Debbie Arrington

Seeds: How a native plant guide grows

Western Redbud is among the more than 2,000 native trees and shrubs that grow in Placer and Nevada counties.
Western Redbud is among the more than 2,000 native trees and shrubs that grow in Placer and Nevada counties. Sacramento Bee file

When Chet Blackburn launched a native plant book project, he set modest expectations.

“I thought it would be about 40 pages in a loose-leaf binder,” Blackburn said with a chuckle. “Something simple and very inexpensive.”

In his quest to document local flora, Blackburn had a lot of help. The project became a group mission for the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society; Blackburn was the chapter president. His team of writers doggedly researched and compiled hundreds of profiles on plants native to their chapter’s area, Nevada and Placer counties.

To fund the book project, the chapter pledged proceeds from one of its annual plant sales. But as time went on and the book’s plant list grew, so did the size of this opus – and its printing budget.

“We took so long to produce the book, the money just kept accumulating from the plant sales,” Blackburn said. “Instead of something simple in a binder, we decided to print a really nice book.”

Make that two really nice books. Now appearing in local bookstores and nurseries is “Trees and Shrubs of Nevada and Placer Counties, California” (CNPS Press). It’s the companion volume to “Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties, California,” which was released in 2007. Both books are available direct from CNPS online.

“The wildflower book sold so well, we could do the second book,” Blackburn said.

These handsome guides total more than 1,000 glossy pages. That includes 529 pages in the new “Trees and Shrubs” guide ($34.95), which profiles more than 200 species. The wildflower book ($29.95) features 520 species and more than 600 photos in its 480 pages.

“The wildflower book took seven years to complete,” Blackburn said. “We only needed four years to finish ‘Trees and Shrubs.’ We got better at (guide writing) as time went by.”

Although dedicated to plant life in two counties, the guides actually apply to a much broader range. The wildflower guide’s checklist, for example, includes 38 percent of the plants known to grow wild in California.

“About 98 percent of the trees and shrubs (in the new guide) can be found in El Dorado County as well,” said Blackburn, who lives in Auburn.

“One reason we did these guides is a lot of these native plants are still here (in Placer and Nevada counties); they haven’t been lost to development or whatever. Also, there are some plants here that are not found anywhere else.”

The reason for such diversity can be found in the counties’ terrain.

“There’s such a huge range in elevation, from 36 feet in the valley to 9,400 feet in the Sierra,” he said. “That also creates such an extreme of temperatures and climate. You can go from Roseville, where there’s usually 15 days of 100-degree temperatures, to Blue Canyon, which doesn’t have a day over 100 but plenty of nights below freezing.”

There’s also a wide range of soils and geology, he added. “Most people don’t realize how fantastic our geology is. That helps create our great plant diversity.”

Featuring hundreds of full color photos, the new book not only serves as a guide to wild trees and shrubs but also as inspiration to gardeners who want to incorporate more native plants into their own suburban landscapes. In addition to botanical descriptions and notes on habitat, each entry features personal observations and comments that bring these plants to life for readers.

“We kept adding stuff from people’s personal experience,” Blackburn said. “Each person on our team had an impact on all (the entries).”

For the new book, Blackburn’s editorial team included Karen Callahan, Julie Carville, Nancy Gilbert, Richard Hanes, Shawna Martinez, Roger McGehee, E. William Wilson and Carl Wishner.

“We started by dividing up the plants,” Blackburn explained. “We did it by plant family. We went around the table and each person got to pick their favorites. The last ones to select got the hardest ones.”

Blackburn made sure to pick the peas. “I like the pea family – Fabaceae – in particular,” he added. “For one thing, they’re easy to recognize as a member of that family.”

The largest family of these woody natives might surprise city gardeners: The rose family.

“The rose family is full of surprises,” Blackburn said. “It’s not just wild roses, but includes such members as oso berry and ninebark. They don’t look like typical members of the rose family at all. A lot of people don’t know that blackberries are in the rose family, too.

“Personally, I was surprised that we have five species of native blackberries plus the Himalayan ones that don’t come from the Himalayas – they’re actually Armenian.”

Common along local waterways, the robust and notoriously thorny Himalayan blackberry came from plant pioneer Luther Burbank, Blackburn said. “He got the seed from a company in India (in 1885) and called it ‘Himalayan Giant Berry’ in his (seed) catalog. It spread everywhere that’s the least bit wet in summer.”

The hardest part of the book project? “Compiling the photos,” he said. “That’s one reason it took four years.

“If I had to do it really fast, it still would have been 40 pages in a binder,” he said. “But as a result of taking so much time, we have something that’s really useful, not just in our area but throughout California.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at


▪ “Trees and Shrubs of Nevada and Placer Counties, California” (CNPS Press, $34.95) is now available at several local bookstores and nurseries. It’s also available at the California Native Plant Society’s online store,

▪ “Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties, California” (CNPS Press, $29.95) is still available from the CNPS online store at the same website.