The gentle seed of the native revolution

Times Staff Writer

LIKE so many Californians, the man who would become synonymous with the campaign to save our fluttering wildflowers wasn’t born here. Rather, Theodore Payne was born in Northamptonshire, a no-nonsense belt of middle England. Orphaned in childhood, he emigrated from Britain as a young nurseryman in 1893. By his death in 1963 at the age of 91, he was not just a paid-up Californian, but also one of that distinctly independent subset: a Southern Californian.

The decision to champion our vanishing flora evolved slowly. Payne was observant, scientific by nature -- not a blowhard. The cause that bears his name came from a lifetime spent collecting seed in a then largely virgin California.

On his arrival, for lack of a job involving his propagating skills, he took a laborer’s position at the Orange County ranch of Helena Modjeska, or as she was known, “Madam Modjeska,” the Polish Sarah Bernhardt of her day. Madam loved roses and part of his job was to keep her collection alive.


Years later, in the memoir “Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties,” he recalled what it took. “Drawing water from a well ... was the only way to keep them alive,” he wrote. “The first day I worked at it all morning and started again after lunch. By 2 o’clock the well was empty. The next day I emptied the well before noon and a few days later by 11 o’clock.”

During his off hours, he explored the canyons and beaches, encountering plants that had evolved to thrive without summer water. There began a lifelong passion for collecting wildflower seeds, including ones for Mariposa lilies and blue larkspur. Back at the ranch, he tended the prize exotics of the day: birds of paradise, gazanias, cannas.

When he set off to make his fortune, he had the wit to work at Germain Seed Co., one of the many nurseries operating around the Los Angeles area when farms still existed in what is now the midcity. In 1903, he hung out his first shingle in downtown, and, as a canny businessman, did well out of the vogue for palms and eucalyptus, the most prized firewood tree of the day.

In 1914, he shipped 43 varieties of eucalyptus seed to an Italian planting project in Libya and years later received a letter: “You will no doubt be interested to know that fully 90% of all the eucalyptus trees now growing in Tripolitania (about 7/8 of Libya) are the direct descendants of the seed you sent.”

Still, as eucalyptus covered much of California, and evidently good parts of other places, by 1906 Payne was also exporting seeds of California wildflowers -- penstemons, Matilija poppies and lupines. By 1913, he was president of the Wildflower Club of the Southwest Museum and within two years developed a wildflower garden in Exposition Park (later, ironically, turned into a rose garden). As his nursery expanded and moved to Los Feliz, he developed yet more native gardens at Rancho Santa Ana and Caltech and began publishing articles advocating the preservation of wildflowers.

The Theodore Payne Foundation was formed in 1960 to further this work. When he died, he had been named man of the year by California Garden Clubs. But the California being sold to the world in an unprecedented property boom promoted golf courses, green lawns and roses. Three years after his death, a 20-acre site in Sun Valley was donated to the foundation to house the offices and keep a nursery devoted to propagating local plants. In the decades that followed, as extinction threatened the local flora, the debate concerning native plants versus exotics was waged in language that might have appalled the mild-mannered Englishman. However, when the foundation began its garden tours in 2004, it respected its namesake’s legacy and pragmatism. It required that homeowners have only 50% natives.


That same year, the foundation published his collected essays, “Theodore Payne in His Own Words,” in which his gentle voice cut across the fracas.

“Be a good Californian,” Payne urges us. “Be loyal to your own state and keep your landscape Californian, by planting the trees, shrubs and flowers of California.”