GLEN ELLEN Tucked inside a Sonoma County vineyard off Highway 12 is a magical garden. It bridges time, place and cultural divides as a sanctuary of precious plants.
In many ways, Quarryhill Botanical Garden serves as a modern-day ark, a refuge for species that face extinction.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Quarryhill boasts the largest collection of wild-collected Asian plants in the United States and possibly the world.
"I love Quarryhill Botanical Garden!" said Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis arboretum. "The setting is gorgeous, and the 'borrowed' landscape just beyond the garden reminds me of the hillsides in and around Hong Kong."
That's appropriate considering the origin of these plants. The 25-acre garden contains more than 20,000 different plants, all collected in the Asian wild as seed.
Some of these plants were thought to be extinct, such as the five-leaf maple (Acer pentaphyllum). The garden's Magnolica sinica is one of only two in the United States and about 50 in the world. With its almost-rectangular leaves, the Chinese tulip tree (Liriodendron chinense) is another endangered species making a comeback in this sanctuary.
Quarryhill gives these rarities a chance at long-term survival. They can be studied by researchers worldwide as well as appreciated by nature lovers every day.
Founded by Jane Davenport Jansen, Quarryhill carries its mission a step further, presenting these plants in a natural setting where they can grow wild.
"It changes throughout the year," said executive director Bill McNamara, who has been part of the Quarryhill team almost from the start. "That's what I love about the garden. In the fall, there's so much interesting fruit and berries; the rose hips are particularly good this year. It's so colorful."
A walk along the garden's miles of paths reveals some of that fall color. In particular, Quarryhill has impressive collections of Asian maples, magnolias, dogwoods and species roses.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) stands out with bright purple berries that look like grape candy. Large red fruit dangles from dogwood branches. Twisting in the wind on vines, strange hairy seed pods look like something out of Dr. Seuss.
In the fall sun, maple leaves shimmer in shades of bronze and gold. The needles of the deciduous dawn redwood, another tree thought to be extinct, look like slivers of copper in the autumn light.
Keeping the plants happy can be a challenge, said Howard Higson, Quarryhill's horticulture director.
"We have a Mediterranean climate with dry summers and wet winters," he said. "In East Asia, it's just the opposite. These plants are used to a more humid climate, too."
Quarryhill compensates with irrigation, pulled from two spring-fed ponds. Formed in the abandoned quarry holes that give the garden its name, those ponds also serve as havens for waterfowl such as ducks and herons.
Year-round, something is always in bloom. On a recent November day, 6-foot-tall Asiatic lilies attracted bees and hummingbirds. Under the golden shade of alders, clusters of leopard plant (Ligularia) offer bees pollen when other flowers are gone.
In spring, the landscape is filled with flowering rhododendrons and species roses.
As part of its silver anniversary, Quarryhill recently planted a more formal rose garden to showcase its rarities.
"Quarryhill has a fascinating collection of species roses, the types of roses that grow in the wild," said Anita Clevenger, manager of Sacramento's Historic City Cemetery heritage rose garden. "They demonstrate how diverse roses can be, ranging from small plants with little berry-like clusters of hips to huge shrubs like Rosa roxburghii normalis, which has fat, yellow prickly fruit."
Those odd hips gave that plant the nickname "chestnut rose."
"I can think of no other place where so many rare and intriguing Asian species roses have been collected," Clevenger said. "We are really lucky to have it nearby. It's interesting to visit in any season."
Among other rarities are Rosa gigantea (which gave modern hybrid teas their pointed, scrolled buds and red new growth) and Rosa chinensis spontanea, the wild Chinese rose from which most repeat-blooming modern roses descend, Clevenger said.
Twice a month, Mike Franchetti and other volunteers walk the paths and catalog the flowers. These tallies help docents keep track of what's in bloom as well as add to the garden's documentation.
"It's like genealogy," said Franchetti, a retired pharmacist. "These plants were all grown from seed. We keep track of them."
Franchetti's wife, Sherry, has been a Quarryhill volunteer for more than 10 years. That got him involved, too.
"I love the garden," he said. "It is amazing and wonderful."
Quarryhill's botanical team visits China multiple times each year, collecting seed and saving more plants.
"We still collect but now we're more focused," McNamara said. "At first, we got everything we could because we were filling the garden. Now the garden is so full, we target certain groups."
During four trips to China this year, McNamara added 31 more species to Quarryhill's collection.
"East Asia is a biodiversity hot spot," explained Higson. "But so much of that diversity is endangered."
China's rapid development has plowed under forests and flooded valleys. Rare plants some ancestors of familiar favorites become lost.
"(Asian plants) have been endangered for thousands of years because of agriculture and the exploitations of civilization," Roberts said. "More than 2,300 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Mencius was warning about the destruction of the natural world in his time.
"The pressures on the plant world have not abated," he added. "Quarryhill plays important roles in conservation, education and research of and about this immensely rich flora."
It works closely with major botanical gardens worldwide.
"Quarryhill's strength is their dedication to finding and conserving plants that are rapidly disappearing due to the enormous population and modernization of China and other parts of Asia," said Ellen Zagory, horticulture director for UC Davis' arboretum. "Their many successful expeditions, close ties and cooperation with researchers at institutions like Kew Gardens (in London) and Missouri Botanical Garden and dedication to working for plant conservation make it truly remarkable."
Eventually, Quarryhill would like to send some of the species back to Asia and help conservationists reintroduce these "lost" plants to their native lands.
But for now, they're growing strong among the Sonoma vineyards.
"It's exciting to see the garden mature," McNamara said. "The first 10 years, it grew slowly. But now, it's a beautiful mature garden that's also highly respected around the world. We're very proud of that as well."
QUARRYHILL BOTANICAL GARDEN
Where: 12841 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen (just north of Arnold Drive)
When: Open daily 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Closed major holidays.
Admission: $10 general; $5 students; free for 17 and younger; free admission for seniors every Tuesday
Details: www.quarryhillbg.org; (707) 996-3166