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Tuesday, 30 April 2019 11:38

Sonoma Valley's Hidden Gem

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TASTE News Service, May 1, 2019 - Tucked behind a mature vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, just off Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, lies one of the most exotic and biologically diverse places in Sonoma Valley—a hidden gem that most Sonomans are unaware exists.

Although Quarryhill Botanical Garden has been in Glen Ellen for over 30 years, it may be better known internationally than locally.

This is not your typical botanical garden. There are no expanses of lawn or neat hedges enclosing specimen plants, no sculpted shrubs. Quarryhill is a wild Asian woodland garden—not manicured, but rather is minimally pruned to create an intentional natural feeling. No fertilizing is done, and little shaping—just enough to keep the trails and paths clear. It's the closest that most people will come to visiting the wilds of Asia.

Quarry Hill stream and bridge Picmonkey

Quarryhill is internationally recognized as home to one of the largest collections of scientifically documented, wild-sourced Asian plants in the Western World. Ancestors of garden favorites like roses, camellias and rhododendrons, magnolias, and lilies, create a living museum of temperate Asian plants, all the more remarkable given that the majority of plants were started from wild-collected seed and none were planted in the ground before 1990.

While it may sound like a place for important research work (which it is), it is also a serene, beautiful recreation destination, open to the public to simply enjoy. Gravel paths wind through glades of flowering shrubs, under shading branches of exotic trees, past tranquil ponds, and over and down rolling knolls all planted with Asian species. It's a place of varying beauty throughout the seasons with a hidden gem of a gift shop — a locals' getaway or easy day trip for walks, hikes, birding, photography, or the perfect picnic spot away from the crowds.

Quarryhill was originally created as a personal conservation garden of founder Jane Davenport Jansen. She purchased the old quarry site in 1968 intent on planting vineyards in the open valley of her 40-acre property. Her vision eventually changed to the construction of a garden initially to represent diverse ecosystems from around the world and then morphed into one exclusively featuring the flora of Asia—from rare seeds sourced around the world, nurtured on-site and ultimately planted into a 25-acre garden.

Quarry Hill lily pads Picmonkey

Why a collection of temperate Asian plants in this Mediterranean climate? The bulk of Asia, the source of one of the largest and most diverse gatherings of temperate plants in the world, had been closed to much of the West for more than forty years. During that time, population growth and development, deforestation, and consumption of valuable resources put the area's horticultural treasures at risk of extinction. The opportunity to preserve the genetic material from the plants of temperate Asia, in an environment where the plants could flourish (without posing any significant risk of invasiveness), was a perfect match for Quarryhill. How Quarryhill evolved, through a longstanding relationship with the Royal Botanical Gardens and Howick Hall Arboretum, is an intriguing history. (Here's more about Quarryhill's evolution). 

Quarryhill is internationally recognized as home to one of the largest collections of scientifically documented, wild-sourced Asian plants in the Western World. Ancestors of garden favorites like roses, camellias and rhododendrons, magnolias, and lilies, create a living museum of temperate Asian plants, all the more remarkable given that the majority of plants were started from wild-collected seed and none were planted in the ground before 1990.

Current President and Executive Director Bill McNamara Director came to Quarryhill 32 years ago as a landscaper. He was a volunteer on the first plant sourcing expedition and has participated in the annual expeditions ever since. The nursery was established on site in 1989 and by 1990 plants were ready to be turned out. The efforts of McNamara and Quarryhilll's staff and volunteers, who help propagate, plant and maintain the garden, have created a spectacular Asian Forest containing plants that are almost extinct in the wild. Preserving these threatened species is at the cornerstone of Quarryhill's philosophy.  

Quarryhill selects their plant based on their rarity and conservation value, and has developed a searchable scientific database that allows them to share their research with other leading institutions. With the mission of "advancing the conservation, study, and cultivation of the flora of Asia," Quarryhill's collection of approximately 25,000 wild origin plants, representing nearly 2,000 individual species, provides a repository for plant preservation, or, as McNamara describes it, "a Noah's ark of rare and endangered species." Quarryhill provides plants, seeds, and information to botanic gardens, arboretums, researchers, conservationists, students, and the public throughout Europe, North America, and Japan.  

Quarry Hill flower and bee Picmonkey

"All species are important for the health of the planet, because all species are interrelated," said McNamara. "A lot of people think it doesn't matter if one species goes extinct." Using the metaphor of a table with four legs, he clarified "you knock out one leg, it won't stand." He explained that many in the scientific community feel we are in the middle of a mass extinction of plants and animals. Estimate of species lost around the world are 50-200 a day.

Quarryhill Botanical Garden has endured for 32 years. Bill McNamara has been the guiding visionary for all that time and has received significant international acclaim for his work, including two prestigious awards in 2017—the Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award from the American Horticultural Society. In 2010, McNamara received the Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal from the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College for outstanding national contributions to the science and art of gardening. McNamara is one of only seven Americans to have received all three awards.

The 25-acre garden continues to thrive and expand thanks in part to an "unsung hero"— Garden Supervisor Salvador Calderon whose hands and heart have made the garden what it is through the past three decades.

From the remains of an abandoned quarry, in which water collected during heavy winter rains and rushed through rough terrain eventually creating streams and ponds, one of North America's finest Asian gardens evolved. Quarryhill Botanical Garden stands as a glorious example, to all gardeners, of what can happen when you dream big.

 

Editor’s note: If you’re planning to visit Sonoma to see the beauty of Quarryhill, you may first want to check out the Taste California Travel’s Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of hundreds of Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to the sites of Wineries and Craft Beer purveyors. You’ll find the Sonoma listings within the North Coast sections.

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