Warren Roberts loves a good pun – particularly the garden variety.
Surrounded by plants he’s known all their lives, Roberts cracked wise about flowers and trees as he strolled through the UC Davis Arboretum on a recent tour.
Take that (not-so) prickly pear, for example. A hybrid, it has few needlelike spines, making it a good choice for inexperienced succulent gardeners, Roberts noted. “In other words, it’s practice cactus.”
Or the money plant with coinlike seedpods. “It’s actually related to mustard,” Roberts said. “No matter how many I’ve grown, I’ve found money plant doesn’t convert to real dollars.”
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Or the chaste tree, a relative of teak. “Shepherds noticed that when rams ate it, they had no interest in anything amorous,” he explained. “It’s the opposite of Viagra.”
His verbal jabs made some visitors laugh, others groan. Regardless, his warmhearted humor and freewheeling stories helped them embrace the arboretum’s vast collection in ways they may have never considered.
On the second Wednesday of each month during the school year, Roberts leads free lunchtime tours of the arboretum’s 100 acres of gardens. Called “Walks With Warren,” these informal treks combine botanical appreciation with a little exercise and history. (The next walk will be Sept. 14 after classes resume in the fall.)
“You don’t have to wait for me,” he said with a smile. “You can come by and enjoy the arboretum any day you want – it’s open all summer. And it’s free! I tell people they should visit at least once a month because something different will be blooming every time.”
Roberts, who just turned 75, is uniquely qualified to work as the arboretum’s tour guide. As a UC Davis student, he helped plant some of the school’s groves and gardens. Later, he served as the arboretum’s superintendent for 37 years before retiring in 2009.
I have perfect memory; it’s my recall that’s breaking down. If you were a plant, I’d remember your name.
Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus, UC Davis Arboretum
Ever dedicated, Roberts admits he couldn’t walk away from the gardens he nurtured for so long. Now as a volunteer, he leads these garden strolls instead.
Sacramento’s Helena Fitch-Snyder, one of 20 patrons who joined Roberts on his June stroll, said she was impressed with his “wealth of information” about the garden.
“We’re so fortunate he’s willing to take his time to share with the public,” Fitch-Snyder said.
Roberts probably has forgotten more about the arboretum than anyone else ever knew.
“I have perfect memory; it’s my recall that’s breaking down,” he quipped. “If you were a plant, I’d remember your name.”
Besides spending most of his adult life working at the arboretum, Roberts noted that his Davis roots run deeper than those of the campus’s valley oaks.
“My mother’s ancestors came through here in a covered wagon in the 1850s – right past Putah Creek,” he said. “I claim to have the longest connection to this place.”
A fifth-generation Californian, Roberts recalled the herbal wisdom of his great-grandmother, who was born in the Sierra shortly after the Gold Rush. She learned to use many of the native plants that grow in the foothills and valley. His mother and grandmother made muffins from acorns. (It’s a lot of work.) All that plant knowledge was passed down to Roberts.
“Lemon verbena used to grow in my grandmother’s garden,” he said as he fingered the plant’s fragrant leaves. “(The novelist) William Faulkner once wrote of lemon verbena’s scent, ‘It’s strong enough to be appreciated over the smell of men.’ As I get older, I don’t smell as well as I used to, but old guys don’t smell that good anyway.”
Roberts was born to be a California plants man, he noted. A nurseryman cousin of his father sold the trees that were originally planted in Capitol Park in Sacramento. That was 1871.
“And some of those trees are still growing,” he said.
While he was arboretum superintendent, Roberts literally helped write the book on many of the plants featured there. He was the horticultural editor for the print edition of “The Jepson Manual, Higher Plants of California,” the University of California’s go-to guide to native plants.
“(He) composed the entries at the end of each description – where it can be grown and how much water it will need,” noted Ellen Zagory, the UC Davis Arboretum’s horticulture director. “He has been learning plants since he was very young and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge.”
In addition to his arboretum work, Roberts is a world traveler who collects plant anecdotes from every continent. During his walks, Roberts rattles off scientific names along with common monikers without missing a beat.
“When I was visiting an arboretum in Thailand, the plants were labeled in both Thai and their botanical names,” he noted. “Thank God for Latin! You can go anywhere and know what plant you’re looking at.”
With rolling R’s and a perfect accent, he quoted old Peruvian sayings in Spanish, then switched gears to share an anecdote he translated from Farsi.
“Angel’s trumpet is closely related to (highly toxic) datura,” he said. “It grows in the Andes, where they say, ‘If you sleep under one of these, you won’t wake up.’ Just remember: Angel’s trumpet is much different from angel strumpets.”
Under a Persian oak native to Iran, Roberts regaled his audience with how oak-eating mealybugs were turned into nougat candy, a recipe still used in Middle Eastern countries.
“If it wasn’t for Iran, we wouldn’t have sherbet or spinach, either,” he added. “Those names are both from Farsi words. We owe a lot of our favorite foods to Iran.”
The hour passed quickly during the story-filled stroll – with much more arboretum yet to see. No problem, Roberts said. He’ll have more garden – and stories – next time.
“Come see me in September,” Roberts said. “We’ll see so many different flowers in bloom. I’ll have a whole new cast of characters.”