Chet Blackburn saw his first bromeliad almost 50 years years ago in a tropical Guatemala rain forest. Driving on a narrow mountain road, he was overwhelmed by the rainbow of colorful foliage that seemed to be everywhere – especially overhead.
“I’d never seen anything else like them,” he recalled of the exotic bromeliads. “I decided then and there I had to have some.”
Now Blackburn has one of the largest bromeliad collections in the West.
“I topped out with more than 1,500 varieties,” he said. “I’ve tried to cut back.”
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Greenhouses at his Auburn home are packed to the rafters with these unusual, often hanging plants.
“Most of them are epiphytes,” he said. “They grow in trees. They get all their water and nutrients up there. In fact, they have their own little ecosystem inside the plant.”
This weekend, Blackburn will share his expansive knowledge of bromeliads and other curious plants at the 44th annual Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society Show and Sale at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park.
As he’s done for 10 years, Blackburn will create a gigantic display of showy bromeliads in flower. In neon shades of pink, purple, blue and orange, the flowers make these unusual plants look like they came from some alien planet, not an Auburn greenhouse. The striped and variegated foliage is just as colorful as the flowers.
“These aren’t your Home Depot bromeliads,” Blackburn joked. “The ‘vase plants’ you typically see in stores are actually hybrids. They’re pretty easy to grow.”
His annual display is a great way to get people talking, and thinking, about these showy plants. Blackburn even has a species of bromeliad named for him: Vriesea blackburniana. “It’s native to a particularly environmentally sensitive area of Brazil,” he said. “I joke that it’s a race to see which one of us will be extinct first.”
At 81, Blackburn is recognized by plant people throughout the area for his extreme depth of botanical knowledge as well as his devotion to growing things. He’s finishing his second book, a guide to native shrubs and trees. His first, “Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties” (California Native Plant Society), is a go-to guide for native plant lovers.
“Chet has more plant knowledge than anyone I’ve ever known,” said fellow bromeliad society member Eric Trygg. “It’s phenomenal. He can look at a plant 10 feet away, any plant, and tell you what it is. He’s very, very generous with his time, especially with young people just beginning to learn about plants.
“And it’s not just bromeliads,” Trygg added, “but all sorts of plants. Chet has hundreds of rarities in his collection, plants you won’t find anywhere else.”
A plant collector since high school in Ohio, Blackburn keeps meticulous records. A thick green binder holds maps of his 8-acre garden and greenhouses, detailing the location of every plant plus updates on its well being.
“He’s very methodical – and brilliant,” Trygg said.
Said Blackburn, “My garden is my own little arboretum, so I treat it as such. This way, I can keep track.”
At the site of a historic gold mine, his garden sprawls over the banks of Auburn’s North Ravine at about 1,000 feet elevation. The home of abundant wildlife as well as plants, the garden has evolved over 42 years to feature two large ponds, a grove of redwoods and a black bamboo forest, as well as many native oaks.
“I’m a collector, and I love plants,” Blackburn said. “Recently, my focus has been on native plants and trying to protect those rare species.”
But he also mixes in lots of surprises, such as favorite trees from his native Ohio.
“I’m blessed with several micro-climates,” he said, “so I can grow things that aren’t supposed to grow here.”
Jean Blackburn, his wife, helps keep up this massive foothills garden.
“I love being outdoors,” she said. “He’s planted just about every plant out there. When we moved here, there was nothing. This is all Chet.”
Among all his many plants, the bromeliads rank among his favorites.
“Why grow bromeliads? Perhaps the main reason people are drawn to them is color,” Blackburn said. “No other plant family displays such a wide variety of colors and uses them in such a wide variety of ways. Interior landscapers love them both for their bright, long-lasting color and their low-maintenance requirements.”
Interior designers also love to use them, he added. “They withstand low light conditions reasonably well, they remain in color for astonishingly long periods of time, and they require little maintenance. They have adapted to a variety of habitats in nature, and they are adaptable plants in cultivation.”
The plant’s secret to survival is its center “cup.” The tightly whorled leaves form their own little reservoir to hold accumulated rainwater or other moisture.
Blackburn pointed to a bright red bromeliad. “You can water this Vriesea, making sure it has water in the cup, and then go off on a six-week cruise and not worry about it,” he said. “Try that with your African violet.”
Most bromeliads are pollinated by hummingbirds that are attracted to the red and other bright colors. That coloring also attracts people. The more common varieties, such as the Vriesea, are quite at home indoors.
“They’re among the best houseplants,” Blackburn said. “Give them excellent drainage and good light; you can hardly go wrong.”
Blackburn also has hundreds of carnivorous plants. Dozens of Venus flytraps keep the bug count down in his hot and humid greenhouse devoted to these oddities. Pitcher plants stretch out their hairy throats, hoping for an errant mosquito or other critter. Many of these plants also will be in this weekend’s show.
“Kids are just fascinated by them,” Blackburn said. “The flytraps are very interesting. The trigger is in those hairs. If a fly touches any two hairs or the same one twice, the clamshell snaps shut and that’s that.”
With nine grandchildren, Blackburn loves to get kids excited about plants. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he shares the secret to his most unusual kid-friendly plant: his “doughnut tree.”
“Our first grandchild planted it almost 25 years ago,” he said.
The “seed” actually was a Cheerio. With granddad’s help, the preschooler carefully planted it outside the sunroom window, so the doughnut tree’s progress could be easily seen. When that child visited again at Easter, Blackburn decorated a large Chinese pistache tree near the planting spot with more than a dozen doughnuts. And that delicious harvest turned into an annual family tradition.
“Now, we have doughnut harvests every spring,” he said. “If it’s a cold winter, they’re all frosted doughnuts. But I’d have to say, that doughnut tree is the rarest plant in my collection.”