agriculture, “We thought we could control nature. We think of ourselves as separate.”

With wild natural habitats vanishing, the real value of botanic gardens, he says, is “Seeing how important plants are, how we’re completely dependent on them: for oxygen, water, food, clothing, building materials, seeing a beautiful sight…. We need this green stuff for sanity.”

Tibetan prayer flags mark the garden’s highest point, offering breathtaking views of Glen Ellen (including fire scars). The flags signify goodwill, but also the transitory nature of life. The 2017 wildfires came to Quarryhill’s border, burning the irrigated honeysuckle camouflaging its fences (the sprinklers connected to Quarryhill’s ponds, replenished by its creeks and wells, are thought to have stopped the fire).

Fortunately, the garden and McNamara’s home survived. Nature is resilient: pines have evolved to reproduce with fire; and burned madrones, oaks, and bay laurels are resprouting.

Modest about his accomplishments, McNamara says, “I’m so fortunate to have this as my career. I’ve seen some of the most amazing scenery in the world, but my favorite is to tell people about it.”

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