The wild side

Local chapter of the California Native Plant Society gears up for biennial Wildflower Show and Native Plant Sale

Janna Lathrop, board member and past president of the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, stands in a field of tiny yellow wildflowers—goldfields and johnny-tucks—in Upper Bidwell Park.

Janna Lathrop, board member and past president of the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, stands in a field of tiny yellow wildflowers—goldfields and johnny-tucks—in Upper Bidwell Park.

Photo By jennifer jewell

Jennifer Jewell is the host of Northstate Public Radio’s (KCHO 91.7, Chico) weekly gardening program, In a North State Garden.

“It’s fun to see the colors all come out as spring unfolds—the purples and blues of the lupines, and the bright yellows of the goldfields and poppies,” said Janna Lathrop, as she walked the easy, sloping trail from Horseshoe Lake leading into Upper Bidwell Park.

“But some of my favorites are the ‘belly plants,’” she continued. “Those plants you have to actually stop and get down—sometimes onto your belly—to really see, meet and photograph them well. Like Hooker’s plaintain in the spring grasslands, or the subtle beauty of plants such as rein orchids in damper areas like the Butterfly Valley Botanical Area in Plumas County later in the season.”

Lathrop is an intrepid wildflower enthusiast, educator and advocate. She is also a member and past president of the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (MLC). The MLC is holding its upcoming Wildflower Show and Native Plant Sale—a biennial event, alternating years with the MLC’s Native Plant Garden Tour—on April 17 at the CARD Center. Both events have been hosted by the chapter since the mid-1980s, and proceeds from them fuel the chapter’s ambitious and extensive year-round programs, including the monthly speakers at member meetings and member-led hikes, which are free and open to the public.

Although fundraising is an important goal, Lathrop insisted enthusiastically that the “entire goal” of the April 17 event is to introduce the wider public to the beauty and wonders of both our region’s big, bright wildflowers—sporting colors we ooh and aah over each spring and summer—and to the smaller, shyer, more reserved “belly plants” we might otherwise miss.

Having moved with her family to the Chico area in her early teens, the 51-year- old Lathrop has had a love of plants and botany since early childhood. “I remember being dragged up into the hills of the North Valley with my grandfather to go mushroom collecting,” she said, laughing. “He knew the edible ones.” These days, Lathrop hunts mushrooms only to photograph them.

Wildflower show-goers in 2009 perused a wide assortment of fresh wildflowers on display.

photo courtesy of Denise Devine

After earning her undergraduate degree in environmental education and biology at UC Santa Cruz, Lathrop returned to the Chico area, settling on the northern side of town, and began to reacquaint herself with what she calls her “big back yard”—specifically the Vina Plains Preserve, 13 miles north of Chico, a showcase example of the breathtaking annual grasslands and vernal pools of California’s Sacramento Valley. In 1986, “with a baby on [her] back,” Lathrop began to docent tours of the Vina Plains for the Nature Conservancy, which helps private owners to manage it sustainably. In 2001, Lathrop joined the MLC.

The MLC is one of many statewide chapters of the California Native Plant Society (, a nonprofit advocacy organization, that since 1965 has worked to protect and preserve California’s native plants. The chapter was founded in the 1970s by Rob Schlising, a retired Chico State biology professor. The group serves 200-plus members in Butte, Glenn, Tehama and Plumas counties with monthly educational programs and meetings, and almost-weekly member-led hikes and tours of natural areas around Northern California.

“The hikes are like classes in and of themselves,” Lathrop said. MLC hikes are led by such local plant experts as retired Chico State biology professor Wes Dempsey and retired forester Gerry Ingco, among others.

The Wildflower Show and Native Plant Sale is an easy introduction to this enthusiastic group of plant-lovers, and the wonders of our local native plants. “The diversity of flowers that are displayed all together in one place at the MLC’s Wildflower Show is amazing,” said Lathrop. “And the camaraderie of people gathered together to wander through them is wonderful.”

In addition to the many tables of displayed and identified fresh wildflowers, the group’s program coordinator, Jim Bishop, and his wife, Catie, will also lead nature hikes to nearby Big Chico Creek. Also, microscope stations—great for kids, but equally riveting for adults—will be set up to see flower and plant specimens up close, and a bookstore will offer hard-to-find nature and wildflower books. And, of course, there’s the Native Plant Sale, loaded with native-plant selections suitable for our area, many grown by members of the MLC.

Wild lupines.

Photo By jennifer jewell

In 2010, the California State Assembly and Senate approved Resolution ACR 173 establishing California Native Plant Week on April 17-23, 2011; the MLC chose the date for their 2011 Wildflower Show to coincide with the beginning of this first statewide celebration.

Also for the first time, this year the show will feature speakers throughout the afternoon. Starting at 12:30 p.m., popular local nurseryman, garden designer and landscape contractor John Whittlesey will demonstrate how to transform unwanted lawn into a native-plant oasis.

Schlising will follow Whittlesey with a talk on “The Birds and the Bees (How Flowers Make Seeds).” Schlising’s presentation will illustrate how the structure of flowers is related to how flowers are pollinated by birds and bees (and other things such as wind and water), and how pollination facilitates the formation of seeds.

At 3 p.m., the widely known and dynamic Dempsey will speak about Native American uses for native plants. He will have specimens of about 30 local native plants that the Maidu Indians used in their medicine, food and crafts.

“One of the best things about the Wildflower Show this year,” offered Jim Bishop, long-time program chairman for the MLC, “is the full continuum of native plants … attendees will get this year—from what they look like and their names, to where they grow [and] how they grow, to how to grow them in your garden. It’s a full circle of information.”

But, like the wildflowers themselves, the 2011 Wildflower Show and Native Plant Sale “is ephemeral—just one afternoon,” said Lathrop. “Don’t miss it.”