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Going native for 50 years

This weekend, Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society marks its 50th anniversary with a special celebration at Sacramento’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park.
This weekend, Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society marks its 50th anniversary with a special celebration at Sacramento’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park. aseng@sacbee.com

At this vibrant oasis along the American River Parkway, the evolution is obvious. These resourceful, hard-to-kill California native plants have gone from unknown to drought-busting essentials.

In its corner of the American River Ranch, the Elderberry Farms nursery brims with hundreds of young seedlings, ready to plant in suburban landscapes. Nearby, the Butterfly Waystation demonstration garden teems with wildlife – including many caterpillars of its namesake beneficial insect.

Not that long ago, these plants and bugs were considered unwanted weeds and pests. Now, they’re valued and beloved.

Those are points of pride for members of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. This weekend, the group marks its 50th anniversary with a special celebration at Sacramento’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park.

Highlighting the party will be the public sale of those native plants, lovingly propagated and nurtured at the chapter’s nursery at Soil Born Farms ranch in Rancho Cordova. Of course, there will be cake.

Like the plants, this cake will be different, too, promised Tara Collins, the chapter’s vice president. It will be made with acorn and amaranth flours and delicately flavored elderberry flower frosting.

“It’s really going to be special,” she said. “We want everybody to taste it.”

The annual plant sale has become the chapter’s major fundraiser, supporting its other programs.

“We have an incredibly rich set of resources for Californians who want to garden with local native plant species,” she said. “Our chapter plant sale is a great event for acquiring plants as well as the knowledge to maintain these garden-worthy species. We will have experts on hand, as well as landscape designers and water-saving and irrigation specialists.”

Displays will highlight some of the chapter’s ongoing programs such as its annual Gardens Gone Native tour, the annual Wildflower Wonders celebration and weekly nature walks, as well as bigger projects such as the Elderberry Farms nursery and the native plant demonstration garden at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.

Like the native pipevines growing on the nursery’s fences, these programs are intertwined. Seeds and cuttings found on the nature walks, for example, may be propagated at the nursery and sold to support conservation efforts.

These projects also have made the chapter a resource for local schools as well as gardeners through such programs as KING (Kids in Native Gardens). While learning about Sacramento Valley flora, youngsters love the fauna such as the pipevine swallowtail caterpillars that populate the Butterfly Waystation, which forms the backdrop for Soil Born Farms’ outdoor classroom.

As they sit in the shade, young visitors sample the native California purple grapes that grow over the pergola next to the butterfly garden. They draw pictures of the flowers, butterflies, birds and more.

“It’s really a wonderful way to reach out and connect with people,” Collins said.

With about 650 members, the Sacramento Valley chapter ranks among the earliest of the California Native Plant Society, which was founded in 1965 in the East Bay.

A half-century ago, the local chapter had a very specific focus.

“When we began, our primary focus the first 30 years was vernal pools,” said Chris Lewis, a longtime volunteer and the nursery coordinator. “It was really exciting for the volunteers to see what we’ve accomplished.”

Rare and endangered, wildflower-ringed vernal pools are temporary wetlands that appear and disappear each spring. Fed by late winter rain, these pools have been threatened by development as well as drought. Fewer than 10 percent of these ancient vernal pools still exist.

The volunteers made sure these natural wonders didn’t all disappear forever. Their work also helped preserve hundreds of acres of open space.

Chapter members still lead spring tours of the 100,000-year-old vernal pools at Mather Field and other sites where they’ve also championed conservation efforts. “Conservation stars” for the local chapter include Betsy Weiland, Carol Witham, Eva Butler and Glen Holstein, Lewis said.

Now, their native plant message hits spots much closer to home – suburban landscapes.

“The first question people ask: Where do I get native plants?” said Collins. “We see a demand as a chapter. People are incorporating California native plants into their gardens.”

Prompted by water restrictions and California’s prolonged drought, interest in native plants keeps growing, she added. “People let their lawns die, they want to grow something that will live and also help the environment.”

While other nurseries may stock some natives, Elderberry Farms is unique. Run entirely by volunteers, it grows only plants native to the greater Sacramento area. That gives these species a much greater chance of success when transplanted into home gardens.

As propagation director, Robin Rietz keeps those plants multiplying.

“Robin has taken our propagation efforts from 40 plants of two or three species (in 2007 when the nursery opened) to thousands of plants and about 150 species,” Lewis said.

Dedicated volunteers are the chapter’s greatest asset, she added.

“This here is all volunteer,” said Lewis, surrounded by the nursery’s many plants. “Without us, it doesn’t happen.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Fall plant sale and anniversary celebration

Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and 25

Admission: Free

Details: www.sacvalleycnps.org

Highlights: The Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society celebrates its 50th anniversary with a huge sale of native plants – plus cake and other refreshments. Also, get expert advice on plant and pest identification. Learn which natives are right for your garden. Join CNPS or renew membership and get a free 1-gallon plant.