The Spirit of Place: California Flora Nursery

By: Jennifer Jewell
Jennifer-Jewell

Jennifer Jewell is the creator, writer, and host of the public radio garden program Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History…

More From This Author
Sherrie Althouse and Phil Van Soelen, co-owners of California Flora Nursery, have been nurturing native plants and informing native plant gardeners for 35 years.  Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Sherrie Althouse and Phil Van Soelen, co-owners of California Flora Nursery, have been nurturing native plants and informing native plant gardeners for 35 years. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Gardeners, landscape architects, poets, and mystics talk about Genius loci—the prevailing character, atmosphere, or spirit of a place. Not always easy to pinpoint, I think you’ll agree that you know a place that has this spirit when you experience it. Since first being introduced to California Flora Nursery by plantsman John Whittlesey, I sense its spirit each time I visit.

A tall canopy of native oaks frames the entrance to the nursery located near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. Small display gardens and shrubberies embrace you and paths lead you through plantings of Northern California natives. Tidy displays of promising four-inch and one-gallon pots are laid out in such a way that you can see what you’re in for. While exploring, areas here and there—hidden, not quite fully revealed—provide a tantalizing, anticipatory feeling that you are about to discover new treasures, new gems.

And you are.

A beautiful canopy of native oaks shelter the tidy nursery. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

A beautiful canopy of native oaks shelter the tidy nursery. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

California Flora Nursery was opened in 1981 by Sherrie Althouse and Phil Van Soelen, two naïve but determined and intrepid young twenty-something transplants to Northern California. Sherrie moved to Northern California from Pennsylvania and was astounded at the resilience of the native plants around her as she tried her hand at gardening in her new redwood-dominated environment. Phil moved to Northern California in 1973 having grown up in Seattle, Washington. The two met while working for another community-based plant organization and soon they decided to open their own native plant nursery. This year they are celebrating 35 years in business together. No small feat.

Phil and Sherrie describe their nursery on their website: “One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest California native plant nurseries, Cal Flora is a small unconventional nursery devoted to natives and habitat gardening with an exceptional diversity of offerings. We are knowledgeable and experienced with attention to local Bay Area needs and conditions.”

While you won’t find brightly glazed garden pots, floral soap, or coffee table books, here’s what you WILL find: many, many impeccably grown and cared for native plants of California. Enthusiastic gardeners from near and far fill their wagons and take notes from the extensive handwritten information signs, while three to four knowledgeable staff (including Sherrie and Phil) chat with gardeners or pot, prep, place, and propagate more plants.

Recently I visited the nursery and spoke with Phil and Sherrie. They described how, over time, Cal Flora, which “started as a little plant nursery,” has expanded, contracted, and thoughtfully expanded again with changing economies, weather patterns, and cultural priorities.

“Each new drought has had a long-lasting impact on gardening in California, creating newly committed and caring gardeners exploring and falling in love with native possibilities and plant choices,” Phil reflects. “And each drought or environmental concern has increased the number of native plant producers and suppliers.”

Sherrie Althouse tends young plants in one of the nursery’s hoop houses. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Sherrie Althouse tends young plants in one of the nursery’s hoop houses. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Through it all, the nursery has occupied the same well-tended wooded lot just off Highway 101 about an hour north of San Francisco. When they first opened their doors, Sherrie and Phil were game to try any number of services—deliveries, farmers markets, adding more non-native plants adapted to similar climates in other parts of the world. The percentage of non-natives to natives has ebbed and flowed over the years, but inevitably, their focus always came back to their core strength—their love and knowledge of choosing and growing native plants of California. “If we are not enjoying native plants at the nursery, or gardening with them at home, then we are out in nature—enjoying and observing plants and thinking how new ones might be adapted to good western gardens,” says Phil.

“I think that’s the exciting thing about this business. The flora we are working with is the flora we live with… every day we live in these fascinating dynamic plant communities,” Sherrie shares with enthusiasm. “It’s so exciting to think of the diversity that’s out there, that you can stumble upon—some interesting form, or possible hybrid—just waiting to be discovered and introduced.”

