Floral Native Nursery’s grows more than 180 species of native plants
When the first white settlers came to Chico and the surrounding areas more than 150 years ago, they encountered an entirely different landscape from what we see today.
“The cedar trees we see here and there now [once] covered the area from the foothills to a mile or so from the river, where the blue oak and the valley oak took over,” said Germain Boivin, a French-Canadian expatriate and owner of Floral Native Nursery, which deals exclusively in plants indigenous to the area. “There were wide meadows and open spaces, but mostly it was covered with trees. If you read what they wrote from the days of the Gold Rush, it was very beautiful and very different.”
The valley may be transformed by houses, highways and the heavy hand of man, but much of the foothills and higher elevations remain less impacted.
Boivin’s small nursery on Floral Avenue comprises only the retail arm of his operation. The mostly unseen work—propagating and growing more than 180 native species—takes place about 20 minutes east, and nearly half a mile higher than Chico, at Boivin’s propagation nursery in the town of Cohasset.
It’s there that Boivin oversees 43 acres of mountain land located at 2,300 feet elevation, a proverbial Garden of Eden untouched by invasive imports.
During a recent visit, Boivin was hard at work lugging a bucket filled with ceanothus clippings gathered from the largely undeveloped land at a time when most men his age are still sipping their morning coffee. He greeted me and I followed him and a friendly black lab named Raven down the hill past three 96-by-30-foot greenhouses.
Boivin explained the greenhouses are designed by AgraTech, a Pittsburg, Calif.-based company, with panels that open and close to allow for natural ventilation, and are tiered down and facing south to capture the best sunlight. These three are used exclusively for plants propagated by seed, and stand largely empty this time of year, their contents recently carried down the mountain for the retail nursery’s busy fall-planting season.
“It is better to grow them from seed so you can control their growth, make sure they have what they need to be healthy,” Boivin said. “Also, when you take plants from the wild, there is a chance they are hybrid.
“Some plants might look completely different in the wild because they have to compete with other species,” he pointed out. “When you grow them from seed, a plant that looks one way in the wild can take a very different shape.”
We stopped at a fourth greenhouse dedicated to vegetative propagation (propagating from clippings) and Boivin got to work, taking small clippings from the larger branches of plants and pushing them into small boxes filled with soil. A table was filled with ceanothus and lupine seedlings in various stages of growth.
Just past the last greenhouse is the well, which draws water from a depth of more than 800 feet. The water is carried uphill to an outbuilding—which, like many of the buildings at the nursery, is built largely of recycled materials—to a pair of large holding tanks.
“They hold the water and help warm it up,” said Boivin. “Plants are like people, and it doesn’t feel good to take a cold shower.”
There are no telltale pipes or wires connecting the fields and buildings at the nursery, as the operation’s entire infrastructure is buried under ground.
Back up the hill and down another to the east lie two mother groves, where seeds are collected for propagation. On the way there, we passed a patch of land thickly overgrown with wild plants. “That’s how everything here used to look,” Boivin noted. “We plan to clear that soon and start a new field.”
Boivin said that since his Cohasset property is mostly wilderness, and he currently uses only a small part of its 43 acres for planting, he needs to clear wild land to expand operations to meet the demand for native plants. He uses what he calls “fields” to grow larger plants and trees, ones that are hardy enough to stay outdoors year-round. Eighty percent of his business is wholesale and contract restoration projects, and much of what he sells wholesale comes from these fields.
The fences surrounding the fields, Boivin offered, help keep Cohasset’s plentiful deer and rabbit population—as well as the occasional bear—from eating the plants.
A less-obvious natural enemy is deflected by a two-foot-wide strip of cloth material attached to the bottom of the entire fence perimeter. “Two years ago, our neighbor cleared his land and the nursery was filled with rattlesnakes,” he said. “They were everywhere.”
Throughout the tour, Boivin shared his immense knowledge and familiarity with the land he tends. His passion for plants is evident, though it was a different sort of passion that led him here nearly 20 years ago.
“I came for a woman,” he said, laughing, “And we are still together now. I owned a nursery in Montreal for 10 years and was on vacation during the winter months when I met my wife, Patricia. She was staying with her sister in the Caribbean, south of Cancun, but came from Cohasset. At the time my partners in Montreal wanted to sell that nursery, so we sold it and I moved here.”
And here he plans to stay.
“Our house is just a few miles further up the mountain,” Boivin said. “I love it up here. It’s so quiet and beautiful—feels like you’re far away from the rest of the world.”