Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: The Conscience of a Conservator

By Ron Sullivan
Friday July 06, 2007

Who would have known that something as simple and harmless as buying plants for our gardens would turn out to be such a fraught moral choice? Knowledge and scruples can drive you nuts. 

I mentioned Annie’s Annuals and Native Seeds/SEARCH last week, and allowed that one thing I didn’t worry about when dealing with either of them is provenance.  

Plants’ (or seeds’, or bulbs’) provenance matters for a couple of reasons. The first is that many of our favorite garden plants are too gorgeous for their own good. They’re all native somewhere—or their parents are, if they’re hybrids or cultivars—and they’re integral to some ecosystem.  

Many of those places are inhabited by human beings who don’t have much, and so will work for very little pay. This makes it more profitable for brokers to buy wild-“caught” specimens than to take the time and greenhouse space to grow and breed some plants, particularly plants that mature slowly and take a long time to set seed.  

The catch is, of course, that such slow-maturing plants tend to be more rare in their habitat than faster growers. More rare is more profitable, and so the cycle goes. Cyclamen mirabile, for example, is officially endangered in its native Turkey, though its bulbs are still being exported. 

Native California bulbs like Ithuriel’s spear (Tritelia laxa) and the various Calochortus species —mariposa lilies, “wild tulips,” and the like—are in various degrees of trouble in the wild. Mostly it’s habitat loss, exacerbated by the tendency of the Calochortus especially to speciate in very small areas, like the funny Martian-looking C. tiburonensis that grows only on Ring Mountain in Marin County.  

The bulbs of many of these are edible; the First Nations people here roasted and ate them. Given their scarcity now, that seems akin to a feast of hummingbirds’ tongues, but there’s a lot that’s possible given a small human population that we’re not likely ever to be able to think about with a clear conscience again.  

It should go without saying that digging these out of the wild, unless they’re in the path of someone else’s bulldozer, is unconscionable for gardeners. 

(Digging them to eat is fairly dangerous without a good helping of expertise; there are native bulb species like Zigadenus species—Fremont’s camas and death camas, whose name is a non-subtle hint—that closely resemble edible species at the time when you’d be digging them, when the flowers and some leaves have withered and put their nutritional investment back into the bulb.) 

The best way to plant such beauties unfeloniously is to check out our suppliers rigorously. For natives, start with the various California Native Plant Society chapter sales. They’re dedicated to keeping the species alive, and take the time to raise rarities from scrupulously collected and pedigreed seeds, which take longer to mature than bulbs, and from “mother” plants they keep for the purpose.  

Nina T. Marshall's 1993 book The Gardener’s Guide to Plant Conservation is still available, and a good first step to learning about these concerns. 



The Gardener's Guide to  

Plant Conservation 

by Nina T. Marshall 

Paperback: 187 pages 

Publisher: World Wildlife Fund (January 1993) 

ISBN-10: 0891641394 

ISBN-13: 978-0891641391