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Plants Return to Nature in Botanist’s Corner of Sun Valley

Located in Sun Valley--an apt location if only for the name--is the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants. The nonprofit organization was incorporated in 1960 to carry on the work of its founder, botanist Theodore Payne.

Payne, who studied the nursery and seed business in his native England, moved in 1893 to Southern California, where he continued to practice his trade. The botanist soon became interested in preserving the natural flora of his new home, particularly the wildflowers that were being lost to development even then.

He cultivated the seeds of nearly 500 native shrubs, trees and flowers, and sold his plants at a succession of nurseries which he owned and operated for nearly 60 years. He wrote articles and frequently lectured on the subject of preserving wildflowers and native plants.

Left His Mark

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Payne left his mark on many of the Southland’s botanical gardens: He landscaped a wildflower garden in Exposition Park; inspired the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, and worked with landscape architect Ralph Cornell in the development of what is now Torrey Pines State Park.

Today, the foundation maintains three major goals: to make native plants and seeds available to the public, to teach about the culture and uses of native plants, and to preserve rare and endangered species.

The 21-acre facility includes a nursery and growing yard and selling area, nature trails and an alder-and-sycamore-canopied picnic ground. Headquartered in a converted house, the foundation offices contain a library, bookstore, meeting rooms and a seed room. The phone never stops ringing; calls from frantic landscapers searching for natives are deftly handled by propagator Jan Busco, who maintains a protective attitude toward her plants. “They are in no condition to sell,” she states about wooly blue curls. “Maybe in another month.”

The seed room, complete with an ancient seed cleaner, dusty cabinets and refrigerators that house the seeds, is the place where Payne’s primary work continues today. Leading a tour group into the tiny, cluttered former garage, horticulturist Melanie Baer declares: “One of my divine inspirations in life is seeds. They have such persistence.”

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Continuing the tour of the grounds, Baer points out Payne’s favorite California native, the Matilija poppy, and the California flannel bush, both of which should bloom in May. Moving into the cutting garden, she rattles off the scientific names of several of the 40 varieties of lilacs, most of which are in fragrant bloom.

Several rare and endangered species are preserved here, including the Catalina ironweed and a manzanita that is now extinct in nature. “Why should we preserve them?” Baer asks rhetorically. “Because we don’t know enough about them or what their benefits will be. We just don’t want to lose them.”

Although the gardens are equipped with watering systems, they are watered only occasionally. Native plants, Baer reminds the group, are adapted to be drought- resistant. “We aren’t doing anything revolutionary here,” she says. “We’re just trying to emulate natural conditions.”

A dramatic example of the foundation’s success in emulating natural conditions is “Wildflower Hill,” currently displaying a colorful array of at least 25 native wildflowers. The project was started five years ago when volunteer Kevin Connelly began clearing the hill of invasive mustard and grasses. The hill then was seeded with wildflowers, and nature took over.

Although the hill has not been reseeded in more than a year, it offers a larger display than was seen last year. “This self-perpetuating garden is a good lesson for reseeding,” Baer observes. An easy zigzag hike up the hill offers a delightful assortment of blooms, including poppies, lupine, owl clover, cream cups and many more.

The foundation operates a 24-hour wildflower hot line from March through May: (818) 768-3533. Updated weekly, the recorded message provides information about the location and types of wildflowers in bloom throughout the Southland. Its publications include “Exploring Wildflower Country,” several maps, general information about where to find wildflowers, and the information-packed “A Southern California Nature Calendar” by Elna Bakker.

On April 8 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the foundation celebrates Poppy Day with a full range of activities, including educational displays, guided hikes, a sale of selected plants and books and other resources required to create a drought-tolerant garden.

The Theodore Payne Foundation is located at 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, Calif. 91352; (818) 768-1802. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tax-deductible memberships and volunteer opportunities are available.

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