top: it may be February, but look at the colors in this collection of rare trees, it's like a monster-sized mixed border.

above: an elegant Camellia japonica 'Tinsie', can you find the inch worm?

above: how refreshing to see camellias 'unimproved' by gaudy manipulation. this demure beauty is C. transnokiensis.

above: used in China to treat fever, Hydrangea relative Dichroa febrifuga.

above: little Mikey Collins standing next to a 'Pixie' (actually 'Hercules') calla.

above: wicked plants abound at Western Hills, here is what is possibly a thorny citrus sandwiched between two spiky species of Colletia from Chile.


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February 18, 2017 - Mike Collins and I enjoyed a gap in the parade of atmospheric rivers sludging through California and did a nursery run to Emerisa Gardens and Western Hills in beautiful Sonoma County. We attempted this same trip last year, but not paying attention to the time, we wandered Emerisa's vast grounds until after closing, got some lunch in Sebastopol, and arrived at Western Hills fifteen minutes before closing. We couldn't leave empty handed, and that's how Campanula persicifolia 'alba' ended up in our respective gardens.

above: one of the Edgeworthias, or Chinese Paper Bush, the fragrant flowers smell like its close relative Daphne.

This time we planned better, besides plants for other clients, for the test garden I decided to try Veronica 'Whitewater' at the top of some stacked urbanite, and Carex pansa and Bouteloua gracilis in the urban meadow section. But this is about Western Hills.

above: continuing the paper theme, a close up of Acer griseum, or Paperbark Maple.

I had last visited the nursery in 2009, at the end of one of its incarnations, and I hadn't toured the garden since before then. Mike had never been to the garden, so it was basically new for both of us. Now is its 50th year, Western Hills started out as a garden of edibles for two San Francisco refugees, and how it gradually changed into a mecca for plant lovers seeking rare ornamentals is detailed in an article from Pacific Hortculture. Read it before you visit.

above: South Africa's Cunonia capensis, the Butterspoon Plant, will have cream colored bottle brush flowers later in the Spring.

Shuttered in 2009 after a foreclosure, it looked like Western Hills could make way for a fancy house. While it was closed, an underground group of volunteers surreptitiously watered vulnerable specimens. But in 2010 Christine and Tim Szybalski bought the property and set themselves to restoring the garden and nursery. One of those volunteer waterers now manages the nursery.

above: after a '72 freeze, owners Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich sought out hardier California natives, like Gary elliptica.

The garden was informal from the start. Species were chosen initially on their interest, and set out in a plant-as-you-go fashion rather than a thought out plan, but improvements have been made, vistas opened up, swampy areas tamed, and new multi-use areas created for the next phase of the garden. Some plants that were rare and difficult to obtain are now available in big box stores or on-line, but Western Hills retains its bohemian spirit.

What makes the garden important is not found in its layout or architecture, but in its demonstration of adaptability and persistence, personified (plantified?) by its specimens and the dedication of those who have put their love into this place. I'll be coming back to see what else unfolds after the camellias and hellebores have surrendered the spotlight for another year.

above: surprise! kniphofias in February, obviously the result of a Chinese hoax. sad!


Dean Ouellette 415-820-1623