Marin CNPS History

The roots of CNPS go back to 1938 when Howard McMinn, professor of botany at Mills College in Oakland, conceived of the need for a native plant botanical garden in northern California and headed up the committee that chose the site in Wildcat Canyon in the north Berkeley hills. He also succeeded in bringing on board James Roof, working at the time at the California Forest and Range Experiment Station in Berkeley.

The Regional Parks Botanic Garden for California native plants was built in 1940-42 by the East Bay Regional Park District with the aid of the Works Progress Administration. Starting in 1940, James Roof began the process of designing and laying out the different sections that would eventually be filled with plants from 10 diverse native plant communities of California. Unfortunately, the garden’s auspicious beginning was largely undone when Roof was drafted and sent overseas for four years during World War II. In his absence, the garden went untended, and on his return in 1946 he found a tangle of poison oak, head-high grasses, and weedy forests of willow and bay trees. Starting over with only a few helpers, he cleared the brush with fire and chain saws and returned to the field over a period of years to collect the majority of the garden’s plants a second time.

Bridge across Wildcat Creek, Regional Parks Botanic Garden, in Tilden Park – Berkeley CA    Photo by Richard A Walker © Creative Commons 2020

While undoubtedly a brilliant California native plant horticulturist, Roof had no patience for bureaucracy, which led to frequent clashes with his superiors. In 1964, Roof was fired for insubordination yet again and the district began planning a new California native botanic garden in Chabot Regional Park. Roof’s supporters lobbied the district’s board to abandon those plans, embrace the existing garden, and reinstate him. A Save the Garden Committee was formed, which included Joyce and Dr. Horace Burr, Jenny and Scott Fleming, Susan and August Frugé, Irja and Walter Knight, James Roof, Dr. Leonara and Erwin Strohmaier, and UC Berkeley professor of plant biology Dr. Watson M. Laetsch. UC Berkeley chemistry professor Dr. Leo Brewer headed the group.

The group succeeded in securing the future of the Tilden Botanic garden and James Roof as its Director. In the process, members saw a need for an educational organization to alert the public and public agencies to threats to rare plants, to protect locations of endangered species, to extend the use of natives in landscaping, and to provide information on growing and propagating native species. It was incorporated as the California Native Plant Society in August 1965, with Dr. Watson Laetsch serving as the first President.

Chapters of CNPS could be formed by any local group with elected officers and 15 paid members. Within two months, the Sacramento Valley chapter had been founded, presided over by Dr. G. Ledyard Stebbins of UC Davis. In early 1966, Monterey Bay, Gualala (now Dorothy King Young) and San Luis Obispo Chapters came into being, followed by Sierra-Santa Monica (now Santa Monica). On its first anniversary as an organization, CNPS had almost 800 members.

Along with these 5 established chapters, which remained the only ones until 1970, there was frequent reference in the newsletter to an unofficial SF Bay Area Chapter. With the state offices located in Berkeley along with the founding members, Bay Area members had been very active in the development of the organization from the start, offering frequent field trips and spearheading programs such as the establishment of a Rare Plant Database. The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter became official in May 1973 and was later renamed the East Bay chapter. In 1970, the North Coast Chapter was formed, followed in 1972 by San Diego, Milo Baker, and Santa Clara Valley; then Napa and San Francisco Bay Area in 1973; and Marin in 1974. Bill Bortfeld was Marin Chapter’s first president.

Our Chapter, many of whose members were already very active in the organization, immediately set up speakers, field trips and a newsletter. Within 3 months, membership stood at 115. Recognizable names on the list include Al Molina, Ida Geary, Ed Ross, Robert West, Nona Dennis, Wilma Follette, student Kristin Jakob, Senator S.I. Hayakawa, and Kenneth Howard.

By year’s end, the Chapter nominated John Thomas Howell, author of our “bible,” Marin Flora, to become a CNPS Fellow, a well-deserved award he received the following year. First published in 1949, Marin Flora represents his years of accumulated research on the hills of Marin. Says Howell, “I didn’t intend doing a flora, I just made lists of all the plants I’d find along the road to entertain myself.”

In spite of all the plants Tom Howell did make note of, he did not come across our rare endemic Calochortus tiburonensis, or Tiburon Mariposa Lily. Amateur botanist Dr. Robert West made enquiries about a distinct lily he found in June 1971 on Ring Mountain, and later learned that he had stumbled across a new and unique species. The Marin Chapter chose the Tiburon Mariposa Lily for our logo, and artist Gompers Saijo made the rendering that we still use today.

With thanks to: Joyce Burr, 1976 CNPS newsletter; Botanic Magic by Sue Rosenthal, Bay Nature, Jan. 2007; CNPS Archives