So who was Theodore Payne…?

So I’m road tripping this weekend to the Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Garden Tour which has taken place in Los Angeles County annually since 2003. The 2017 tour features 13 gardens on Saturday, 16 gardens on Sunday, and an additional three which are open both days. AND the Foundation’s 22 acre site in Sun Valley offers demonstration gardens for viewing, a wild flower trail for hiking, and a California native plant retail nursery for filling up the available nooks and crannies in my car!

fullsizeoutput_9b8But first…who was Theodore Payne? A little research on the foundation’s website gave me a glimpse into the life of a man who was a 20th century pioneer in the native plant world. Born in rural England in 1872, Theodore was educated at Ackworth Academy, a Quaker boarding school which encouraged the study of nature. After his schooling, he was apprenticed to a leading English horticulturalist for thorough training in the nursery and seed business.

In 1893, the 21 year old Payne emigrated to the United States. His Ellis Island records list his profession as the “Seed Trade”. He first settled in Los Angeles, working on fruit ranches. Eventually he landed the job of head gardener at the ranch of Madame Modjeska in Santiago Canyon, Orange County.  Three years later he returned to LA to work for the Germain Fruit and Seed Co. Theodore Payne purchased an existing nursery in Los Angeles and, in 1906, published his first catalog of seed offerings.

By 1915, Mr. Payne had developed an enduring interest in the development of gardens focusing exclusively on California native plants. The California Wild Garden was born on a 5 acre parcel granted by the LA Parks Commission. This garden contained 262 species of native trees, shrubs and wild flowers planted according to ecological areas centered around 5 native trees: sycamore, redwood, oak, giant sequoia, and Monterey and Torrey pines.

Through the 1920s and 30s, Mr. Payne provided ideas and plant materials for what we now know as the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; assisted with the siting and design of the original Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Orange County and helped to relocate it to Claremont in 1951; created a native plant garden with 176 species at the California Institute of Technology and planted several hundred species of native plants in the areas of Descanso Gardens dedicated to California flora.

In 1960, the non-profit Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants was established to perpetuate California native flora. The foundation offers an extensive schedule of classes for all skill levels, school programs and field trips, an intern program, a great gift shop with reference books, tools and gifts and an extensive selection of seeds for wild flowers, grasses and perennials.

Before embarking on my ambitious Saturday route, hoping to see at least seven of today’s offerings, I took a turn around the Theodore Payne Foundation’s site in Sun Valley.

By the gift shop I spied a specimen of Lepechinia fragrens ‘El Tigre’, commonly called fragrant pitcher sage. I added this Channel Islands native to my garden last year and was  rewarded to see one in a little more mature state–mine is rather floppy and I have been a bit concerned if that was to be expected. It seems so!


On the way to the retail nursery the demonstration gardens give you chance to see mature plants massed with good companions, giving you a heads up as to what those little sprigs in the cans will actually look like!


The amazing plant below is Salvia ‘Desperado’. It is a hybrid of white sage and purple sage and can grow to 8 feet in height. This clump was over my head! It is a little early for many of the sages to be in bloom but I did find one inflorescence which shows its purple-pink flower color.

Theodore Payne Foundation has declared 2017 ‘The Year of the Buckwheat’ and I saw the first of MANY buckwheat species on my stroll to the nursery.


With the charming name, St. Catherine’s Lace, Erigonum giganteum var. giganteum will sport large umbels of pinkish white flowers by summer. This is one of the largest buckwheat species and is native to the Channel Islands.


Really lovely to browse among the various sun and shade areas nestled in the backdrop of the native landscape. Although small in size compared to the chain garden centers, many genera represented and lots of knowledgeable staff were on hand to answer questions and identify plants which had popped up here and there outside the labelled areas.

On the go now to the first of my Saturday garden stops…map app in play and brochure in hand. I am going to divide the weekend’s gardens into several posts. First up will be the 4 northern most in San Fernando Valley and I will post that group tomorrow morning. Buckle up!!

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