Magazine article Sunset

Theodore Payne: Western Plants' Greatest Champion

Magazine article Sunset

Theodore Payne: Western Plants' Greatest Champion

Article excerpt

Long before Westerners paid any attention to our native flora, many of our plants were already at home in England. And it was an Englishman, Theodore Payne, who introduced us to the beauty of our own flowers, shrubs, and trees.

Payne arrived in Southern California in 1893. On long walks in the Santa Ana Mountains, he fell in love with the poppies, lupines, and tidytips that carpeted the land, and he began propagating them.

"There's charm and grace in a milkweed, in a wild parsnip, in a buttercup," he insisted, at a time when most Californians regarded these plants as little more than fodder for cattle.

Undaunted by popular opinion, Payne opened his own nursery. He sold seeds of Western plants in Europe and, in 1906, published a catalog listing 56 varieties of wildflowers.

Gradually, he turned "humble" plants into superstars. "One summer on a trip to Catalina Island, I found a brown seed stalk of giant buckwheat (St. Catherine's lace)," he told a reporter in 1948. "The natives said, `Just another weed.'

But I brought some seeds back anyway and planted them. Later that 'weed' was exhibited at the Santa Barbara Flower Show and people went wild over its lacy flowers. It captured the fancy of growers and found its rightful niche. …

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