Quarryhill — Best-Kept World-Famous Secret

Glen Ellen’s celebrated botanical garden basks in the full light of the moon.

Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause


In what was likely Bill McNamara’s last Quarryhill Hunter’s Moon walk, the president and executive director of Sonoma Valley’s best-kept, world-famous secret recently led some 30 moon watchers through the gloaming that slowly shuttered the 25 acres of what is widely considered the best assemblage of wild-collected Asian plants outside Asia.

As such, Quarryhill is a biological paradox, a botanical garden of global importance, a virtual Noah’s Ark of rare plants collected painstakingly over McNamara’s countless forays into Asian wildlands, but virtually unknown locally, hiding in plain sight along Highway 12 on the periphery of Glen Ellen.

For a time, isolation seemed to be a protective strategy. Too many curious humans might have rocked the ark. For years, there was only an inconspicuous sign and a locked gate. But Quarryhill appears to have found its stride, embracing the conclusion that people rarely work to protect and save what they don’t personally know and love. And funding an enigmatic, cloistered enclave of rare and beautiful plants no one can see is challenging at best. Would the Mona Lisa be worth as much if no one ever saw it?

So now, Quarryhill Botanical Garden—named for the rock quarries that once occupied the site—has come out of the shadows, opened itself to daily public visits, opened as well an excellent gift shop, and there is even a big and bold sign beside Highway 12 announcing the botanical treasure inside an unlocked gate and the semi-confessional words, “Sonoma’s Hidden Gem.”

On the night of the Hunter’s Moon Walk, there is a certain undertone of nostalgia because many, if not most, of the participants know that McNamara has announced his retirement after more than three decades of carefully collecting and cultivating Quarryhill’s contents. Botanists do not generally achieve global acclaim (at least not in their lifetimes), but in the world of horticulture, Bill McNamara is a bona fide rock star. He entered the life of Quarryhill as a landscaper and stayed to become one of very few botanists to be awarded with the trifecta of horticultural awards—the Veitch Memorial Medal from England’s Royal Horticultural Society, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award from the American Horticultural Society and the Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal from the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College. And there’s more: He has also received the Garden Club of America’s esteemed Eloise Payne Luquer Medal for special achievement in the field of botany, and this year was named an honorary member of the GCA, which isn’t too far from botanical knighthood.

McNamara was hired by the garden’s founder, Jane Davenport Jansen, who bought the property in the 1960s, planted a few acres of grapes, but then took a right turn away from vineyards to create a nonprofit corporation focused on gathering and displaying a vast collection of temperate Asian plants in a natural setting. That led to annual, Jansen-funded and McNamara-led expeditions to China, Japan, India, Nepal, Taiwan, Vietnam and Myanmar to gather wild seeds.

What has emerged is a lush riot of leaves, blossoms, branches and trunks encompassing some 22,000 plants and more than 1,250 individual species. Many of them are rare or endangered, some threatened with extinction in the wild (including a magnolia sinica believed to be one of only about 50 left in the world), and most of them the progeny of wild-collected seeds.

They include multiple magnolias, rhododendrons, lilies, roses, camellias, maples, pines, bamboo, Chinese tulip trees, chokecherry, japonica, clematis, asters, anemones, clerodendrum—the list is almost endless.

You can see them on self-guided walks, using a downloadable app, and while the hillside trail complex—covering almost three miles—is occasionally steep, none of it is challenging. And during the fall, the colors of the canopy, dotted with vibrant maples, are stunning. An hour, or a day, wandering down lush paths of vibrant foliage is to be transported to another world.

One of the great ironies of Quarryhill is that the land Jansen purchased half a century ago had recently been ravaged by the 1964 wildfire that burned through part of the Springs and left a charred and barren hillside in its wake. What she and her staff and volunteers subsequently created was an Eden on a moonscape. And 53 years later, that lush garden stood directly in the path of last October’s firestorm.

The flames burned up to, and sometimes over, the garden’s fence line, but other than some scorched honeysuckle vines, there was very little damage. “We’re not sure why,” McNamara says, pausing during the Hunter’s Moon Walk to view a few year-old ashes. “We weren’t irrigating that night, and there was a raging fire. But it stopped right here.”

Walking on, McNamara explains the origins of the Hunter’s Moon. “You need a lot of light to hunt in the dark,” he points out. “It’s the first moon after the Harvest Moon, which is closest to the equinox in September, so the Hunter’s Moon almost always occurs in October. And the Native Americans considered this one of the best times to hunt, especially for deer, because they were very fat from eating all summer, and the Indians wanted to gather food to prepare for the winter. So they did a lot of hunting on the Hunter’s Moon in October.”

Which leads McNamara into a brief tutorial on full-moon myths.

“The full moon happens every 29 and a half days,” he explains, “and a lot of people believe women’s menstrual cycles line up with full moons. But that has been proven to be a fallacy. Surgeons used to refuse to operate on a full moon, because they thought you would bleed more than normal. That’s considered a myth now as well. It’s been suggested that a full moon affects people the way it affect tides, because our bodies are 75 percent water. That’s been shown to be nonsense.”

There is more. “The full moon is associated with insomnia because, historically, people didn’t have electric lights and under a full moon there was too much light so it affected sleeping patterns, so people couldn’t sleep. That’s pretty much been proven to be false too. And legends hold that if you slept outside in a full moon you might turn into a werewolf.” We all laugh.

But some full-moon beliefs seem to be true, says McNamara. “Dogs are known to bark more on a full moon. They’ve analyzed that, and dogs do tend to go crazy on full moons. They’re not sure why.”

Waiting for the Hunter’s Moon to top the ridge of the Mayacamas behind Quarryhill, McNamara imparts a final piece of moon lore, “One of the best ones,” he says, “the Honey Moon. The Honey Moon is the full moon in June, because it fell between the planting and the harvesting of crops, and was therefore considered the best month to get married.”

McNamara, who looks at times uncannily like the British film star Stewart Granger, will officially depart Quarryhill next October, but will remain an ambassador for the garden. Harvey Shein, chairman of the Quarryhill board, has lavished abundant praise on him. “He built an extraordinary plant collection, developed the garden for the public’s enjoyment, and brought Quarryhill worldwide recognition and accolades. We honor his unwavering commitment and significant contribution to Sonoma’s internationally acclaimed Asian botanical garden.”

For his part, concludes McNamara, “I am proud of what I have accomplished at Quarryhill and know my legacy will be nurtured by a new generation of garden caretakers who will enjoy its ongoing evolution.”


Quarryhill Botanical Garden, at 12841 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for children 13–17. Admission is free for seniors over 65 and active military on the first Tuesday of each month.








One Comment

  1. I was leading a tour in the gardens a couple or three weeks ago & met Bill driving an electric cart with may have been his grand kids & a lady. I have many of my own. We had spoken for a few minutes, as I asked him about a specific flowering plant with seed pods. It opened up to a beautiful Flame flower. I had discovered this gem about 7 years ago. And have been leading tours there for a about 5 years now.
    I’m so glad that the fires just stopped at the upper fence line.
    ** I was wondering if there was a not to costly way of clearing out the algae overgrowth in the main Quarry ? Thanks for a beautiful place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *