Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 9, 2006

Missing a plant paradise

Am I the only person who misses the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation? I’m not even sure what happened to my favorite source for quirky plants and expert advice, but I wish they were still around.

Plants weren’t all that was quirky about it: The foundation bore the name of another Santa Clara County community but was located in San Martin. Despite the confusing name, I used to love pulling a little red wagon around their first-Friday monthly sales and huge fall and spring plant sales.

I’m fairly well tuned into local events, but I never heard about the foundation moving or dissolving, I just sort of realized one day that I hadn’t heard about a plant sale in a while. Once I drove by their Murphy Avenue location but saw no signs of foundation life.

I spent much of my free time last week mulching my back yard flower beds, and it occurred to me that five of my garden’s standouts came from the foundation:

• Two butterfly bushes, one purple variety of a cultivar that I can’t remember, and an obscenely happy Buddleia davidii ‘White Feather’ that is a Monarch butterfly magnet.

• One Dicliptera suberecta that has to be heavily pruned to keep it from taking over, but produces beautiful orange-red flowers that compete mightily with my fuschia plants to try to attract the most hummingbirds. The tag that came with it promised that it would become 16 inches tall and three feet wide, but my specimen has exceeded both of those predictions, despite attention from my pruning shears.

• One Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’ that is at its gorgeous peak of bloom as I type. Its graceful horizontal-habit branches are swarming with white blossoms that remind me of the blooms on lace-cap hydrangeas.

Snowflake Viburnum blossoms

• One Pistachio chineses ‘Keith Davey,’ my absolute favorite buy ever from the mysteriously gone foundation. I’m made up of equal parts plant lover and bargain hunter, so you can imagine my joy when I found this odd little tree sitting in a lonely corner of a spring plant sale’s clearance section, a reject because of its quirky lilting crown.

Keith Davey pistachio tree

I put the forlorn tree in my little red wagon and sought a master gardner to learn if the tree was suited to the full-sun spot I had in mind for it. The master gardener I had the good fortune to come across was Barrie Coate, who told me all about the tree. I learned that the tree was the result of a horticultural experiment to find a commercially viable graft of a pistachio tree onto dwarf root stock. Because 95 percent of these grafts failed, clearly the Keith Davey pistachio was not going to be popping up in nurseries.

Coate told me I had a rare specimen, seemed surprised that it was for sale and encouraged me to purchase it. I’m glad I did. Because I forked over the paltry sum of $13.50 four years ago, this lovely tree now beautifies my garden with its unique arching branches and its chartreuse leaves that seem to glow in the sunlight.

I think I miss the knowledge and service that the Foundations’ experts, like Coate, offered to customers as much as I miss it for the plants and the pleasant hours spent wandering the plant sales. I wrote about the pistachio tree shortly after I purchased it and Coate sent me a post card inquiring about its health!

Compare that to the treatment you get at typical hardware store/garden centers. I went into one South County establishment for mulch, but the aisle was blocked and apparently the employees couldn’t be bothered to unblock it for a customer trying to spend money.

I went into another such place looking for Dietes (fortnight lily, butterfly iris) and was told rather snippily by an employee who seemed offended by my attempts to describe the plant that they didn’t have any in stock. I wandered a few aisles and found several pots.

It’s difficult to get any information at these combination shops, let alone accurate information, and certainly not from someone with the zeal of the foundation’s experts, like Coate.

After finishing my mulching chores, I Googled the foundation to see if I could determine if it was still in existence. I couldn’t find any current information.

The foundation was such a good match with South County’s agricultural past and present. Everyone I met at the plant sales had passion for their work and the foundation. The plant sales were always big draws, and I know that I lightened my wallet quite frequently there.

So I’m mystified. What happened to the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation, and if they’re gone, will anyone fill the void?



  1. From the website:

    “In December of 2006, the Board of Trustees of the renowned Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation decided to transform its $1.15 million in assets into a new horticultural endowment at UC Davis.”

    I ran across that info (and your blog) trying to find out who Julia Phelps was, and why she had a variety of ceanothus named for her.

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