Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Arboretum’s storyteller is a star garden attraction

Warren Roberts was the guiding force behind the UC Davis Arboretum.
Warren Roberts was the guiding force behind the UC Davis Arboretum.

Some tributes may be filled with flowery words. The seasonal salute to Warren Roberts takes flowery tributes to a different level.

Every March, the Warren G. Roberts Redbud Collection on the UC Davis campus bursts forth with bright purple clouds of blooms. Bees buzz through the redbuds’ pealike flowers that perfume the air with an intoxicating fragrance. To arboretum visitors, it smells like spring.

Western redbud trees are native to the foothills, making them a natural for both the arboretum and its homegrown salute to a local legend.

“It’s actually a grove more than a collection,” Roberts noted. “The grove was started in 1936, so it’s even older than me.”

Roberts, a historian as well as a plants man, notes that the redbud was vital to the first Californians, who used its young shoots for basketry.

“The redbuds are having an early year, just like everything, it seems,” Roberts said of the bloom. “Most of the native redbuds have already peaked.”

Roberts’ gardening hand and plant wisdom can be seen throughout the UC Davis campus. He served as superintendent of the arboretum for more than 35 years. Now retired, he still maintains close ties to the gardens he helped plant and nurture for decades.

Known for his storytelling (and freewheeling puns), Roberts hosts free monthly noontime walks through his favorite arboretum gardens (his next “Walk with Warren” will be April 8).

His interests don’t stop with redbuds. He’s well versed in all sorts of plants, from acacia to zelkova.

“Every two weeks, I walk through the arboretum gardens and make a list of color, what’s in bloom,” he said. “That rain we had (earlier in March) was just enough to get things really going. My list is twice as long as it was two weeks ago.”

Roberts sees a close relationship between what we grow and who we are, not just as gardeners but as a community. Saturday, Roberts will focus on “Trees and Plants That Have Changed the Sacramento Valley Area.” He’s the featured speaker at the 14th annual Vendor and Garden Sale, presented by the Sacramento Perennial Plant Club.

“I’ll just talk about what I know,” he explained with a chuckle. “I’ll ask people to reflect on their own observations.”

Roberts’ Central Valley roots go way back. During the Gold Rush days, his great-grandmother was born in a tent. His family ranched near Tulare for generations. Col. James Warren, a distant relative, shaped the Gold Rush-era Sacramento landscapes with the city’s first major nursery.

“Col. Warren brought in many of the ornamentals we see today,” Roberts said. “He brought in the first camellias (in 1852) and also introduced Sacramento to Bermuda grass.

“At that time, the typical California landscape was hard-packed dirt,” he noted. “Bermuda grass became the typical lawn in Sacramento. It’s still wonderful in summer. It doesn’t need much water, just one-third (needed by) other turf grasses. Some of the newer forms have a finer texture. But it’s a rambunctious grass.”

Native grasses used to occupy much of the Central Valley. “Our grasslands have changed,” Roberts observed. “It looks the same to most people, but if you look closely, you notice the species are different. The newer grasses we see today are mostly Mediterranean.”

Sacramento has always been a home to trees, he added.

“Most people don’t realize Sacramento itself was a riparian woodland,” Roberts said, noting sycamores that grow downtown are very similar to the native trees that graced these same riverbanks. “Sacramento went from being a backwater to a sophisticated place in a hurry. Capitol Park represented a cross section of what people had back home, back East or wherever they were from. (The park) was planted to celebrate the centennial of the United States (in 1876). It included – and still does – trees from Civil War battlefields.”

Tastes in plants may change, but our love of gardening is ever present. That’s illustrated by the wide variety of vendors at this event.

The sale features more than two dozen specialty nurseries and garden-related businesses including several local favorites such as Two Flew Over the Coop (deluxe backyard chicken coops), Worm Fancy (vermicomposting kits), Fox Farm Soil and Fertilizers (specialty formulas for local needs such as clay hardpan), Mad Man Bamboo (with a rainbow of rare bamboos), Dragonfly Peony Farm (with magnificent spring peonies), Bob Hamm’s perennials and many more.

“We have so many good ones,” said Saul Wiseman, the club’s president. “We have our flagship vendors – Robin Parer of Geraniaceae (a geranium specialist), Rose Loveall of Morningsun Herb Farm and Sue Golden of Golden Pond (water plants). Then, we try to find people with nurseries and interesting garden items. We’ve been doing this for a number of years now and always have a good crowd. We feel it’s a service to the community. We’re bring these growers here all together in one place so you don’t have to hunt for them.”

This vendor fair is a great opportunity to meet these interesting entrepreneurs as well as soak up garden knowledge. With Roberts on stage at noon, you know you’ll have some stories to share.

“Warren Roberts will be a very big draw, too,” Wiseman added. “He’s a wonderful character and so knowledgeable. He has a charming personality, full of humor. And it’s just amazing what that guy knows.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on

Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at


What: 14th annual Vendor and Garden Sale, presented by the Sacramento Perennial Plant Club

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

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. March 28

Admission: Free

Details: (916) 930-0253,

Highlight: At noon, Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum, will present, “Trees and Plants That Have Changed the Sacramento Valley Area.”

Note: More than two dozen specialty nurseries and vendors will offer unusual plants and “garden treasures,” from herbs and bamboo to succulents and Japanese maples.