The Green Thumb of Pepperwood
by stephanie beard
This series is about the People of Pepperwood. We investigate the many faces of Pepperwood: the scientists, researchers, technicians, administrators, students, volunteers, members, stewards and specialists whose dedication, hard work, and expertise give life to Pepperwood’s mission every day.
It’s 92 degrees but feels like 102 as I sit with Sonja Barringer in Pepperwood’s shadehouse. In here the hot sun’s rays are tempered by an extensive shadecloth, providing a refuge for the various young native plants that are Sonja’s cherished wards. Her official title is ‘Facilities Assistant,’ but this designation sheds little light into all that Sonja does for the preserve. You can find her out in the grasslands, routinely persuading non-native invasive plants to try their luck elsewhere. At other times in the year she assists our Preserve Ecologist, Michelle Halbur, with her forest monitoring projects. When there’s a trail that needs maintaining you’re sure to find Sonja on the task – often solely in the company of her trusty weed-whip!
All of her work is integral to Pepperwood’s functioning, but one activity in particular is Sonja’s area of special expertise: native plant propagation—the process of growing new plants from seeds, cuttings, or other plant parts. Native plant propagation is tricky business because it requires a depth of local knowledge that can take years of observation and trial to understand. There’s no single method of propagation that works for all plant types. To be successful you have to understand the plant: why it grows where it does, and how it thrives. Sonja grew up in a town located in the foothills of Germany’s famed Black Forest, more than 5,600 miles from Santa Rosa. So how did she become so skilled propagating the native plants of California’s North Bay ecosystems? As a transplant myself, and one who has had no luck at all with the plants of California (to date), I needed to find out just how Sonja does what she does.
It takes patience, love, and the ability to observe.
Sonja’s expertise is rooted in years of experience doing ecological restoration in California’s Bay Area. Plant propagation is an essential skill for ecological restoration, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not as simple or straightforward as just plopping a plant in the ground and hoping it takes root fast enough to stop erosion. No plant lives in isolation; it is always part of a community. Often, that community is not immediately evident to the naked eye—not the unpracticed one, at least. To replicate this plant community in a controlled setting takes more than just book smarts or Google. It takes patience, love, and the ability to observe what the plants need.
Around here, we often joke that Sonja is the “Green Thumb of Pepperwood,” as if her success is owed to some sort of charmed touch. To see her at work you know it’s no joke; she has an undeniable way with plants. As I follow her around the shadehouse, Sonja introduces me to her rows of baby native plants, among them: Danthonia californica – California oat grass; Heteromeles arbutifolia – toyon; Sequoia sempervirens – redwood, Aesculus californica – California buckeyes; Quercus agrifolia – coast live oak; Quercus lobata – valley oak. These youths will later be planted as part of different ecological restoration projects throughout the preserve. Sonja refers to them as “her babies,” and after seeing the amount of effort it takes to care for these youngsters, I can see how they are exactly that.
A Tour of the Shadehouse
I’m quite partial to redwoods myself, and Sonja humors me by showing me the redwood cuttings first. She tells me that it was Devyn Friedfel, our Natural Resource Specialist, who initiated the redwood propagation project. The shadehouse also contains rows upon rows of various native grasses. Grasslands are one of California’s most threatened ecosystems, in part due to non-native invasive species encroachment. Our preserve is no exception to this phenomenon, and Sonja’s young native grasses are a key component of Pepperwood’s grasslands restoration effort.
Sonja guides me to a palette of young plants that remind me of holly branches stuck in the dirt. I feel the hard, smooth leaves carefully. They have several sharp points around the margin of the leaf blade. Curious, I test the leaf edge with my finger to see if it’s sharp. It is. Removing my hand expeditiously, I look back up to a grinning Sonja. “That’s toyon,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. Toyon grows naturally throughout much of California and is an important cultural resource for Native Americans. This hardy plant is is capable of exceeding eight feet in height at maturity. However, the ones in Sonja’s shadehouse are toddlers, barely eight inches from their base. When they’re a bit older they’ll be carefully transplanted to Pepperwood’s Serpentine and Douglas Fir Trails––two areas that were heavily burned in the Tubbs fire.
The process of starting toyon from seed can be complex. Sonja watched her former colleagues try all sorts of intricate methods to get toyon to germinate, Sometimes it worked, but Sonja felt there must be a simpler way. “So how did you change it up?” I ask. Her answer seemed fitting for a woman who spends her time relating to plants in their natural environment. She observed them in the wild, of course! “I was thinking,” she tells me, “a lot of these berries [just] fall to the ground where they are growing, and the berry decomposes, the seed gets exposed, and they start growing.” Replicating this natural process, she mushed up the berries with her hands, to expose the seed. Then, after sprinkling the berry mush throughout a soil-filled flat, she covered them with a dusting of soil. “And you know what?” Knowing her track record, I could guess, but she happily beats me to the punch… “they came up like gangbusters!” Her final point made entirely evident by the rows of thriving toyon behind her!
It is important to remember that everything in our natural world is dynamic and constantly changing. To find success in native plant propagation, flexibility is key. What is true for one species may not be for another, and you must adjust accordingly. Sonja rarely goes by a guidebook. Her approach is largely observational. She calls it a “special intuition,” but to those of us on the outside, it can seem very much like magic.
If you’re interested in feeling some of that magic, join us every other Friday for our Native Plant Garden Volunteer Workday here at Pepperwood. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the incredible work Sonja does, and how she does it! To learn more about native plants, land management practices, and to nurture your own “special intuition,” sign up here for one of our volunteer opportunities.