Fay's Wildflower Meadow

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden grew from the vision of a strong and determined woman, Susanna Bixby Bryant. In the 1920s, Ms. Bryant consulted the most important people in the plant world regarding her idea to create a wild garden as a place to grow, study, and exhibit California native plants. Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, suggested that Bryant scale back her plans to reduce the amount of maintenance and irrigation required. After considering his recommendation, Bryant noted, “In the traditional feminine manner I am going to compromise by going ahead with my original scheme.”

This maverick and creative attitude has continued to the present as the Garden experiments with innovative ways to demonstrate the beauty of California’s native flora. One particularly interesting example is Fay’s Wildflower Meadow.

The concept for the wildflower display began with the dream of another independent and adventurous woman, Fay McGartland. Long-time volunteer and Garden supporter, McGartland also wanted to share her deep appreciation of California wildflowers with others: “I love all the California native wildflowers from the smallest ‘belly flower’ to the largest, because of their individual beauty and because I have traveled this state from corner to corner, sometimes on horseback, taking their pictures.” Working with Bart O’Brien, the wildflower meadow took shape and was dedicated in April 1999. It has exceeded its goals but not without many challenges.

Creating a wildflower meadow

The first significant hurdle was in designing the space. According to O’Brien “The challenge was how to move visitors through the meadow itself, as opposed to walking around it—how to provide them with direct access to much of the planting and to slow them down so that they could enjoy the detailed viewing experience.”

The solution, says O’Brien, came from “my own experiences in wildflower meadows in the wild. What is always in the back on one's mind while out botanizing in California? Rattlesnakes!” And so the concept of a sinuous, rattlesnake-shaped path was born. Moving from the head of the snake, near the Garden entry along the winding path, visitors can see some of the colorful wildflower gems of California.

The short-lived wildflower season

The wildflower meadow was complex to design for another reason. Wildflower displays are showy for approximately two and a half months out of the year. Beginning in March the first wildflowers appear. Blue and purple lupines (Lupinus species), orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and sunny-yellow daisies with white tips, aptly named tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), announce the start of the wildflower season. As the season progresses phacelias make their appearance and finally pink clarkias, also known as farewell-to-spring, brighten the field in the late spring. Visitors and garden staff ogle at the colorful display as they stroll the winding rattlesnake path during this brief period. By late May the wildflower bed begins to fade. The early flowers are gone, replaced by dried stems containing the fruits of the colorful springtime display. Birds flit through the desiccated plants feeding on the seeds.

The wildflower cycle is a remarkable adaptation to California’s Mediterranean climate. These plants germinate at the start of the rainy season. Taking advantage of the welcome water, they rapidly mature to the reproductive stage in a matter of weeks. The entire process from birth through reproduction and death occurs during the short wildflower season. The seeds are packaged to withstand the long, dry season. The plants reawaken with the new rains.

So by their very nature, wildflowers, though spectacular, are short-lived, which leaves us with a large garden, near the entry, that looks amazing for potentially less than a quarter of the year. We have met this challenge by planting more of the late blooming wildflowers such as tarweed (Madia and Hemizonia species) and native sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), to extend the season. We have also interspersed perennial shrubs to provide structure and interest throughout the year.

We continue to evaluate the garden with an eye to increasing its appeal through every season. The gently winding path, as part of the garden’s hardscape, adds year-round interest. The surface of the path, originally buff-colored decomposed granite, is currently being converted to flagstone pieces representative of a rattlesnake’s scales. Again with support from McGartland, and a design created by artist, Trustee and Bryant’s great granddaughter, Judy Bonzi, the path is taking shape. Visitors will now be reminded of the dangers of our wildlands, while enjoying its beauty--from the obsidian snake eyes at the head of the trail, along the sinuous path, down to the rattle that crosses into the desert garden north of the meadow.

Interpretive signage also improves the wildflower garden’s off-season appearance. By explaining the annual wildflower cycle, visitors will come to appreciate the dusky, late summer look and the myriad avian visitors who are dining on the feast of seeds.

Weeds, weeds and more weeds

Throughout much of California the fields of wildflowers have been replaced by homes and buildings. In remaining open space, they are endangered by non-native plants. Weeds brought to California from all over the world are out-competing our local and unique wildflowers. In many places the vibrant blues, purples, yellows, whites, and oranges have been replaced by the yellow of the Mediterranean mustards, and the bright green of annual grasses that arrived with European explorers. In the wild, in our own gardens, and in Fay’s Meadow, these well-adapted but non-native annuals present a major hardship for native plants.

After the wildflower season ends, usually in mid-summer, large, transparent plastic tarps are laid on the cleared, damp soil. For the next month and a half, the sun steams the top layer of soil killing most of the weedy seeds and seedlings. Though this gives the entry to the Garden a rather unusual look, it serves to inform visitors on innovative and environmentally friendly horticultural practices.


Visit the Garden to see the wildflowers

It is not a perfectly manicured garden, but it does convey the exuberance of California’s flora. Brightly colored flowers adorn the workmen as they chip and meticulously place flagstone pieces in the pattern of rattlesnake scales along trail. Visit often to watch the amazing progress in Fay’s Wildflower Meadow. Stroll the other meandering paths of the Garden to enjoy the California lilacs (Ceanothus species), wild sages (Salvia species), and the Douglas irises (Iris douglasiana).