Planting a seed
Quarryhill Botanical Garden’s Bill McNamara receives horticulture’s top awards
Sarah C. Phelps
Apple. Walnut. Rose. Maple. Wisteria. Peony. Camellia. What do all of these plants have in common? They all trace their origins back to wild species found in Asian forests, which are the most diverse temperate forests on earth. Many of the ornamentals found in California gardens also trace an ancestor back to Asia. More than 600 species of Rhododendron alone have been identified there. Compare that to two growing natively here in California.
But political affairs, growing populations, climate change and economic pressures threaten many of these plants around the world and species are disappearing at an alarming rate.
“The world is changing very rapidly right now. We are entering an extinction crisis,” said William McNamara, executive director of Quarryhill Botanical Garden, one of the world’s only botanical gardens devoted exclusively to the protection and cultivation of Asian plant species. “One of our goals is to bring visitors to Quarryhill to see how important they are and see that we are dependent on plants for our very survival.”
Quarryhill Botanical Garden, situated on 25 acres in Glen Ellen, has been likened to an ark for endangered Asian plants, collecting, cultivating and preserving the wild gene pool of rare plants that is so important for researchers around the globe. The garden was originally created for personal conservation by Jane Davenport Jansen, heir to the Southern-based Krystal restaurant fortune. Jansen purchased the old quarry site in 1968. Initially she wanted to represent diverse ecosystems from around the world, but realizing what little conservation work was being done in the area of Asian plants, she soon focused her efforts there.
Jansen funded the first seed collecting expedition to China in 1987 with then-landscaper Bill McNamara as a representative of Quarryhill. Since that first seed-hunting trip, McNamara has undertaken similar journeys annually, accompanied by other world-renown botanical experts such as Lord Howick of Howick Arboretum in Northumberland, and representatives from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England. Through this fieldwork, exotic seeds have been gathered from all over Asia, from Japan to India and Nepal, and particularly China’s Sichuan province, one of the most biologically diverse in the world. Three decades of work by McNamara and Quarryhill’s staff, and volunteers who help propagate, plant and maintain the garden, have turned the small garden in Glen Ellen into a spectacular Asian forest containing plants that are almost extinct in the wild.
McNamara shares Quarryhill’s 30th anniversary, but he is also celebrating another accomplishment – actually, two. McNamara is the recipient of two of horticulture’s top awards this year – the Veitch Memorial Medal from England’s Royal Horticulture Society (RHS), and the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award from the American Horticulture Society (AHS). The Veitch Memorial Medal is awarded to people who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture. The Liberty Hyde Bailey Award is given to an individual who has made significant lifetime contributions to teaching, research, communications, plant exploration, art, business, administration and/or leadership. It is a rare distinction to receive these two awards in the same year. McNamara received the Arthur Hoyta Scott Medal in 2010, which makes him one of only seven other Americans who have earned all three of these prestigious horticulture awards.
“I’m surprised, and of course elated, to receive such prestigious honors and both in the same year,” said McNamara. “When Quarryhill began 30 years ago, it never occurred to me that the garden would one day receive such international acclaim and that awards such as these would be bestowed on me for my part. However, the awards are really for the entire staff, board, volunteers, and supporters, as none of this would have been possible without their contributions.”
In receiving these awards, McNamara now joins ranks with some of his greatest horticulture heroes and mentors. “One of the most rewarding things of my career is that I’ve become close friends with so many who are the top of their fields around the world,” said McNamara. Quarryhill board member Katherine Stark Bull, who nominated McNamara for the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, feels McNamara could be considered one of the greatest horticulturists and eco-conservationists living today. “Bill has been working for conservation and horticulture his entire adult life,” said Bull. “He is a wonderful human being, as well as a great botanist.”
“Bill is recognized internationally for the work that he does at Quarryhill Botanical Garden and the plant conservation work that he does tirelessly in China and other countries in the Far East. I don’t know of anyone in the USA who has the drive and passion for this work other than Bill McNamara,” said Tony Kirkham, a director at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of McNamara’s mentors, and a fellow RHS award recipient. “I have travelled and worked with him in China and Japan and have great respect for his authority and knowledge of the flora and landscape. The gardens and collections at Quarryhill and the plants of China would be so much poorer without the time, work and research that Bill puts into the development and management.”
David Ellis, director of communications at the AHS said McNamara was selected for his outstanding leadership and commitment to documenting and sharing research with other institutions and governments around the world.
One project of note, said Ellis, is the Asian plant database spearheaded by McNamara, staff at Quarryhill, and at the California Academy of Science. This searchable online database contains information about all of the wild-collected Asian plants in cultivation around the world and at Quarryhill. The database lets plant researchers find and request plant material from Quarryhill for research such as DNA analysis, molecular studies, phylogenic and distribution studies.
McNamara flew to London to receive the award from RHS at an awards ceremony on Feb. 22. He will travel to Arlington, Virginia, on June 8 to receive the award from AHS.
The next 30 years
Looking forward to the next three decades, McNamara said he hopes that Quarryhill will become a valuable resource for the public, as well. “I want to see Quarryhill play a more important role in people’s learning and appreciation of plants, and that we are dependent on them for survival.” With the garden’s cultivated acreage bursting at the seams, McNamara is beginning to focus his field work on what he calls “charismatic mega flora” – species like the magnolia, which is very endangered in China, that have a special appeal to the western public, too. He also hopes to expand Quarryhill’s student science program, launched in 2008 to provide Sonoma County fourth and fifth grade classes with educational field trips to the garden. Last year, the program hosted 1,400 students.
McNamara will also be watching in anticipation for some of Quarryhill’s endangered Acer pentaphyllum maples to start producing seed, which he will then send back to scientists in China. The maple was introduced to the west by Joseph Rock in 1929, but all of the trees died, save a few survivors at the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. “I was fascinated that these trees were the source of every surviving [Acer pentaphyllum] tree I had ever seen,” said McNamara. It took McNamara 15 trips, but in 2001, he encountered the last known stand of Acer pentaphyllum in the wild, growing in a remote village near the Jiulong River in Sichuan, China. A series of dams under construction will flood the canyons where the maples grow, hastening their journey to extinction. Today, Quarryhill’s 200 maples are the only living Acer pentaphyllum trees of wild origin in North America. The trees take about 10 to 12 years to start producing seed, but McNamara is optimistic that Quarryhill has enough trees to “produce a viable seed and a good representation of the gene pool.”
In The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan talks about how some plants – apples, tulips, potatoes – by gratifying human desires for sugar, beauty, easy calories, have secured their long-term survival in our gardens and on our tables. For other species, the future remains uncertain.
“Plants have an intrinsic right to live, not just for the benefit of humans,” said McNamara. “Too many people with that attitude is destroying the planet. There won’t be much left in a couple hundred years.”