Lee Kavaljian knows plants and history. He has extensive hands-on experience with both.
The longtime botany and biology professor has seen generations of students pass through his classrooms at California State University, Sacramento. This fall, he’ll be starting his 61st year at the school.
“When I took the job, I had never been to Sacramento, but I knew it was in California,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I told my dean at University of Chicago (where he was teaching) that I was leaving and he had never even heard of Sacramento.”
That was 1954. The university’s J Street campus was less than a year old.
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“We had 108 faculty and about 1,200 students,” Kavaljian added. “Now, there are 28,000 students and 1,400 faculty. It’s a lot different now.”
Spry and inquisitive at age 89, Kavaljian has been a stalwart of not only the university, but Sacramento’s plant community. He was a charter member of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society, which will host its 45th annual show and sale July 25-26 at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center.
“I’m the only one left around here that’s a charter member of the bromeliad club,” he said. “We started as just a little group, six of us who were members of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society. Some bromeliads are sort of like succulents, so it wasn’t a hard transition. That was 45 years ago; I can hardly believe it!”
Since that humble beginning, the club has grown to more than 40 active members. In more recent years, carnivorous plants were added to the club’s official name and focus. Now, it hosts one of the largest and most colorful plant shows in Sacramento.
Wearing his familiar beret and a ready smile, Kavaljian is a fixture at those shows, dispensing advice and answering questions on all sorts of plants.
“He can identify things like you wouldn’t believe,” said Eric Trygg, a longtime club member. “He knows so much stuff! And he’s also just a very nice guy, a real gem.
“Lee is a very special person to us,” Trygg added. “Our vice president, David Brown, had him as a teacher 40 years ago; that in itself is amazing. He comes to every meeting and every show. He loves to talk to people and is so generous with his advice. We just love him.”
Kavaljian (pronounced Ca-VAL-gin) also has a special talent with bromeliads, the unusual and colorful tropical plants he loves to collect.
“Everybody is very interested in how he grows things,” Trygg said. “He has a knack for bringing things (to the show) in flower. We’re all mystified how he gets some plants to bloom.”
Kavaljian’s answer is simple: practice. Like teaching, he’s been growing bromeliads for decades, too.
He first saw these distinctive plants in 1959 at New York’s Rockefeller Center in a huge summer display.
“The color was fabulous,” he recalled. “My first thought: Can I grow these in California?”
So, Kavaljian started collecting bromeliads. While other hobbyists may gather coins or stamps, he started picking up more and more plants, each different and special in its own way.
“That’s the whole idea of collecting – variety,” he explained. “You get one of every ‘flavor’ – stripes, spots, patterns, colors. There so many possibilities.”
Although he grows many different kinds of rare and unusual plants, Kavaljian continues to love bromeliads best.
“They look good year round, whether in flower or not,” he said. “You can’t say that about a lot of plants. Like orchids; they look horrible when not in flower. Ferns are pretty but have no color. But bromeliads are a rainbow. They have so much interesting variegation and color. They’re easy to grow, not fussy at all. They’re pretty forgiving and don’t need much water or special temperature requirements. Bromeliads have a lot going for them.”
At his Sierra Oaks home near the CSUS campus, Kavaljian tends to hundreds of bromeliads in his greenhouse, a 30-by-15-foot space packed with plants. He also has a 32-foot atrium that looks like a tropical jungle; it’s the view from his living room windows.
“I designed the atrium to have a tropical feel,” said Kavaljian. “This is the view I wanted. It reminds me of the places I’ve been.”
A world traveler and three-time Fulbright scholar, Kavaljian loves to explore. “I’ve visited India eight times, China three times, Thailand and Japan – I don’t know many times, but a lot! I’ve had many, many wonderful experiences. Everybody should travel.”
That’s the whole idea of collecting – variety. You get one of every ‘flavor’ – stripes, spots, patterns, colors. There so many possibilities.
Lee Kavaljian, longtime bromeliad collector and Sacramento State professor
On his travels, he picked up Asian statuary and more exotic plants. His koi pond is ringed with unusual Japanese iris. Satsuki azaleas line the fence along with massive stands of golden and black-stemmed bamboo. Tiger lilies and penstemons brighten his driveway. In the atrium, sago palms and rare cycads vie for space with massive philodendrons and more bromeliads.
In addition to plants, Kavaljian collects textiles, rugs and tapestries; the floor of his living room mimics the colorful bromeliads outside the large windows. A renaissance man, he plays the harpsichord and creates intricate ceramics, a hobby he started about 20 years ago.
“Between all that and teaching, housework is about 10th place on my to-do list followed by weeding,” he joked.
After 60 years in the CSUS classroom, Kavaljian still has a deep love for learning and sharing knowledge.
A native of Chicago, he served in the Navy during World War II; instead of shipping out to sea, he taught sailors and officers math. After the war, he earned three degrees (all in botany) at the University of Chicago, including his Ph.D. in 1951.
“Then, I had to get a real job,” he said with a smile. “Originally, I wanted to be a museum curator; I’ve always loved Asian art. At that time, I thought I’d be a chemist.”
After work as a chemist, he received a Ford Foundation teaching fellowship and returned to University of Chicago. He found what he really wanted to do, but not the place – until he came to Sacramento.
“Back then, this was all hop fields,” he said of his Sierra Oaks neighborhood. “Everything was different.”
Including his subject matter. At CSUS, Kavaljian still teaches two courses each semester: introduction to biology, a non-major class geared toward freshmen, and Plants and Civilization, which attracts mostly seniors.
“Biology and botany are dramatically different subjects (to teach),” said Kavaljian. “Biology is really focused now on the cellular, molecular and genetic levels. The whole organism is almost never an object of study any more. It’s all molecular now, because that’s where the jobs are. Botany also has an emphasis on the cellular level.”
Students likewise are very different today, he observed.
“Students really have changed,” he said. “They’re not as prepared in high school as they were back when I was in school. They have so many pressures I never faced. I don’t remember anybody abusing drugs and alcohol when I was in high school; if they did, I didn’t know about it. But the whole world is different now.”
Inside his greenhouse, there’s a timeless solace Kavaljian finds comforting. For inspiration, he need only pick up a bromeliad.
“Look at those patterns and all that color,” he said while holding an example. “How could you not love that?”
45th annual show and sale, hosted by the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society
- Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento
- When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 25 and 26
- Admission: Free
- Details: (530) 273-9161