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History of the California Native Plant Society

The founders of the California Native Plant Society are not professional botanists. They are lovers of wild plants, growing either in natural settings or in their gardens where they and their friends can admire them continuously. The "hard core founders were brought together by a mission of conservation. In 1965, the East Bay Division of Parks in Oakland was threatening to discontinue the arboretum of native plants in Tilden Park, and to dismiss its supervisor, James Roof. This brought forth a series of protests and organized protest meetings on the part of citizens who loved the arboretum and felt that it served a valuable purpose in the cultural life of the area. After a vigorous campaign, they succeeded in blocking the proposed dismantling, and the victors realized that much more could be done to save from destruction the rare native plants of California. The need was great, and no other organization was meeting the challenge. Both the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy were sympathetic, but their energies were and are directed toward larger goals. The professional botanical societies were making gestures, but not undertaking vigorous, concerted action.

This prompted a small but highly dedicated group of plant lovers to organize our society: Joyce and Dr. Horace Burr, Jenny and Scott Fleming, Susan and August Fruge, Irja and Walter Knight, James Roof Leonora and Dr. Erwin Strohmaier, plus University of California chemist Leo Brewer and botanist W.M. Laetsch. As soon as I heard about it, I organized a Sacramento Valley Chapter and attended meetings of the main group in Berkeley, and I was elected president in 1967.

Initially, the Society's plan of action was to interest other plant lovers in every way possible, to monitor the activities of private and public agencies whose plans would in any way destroy rare species or disrupt natural plant communities, to prepare whatever countermeasures might be necessary to stop them, and to seek donations from organizations and private citizens. As I became more active, I realized that, as the Sierra Club had long known, people become much more interested in conserving natural features with which they have become intimately acquainted, so that field trips should be an essential part of our society's activities. The first of these, taken by the Sacramento Valley Chapter, was to photograph rare native plants. After a few unfortunate experiences with non-member student visitors, we actively enforced the "no collecting" rule on our trips. The epithet "posy pickers," sometimes applied to our members, was never justified.

Another of our activities that became widely adopted, native plant sales, grew out of a crisis from which we rose, like Phoenix, from near oblivion. In the autumn of 1966, the core group met in a rented office from which we were in debt, in a session that at first was full of gloom and doom. All our efforts at obtaining funds had failed, and we were not attracting many new members. Then one of our more stalwart optimists made the suggestion that, from our various native gardens plus seedlings grown from seeds that Jim Roof and others had collected in the wild, we had enough stock of native plants to put on a sale, The suggestion was enthusiastically received, and for several weeks all our energies were devoted to "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps" in this fashion. The sale was so well publicized that when we opened the gates of the sales lot in Tilden Park, people were waiting to enter and buy. The only thing that went wrong was our underestimation of the interest that we had aroused. Although the sale was publicized as an all-day Saturday affair, we were almost completely sold out by noon. Not only had we covered our debts, but also we had acquired many new members. All thoughts of disbanding were forgotten; we were definitely on the way to success.

by G. Ledyard Stebbins
[Excerpted from Fremontia, vol.18, no. 4 (October 1990) "The California Native Plant Society, Then and Now" ]