Theodore Payne Foundation: Celebrating 40 Years of SoCal’s Wildflowers


Michelle So, Campus Focus Editor

Star lilies, golden sunbursts, and cream cups. Paintbrushes, toadflax, and shooting stars.

These are just some of the common names held by wildflower species unfurling their blooms around California this month. Nourished by the recent rain, native flowers have sprung up by the thousands. Their whimsical names seem to take inspiration from woodland tea parties and astronomical phenomena. But while these visitors gracing SoCal’s wilderness may not be out of this world, they are every bit as magical as they sound. 

For 40 years, the Theodore Payne Foundation (TPF) has covered the blooms on its Wild Flower Hotline. Weekly dispatches release every Friday from March through May, recounting the week’s events in terms of rain and rare blossoms. The passionate narration by Emmy Award-winning actor Joe Spano receives callers from across the state who generously lend five minutes of their busy day to transport themselves into the bud-studded wilderness. In an attempt to digitalize, reports from the last decade have been accompanied by a PDF version filled with photographs of the flowers spoken of in the dispatch.

However, with such modern outreach methods, some may be surprised to learn of the organization’s half-century-long roots. The TPF was established in 1960 to preserve the legacy and mission of English-born horticulturalist and conservationist Theodore Payne. Payne was fascinated by horticulture as a child, involving himself in apprenticeships and the creation of a herbarium, or a collection of dried botanical samples. His fervor for plants flourished in the U.S., where Ellis Island immigration records state his declared profession as the “Seed Trade.”

Payne then ran a flourishing seed and garden business for a number of years at his namesake nursery, offering various fruiting trees, decorative shrubs, and, his trademark, California wildflowers. He recognized the inquisitive beauty of uncultivated landscape and sought to encapsulate the annual blossoms for all to enjoy. The result was the California Wild Garden, five acres of land in Los Angeles, lushly populated by over 260 native species of flora.

“Artists painted pictures of it, every day students and nature lovers visited it, birds, bees and butterflies made it their home,” Payne wrote of the California Wild Garden. “As visitors came down the main path they felt the breath of the wild and forgot they were almost in the heart of a big city. ‘Why it’s just wild,’ they would exclaim.”

Today, the Payne Foundation continues to concentrate efforts on the preservation of indigenous habitats. Their main location in Sun Valley, CA is a haven for naturalists and casual enthusiasts alike, with acres of untouched chaparral to roam in and a pleasantly stocked nursery to peruse in afterwards. However, long-distance superbloom admirers need not be deterred; the WildFlower Hotline at 818-768-1802 ext. 7 will still be available until the end of May. So set a calendar reminder to dial in. Settle down with a cup of tea (iced for the warming weather) and take a mental hike. Better yet, brush along the lupines of the Sierra foothills, behold the poppies of the Antelope valley, and scour the Placerita Canyon for silver puffs. Why? Because Fridays are for flowers.


Photo Courtesy of UNSPLASH.COM