Making a Botanical Garden
by Mary Jasch
On summer mornings the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean for about a mile inland and covers the gardens and towns of Mendocino County, California. Like the finest rain, it gives tame and wild gardens their daily drink till the sun burns yellow through the mist, creating an air of mystery.
Cool morning temperatures can rise into the ‘70s, a “heat wave” by local account, and sometimes in winter during the rainy season, a light frost sets in. The Mendocino Coast with its Mediterranean climate is the perfect plant Paradise, the place for inspiration and the place where plant nuts, plant collectors and hybridizers of many genera gather to bask in their passion. It’s also the place where these very kinds of people started a special botanical garden.
It all began in 1961 when Ernest and Betty Schoefer bought land to fulfill their dream of having a garden full of flowers for all to enjoy – 52 acres of forest and coastal bluffs between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Highway in Fort Bragg, California. Ernie made mass plantings of mums, daisies, watsonias, crocosmias and dahlias to create his “47 Acre Flower Land to the Sea.”
“His focus was on pretty gardens,” says Mario Abreu, Natural Areas Curator, Plant Collections Curator and Naturalist, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (MCBG). “Over time local collectors informed the idea that collections were important, too.”
Ernie’s acres became embellished from the mid ‘60s to early ‘70s when the slathering of plant nuts who lived in this way-Northern California area got together and donated from their diverse collections of iris, heath, heather, rhododendron, azalea, fuschia, dahlia, rose, begonia, magnolia, succulent and conifer. Plant societies formed throughout a 30-mile stretch of coastline. Major hybridizers and collectors of species rhododendrons donated plants and started the local Noyo Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. Rhododendron, being the strongest collection, would eventually become MCBG’s signature plant.
Mostly, the plant philanthropists wanted to field test their plants. People in the trade came to look with checklists. Documenting and naming began. Years went by; the gardens grew and the people cleared the land to the ocean bluffs. Visitors came to see the flowers and locals enjoyed access to the ocean for fishing and abalone diving. “All this energy came together to bushwack and build a garden,” Abreu says.
What drew 2,500 or so plant people to the Fort Bragg area? Climate, ocean, views and the rural nature of the towns, Abreu says. “All these really cool people who were specialists wanted their plants in this garden. That’s really wonderful. We’re a big collection of all these collections. We found which works for us.”
Time passed and Ernie turned the land over to his son who sold it to a group of local investors known as The Land Partners in 1978. They wanted beautiful plantings for the houses they would build, but when they shut down the garden and ocean access, it infuriated everybody: collectors who donated plants for the common good; hybridizers who gathered to judge, name and register their good plants; locals who used ocean access; and those who knew that building houses on the headlands would destroy habitat.
They petitioned The California Coastal Conservancy who bought back the inland-most 12 acres from the Land Partners. The Conservancy turned it over to the Mendocino County Parks and Recreation in Fort Bragg. In the late ‘80s, the nonprofit Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Preservation Corporation was born.
The Conservancy funded the purchase of the remaining 35 acres of natural areas with rare plants, steelhead trout in Digger Creek (now Fern Creek), a water source for the gardens. In 1991 it was official and the land became the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. They hired a director, one gardener, one business person and took on volunteers to handle events and sell tickets. Staff is now 22.
As the Gardens’ collections grew, so did a dilemma that forced a decision: all further collections must be curated by either the donor or society member. Rhododendron donations accelerated with donations of over 80 plants of 10 species of big leaf rhododendrons by Dr. Paul Bowman, who developed ‘Noyo Chief’, MCBG’s mascot, and nurseryman/hybridizer John Druecker brought azaleas. Well-known West Coast hybridizers Dr. Len Charvet and Peter Schick donated more than 250 specimens found largely in temperate rain forests. Many undocumented hybrids live on the banks of Fern Creek Canyon and add to the prehistoric flavor of the path that leads to the headlands.
More than two-thirds of the known, tender rhododendron species in the world live at MCBG, according to Pacific Horticulture. The collection today includes 125 species and more than 190 cultivars. Most are native to Burma, China and Tibet. Many are endangered and rare.
Collections kept coming. The local fuschia society wanted a place in the gardens too. They planted in the woodland garden and took over a display house. Marlene Rainman brought over 2,000 of her “babies” to begin the succulent collection.
“I came to the garden at an ideal time in its history,” says Abreu. “People with knowledge contributed their collections. I feel fortunate to be there and meet them. We’ve lost history. It was many hands and passions of so many individuals who brought us to where we are now and the business people to keep us alive.”
MCBG is the only U.S. institution with a Heath and Heather collection listed with the North American Plant Collections Consortium, says Abreu. The Heather Garden comprises 167 taxa of erica, calluna and daboecia.
The Heritage Rose Collection is a small garden to those who are used to large ones at other botanical gardens. But knowing its history is enlightenment. Two rosarians, sisters Joyce Demitts and Barbara Hopper, went on a mission to collect roses along the Mendocino Coast from abandoned farms and houses and roadsides – roses brought here in the 1800s that made their way from China or across the U.S. by covered wagon, brought here by families, Abreu explains. The sisters donated a large number of them to MCBG. “Roses that made it to here in unique ways. That is one example of how our collections came about.
“Everyone approached the gardens if they were in a society and asked if they were interested in their collections. The gardens began slowing down in accepting collections because they had no funding to have staff to support that. The gardens had to change their policies for staff and selection of collections,” says Abreu. Now MCBG is working on their conifer collection. “What we have now, that’s what we’ll build upon.”
The gene banking, documentation and creation of a data base by Rick Owings brought MCBG from a public garden to a botanical garden, say Abreu. “With a birth certificate for a data base, you actually have a living museum. It opens up the door for scientific research. Ernie’s dream was more of a flower land, plants to be pretty for a visitor but not the scientific aspect. It’s a distinction as to where we are now.”
Mario Abreu is in charge of six plant collections, heads the plant propagation unit and teams of volunteers with a focus on education. “If we can keep them interested and educated, we can keep them for years. They are our ambassadors for the collections of fuschia, heather, begonia, dahlia, heritage rose and native plant garden and provide education to the public.”
MCBG is within a natural Bishop Pine Forest and coastal bluffs scrub, prairie and riparian corridor and, as such, conservation is a large part of the mission of the Gardens. Visit MCBG. The Garden by the Sea is well worth the trip.
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published July 31, 2014