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Nov. 11, 2004

In the Garden

Selling rare plants


IN HOLLAND'S HORTUS BULBORUM, 400-YEAR-OLD TULIP cultivars are nursed along, propagated and replanted in the hopes of keeping those old, beloved genetic strains alive. The mostly volunteer staff members who run the place are always trying to foist the bulbs off on other gardeners, setting up "adopt-a-tulip" programs, and dashing eagerly to the site of any historic old house whose owners are trying to create a historically accurate garden.

They want other people to grow the bulbs so that there will be more of them out there. So that if a flood or a virus strikes the Hortus Bulborum, they can take heart in the fact that the bulbs are still being grown somewhere. Simply put, the more of these rare bulbs you grow, the less rare they'll be. That's the whole point, right?Photo of a western lily, Lilium Occidentale

Not always. The North Coast chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has recently grappled with this very issue, and the matter turns out to be much more -- hmm, what's that word again? -- nuanced -- than the example of the Dutch and their tulips might lead you to believe.

It all started when CNPS became a cosponsor of the annual Wildflower Show. Dave Imper, rare plant chairman for the group, said members had concerns about even picking a few rare wildflowers to exhibit at the show. "We had to ask ourselves whether the educational benefit of showing the flower outweighed the harm to the wild plant populations," he said. "In some cases, these plants grow in a very narrow range of habitats, and even there, they're quite rare. So there are some cases where we've made the decision to exhibit a photograph instead of the actual flower."

[Western Lily, Lilium Occidentale]

Concerns about the exhibition of rare wildflowers led to a broader discussion about whether or not people should sell rare plants at CNPS plant sales. Now, the statewide chapter of CNPS has a Rare Plants Program that defines and catalogs rare plants. For instance, there are 554 plants on List 4, "Plants of Limited Distribution," a few dozen on List 3, "Need More Information," hundreds more that are rare or endangered in California and around the world, and a couple dozen that are presumed extinct. Given that there are a couple thousand different plants that are in some sort of trouble, would it not be useful to grow them out, bring them to plant sales and send them home with loving parents?

Well, not really, Imper told me. "First of all," he said, "many of these plants live in a very specific habitat and just aren't going to do well in an ordinary garden. So you come to a native plant sale, buy this plant that only thrives in a very limited ecological niche, and you take it home and it doesn't survive anyway. That doesn't do anybody any good."

Second there's the problem of cross-pollination. "Look at Wolf's Evening Primrose, Oenothera wolfii," he said. "It's a great garden flower, with those bright yellow blooms. But you put it in a garden, and it's quite likely to cross-pollinate with non-native primroses. Then those offspring get out of the garden and start migrating into more ecologically sensitive areas. The hybrids can push out the natives. So we'd just as soon not have them grown in a garden where they might cross-pollinate, because that can affect their wild counterparts."

Finally, there's the impact on wild populations to consider. As a rare plant becomes popular in the garden, people might come to think of it as a common plant and might be more likely to collect it in the wild. Endangered western lilies (Lilium occidentale), for example, are showy enough that they attracted the attention of lily enthusiasts, who have dug up native populations in an effort to Photo of Wolf's Evening Primrose, Oenothera Wolfiicomplete their collections.

[Wolf's Evening Primrose, Oenothera Wolfii]

As a result, native plant societies are left with the simple fact that sometimes our enthusiasm for a rare and beautiful plant can be its undoing. The best effort we can make on behalf of a rare plant, then, is to protect its habitat and admire it in its natural setting. In fact, as CNPS Conservation Chair Jennifer Katz pointed out, about the only time it makes sense to dig up a native plant is when it's growing "in a future parking lot."

To learn more about rare and endangered California natives, visit and follow the "rare plants" link on their site. You can also join the North Coast chapter of the CNPS on plant walks, habitat restoration days or at one of their plant sales, where a wide variety of plentiful natives are for sale. To find out more, visit or write to them at P.O. Box 1067, Arcata, 95518.

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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