Mature plantings, potted plant specimens, and informational signage and displays invite exploring. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Mature plantings, potted plant specimens, and informational signage and displays invite exploring.
Photo: Jennifer Jewell

When they first opened, the number of interesting native plants on the market was pretty slim. Now the diversity is much broader and expanding all the time—in part due to Sherrie and Phil and the work of other independent and conservation minded native plant enthusiast growers/propagators.

These days, the nursery’s online inventory lists close to 300 different plant selections, including a hefty handful of their own introductions. While they have many plants from throughout the state and the California Floristic Province, the heart of their inventory centers on plants for the Bay Area and the hot, dry interior of Northern California.

In addition to producing well-grown plants, the knowledgeable and experienced staff at California Flora is always available to answer questions and assist gardeners.  Photo: Jennifer Jewell

In addition to producing well-grown plants, the knowledgeable and experienced staff at California Flora is always available to answer questions and assist gardeners. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Native flowering perennials, shrubs, and trees have historically characterized California Flora’s offerings. But recently, the nursery has added more conifers, bulbs, and geophytes, due in part to the energy and interests of nursery manager Josh Williams. Josh began as “an enthusiastic native plant gardener and client who was in all the time, asking for different unusual plants!” Now on staff for five years, his synergistic energy with Sherrie and Phil has deepened the nursery’s signature look and feel.

This renewed energy is apparent on several fronts—from the renovation of the website four years ago under the design influence of Suzi Katz, another dedicated gardening client, to a digital newsletter created two years ago, with photos by Phil and text by Sherrie, that focuses on what’s happening at the nursery and spotlighting plants of relevant seasonal interest.

Having lived and ardently gardened in interior Northern California for just going on 10 years, I was particularly interested in the insights Sherrie and Phil had about changes in the native and sustainable gardening culture over the past three-and-a-half decades.

“If I had known then—at 24—what I know now,” Sherrie begins wryly, “I don’t think we ever would have taken this on.” And yet, here they are 35 years later, exploring, collecting seed and cuttings, propagating, teaching, growing, selling, and educating others—and creating a strong community of caring people at the same time.

“What we do takes time, care, attention to detail, and an understanding of the life processes of these plants and plant communities,” says Sherrie.

When asked what they are the most proud of after 35 years in a business built on heart and passion, their answers begin lightly but end in earnest. “I am proud we are still here!” they both agree with equal parts relief and amazement. Reflecting further, Phil adds, “There’s cultural value in what we do.”

Iris ‘Sebastopol’ is a Pacific Coast Hybrid selected by Phil Van Soelen. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Iris ‘Sebastopol’ is a Pacific Coast Hybrid selected by Phil Van Soelen. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Sherrie points out, “We’re educating the public on what natives are and how to select and care for them. The native plant gardening public has become more sophisticated and informed over the years. We had a woman come to the nursery who was specifically looking for plants that support bees. That’s a big shift.”

Phil, who is now 64 and has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, finishes his thoughts about the community of gardeners and native plant enthusiasts that California Flora Nursery has grown with this: “I’m proud that I got to this age and feel as though I have made a net positive impact on environmental and cultural awareness.”

Days after our interview, I received this email from Sherrie: “You asked what we were proudest of and I said our longevity. That is true and I’m amazed we have made it all this way through thick and thin and are still standing! But there is more. I am proud, in our small way, of the contributions of interesting and well-grown plants to western gardens. Many of the plants we offer are original, local collections, items you truly won’t find elsewhere. Also a source of pride are our own plant selections that have entered the trade (see sidebar below). Sometimes I think if our small nursery were no longer here we might be missed. Picture people saying, ‘Remember little Cal Flora Nursery and the gems you could find there?’”

Instead I can simply say: have you been to Cal Flora Nursery? You can find such gems—and such spirit for this place we live and garden.


California Flora Nursery introductions

Achillea millefolium ‘Sonoma Coast’, and ‘Calistoga’

Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Heart’s Desire’

Ceanothus ‘Coronado’

Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’

Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Heart’s Delight’

Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus (syn. Symphoricarpos rivularis) ‘San Bruno Mountain’

Vitis californica ‘Russian River’

Explore Cal Flora’s  complete offerings at www.calfloranursery.com.