OCCNPS Past, Present & Future: Insights from Board Members

Guest Article by Thea Gavin

The Orange County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (OCCNPS) presents a Q and A that will highlight our Board Members’ experiences and knowledge. We begin this monthly series with an interview arranged by Thea Gavin that features Dan Songster, member-at-large and past president of OCCNPS.

Dan Songster accepts his award as a Fellow of the California Native Plant Society. (Photo by B. Jenkins)

Dan Songster has been interested in California native plant horticulture since the 1970s, when native plants were almost unknown in the landscape business. He has been a member of CNPS since 1989, and an active member of the OCCNPS Board since 1992, holding every position except VP (and including two terms as co-president with Sarah Jayne).


Q: Can you share any formative native plant memories?

Songster: I was always drawn to wildlands–to climbing trees, and playing in the fields and parks not far from our house in San Leandro. I also had fun roaming the huge backyard of my grandmother and grandfather in nearby Hayward.

As a young adult, I worked in landscaping. My foreman made it his job to teach me the botanic name as well as common name of every plant we installed or maintained. He would keep asking, and I would keep repeating, until I had the names and more—Was it good in sun or shade? Did it work on a hillside? When did it bloom? What special needs did it have? What part of the world did it come from?

He taught me that each plant had its own story and that landscaping was a serious trade, and that even though we worked hard, it was a thoughtful profession, and what you could learn was never-ending.

Q: Are there any native-plant related things you’ve done that you’d like to be remembered for?

Songster: Working with wonderful people in both the State CNPS organization as well as our own chapter here in Orange County. (I hope our members know how well-respected our OC Chapter is in a state organization of 36 Chapters.) It has been a pleasure working with a friendly, energetic, and knowledgeable OCCNPS board for several decades. I have learned so much and we have accomplished a great deal over the years.

Of course, the design and installation of the native garden at Golden West College starting in the mid-1970’s (up to currently maintaining and adding/changing plants) is something I hope to be remembered for.

Golden West College native garden featuring White Sage, Black Sage, Encelia, and Elegant Clarkia. (Photo by D. Songster)

Also encouraging many other people to grow and enjoy native plants.


Q: What native-plant related ideas/projects are you working on right now?

Songster: I still enjoy my time at the Garden at Golden West College with a wonderful volunteer group every Tuesday and Thursday morning. (And we could always use one or two more folks who want to work there with us.)

Golden West volunteers (L to R -Bob Hogan, Jan Klein, Dori Ito, Alan Lindsay, Christian and Channel Lewis, and Sarah Jayne) take a break at the garden. (Photo by D. Songster)

I am always learning more about how many native plants can be used in our gardens and how differently they can be arranged. I just learned today that my new love, that funny little daisy (without many petals!) Helenium puberulum, common name Sneezeweed, seeds itself around like crazy. If you want a plant, let me know—I now have lots!


Q: What’s next for you?

Songster: Perhaps someday I will actually get to work on my own front yard, since a half-dead lawn of weeds and little else is not an inspiring entry to our home. Of course, my wife Elizabeth would like that as well.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?

Songster: At the Golden West College Native Garden, I am trying to increase the number of pollinator plants whose bloom periods overlap. I am also experimenting with “new” plants there-plants I have sometimes never heard of or just could not obtain. I am also trying to simplify the garden by reducing the number of aggressive native annuals such as Elegant Clarkia, Tansy-leaved Phacelia, and even California Poppies each year as part of a plan to make the garden more dependent on perennials for structure, color, and interest.

A Nolina cismontane (Peninsular Beargrass) starting to bloom in Golden West garden. (Photo by D. Songster)

Q: Do you have any tidbits of native plant wisdom to share?

Songster: The California native plant world is a large and rich one with lots of history as well as some great characters. Most native plant gardeners are willing to aid you in your exploration of native plants. Never hesitate to ask questions. Never think some plant person is too important or busy to be bothered. Timing is important of course, but if they really are too busy, they will let you know.

Keep a journal of your native plant experiences. Record plant names, where you got them (especially if it was a gift), where and how you planted it, maintenance over the years, when it blooms, etc. Memories (and plant labels) may fade, but it is interesting and enjoyable to look back on what you recorded 15 or 20 years later.

As Carol Bornstein once said on a tour of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, “A garden is only a snapshot in time.” Don’t expect your native garden to be static, because things will grow, (sometimes far larger than you thought), plants seed around, and plants die giving room for a different plant.

A love of native plants may make you want to get some of everything for your garden, but try to restrain yourself, for as Mike Evans once said, “Strive for diversity but not confusion.”

Be as generous a gardener as you can, and it will come back to you in some way—if not in shared plants, invitations to gardens, or help with weeding—certainly in friendships. As Allen Lacey said, “I know of no common interest that exceeds gardening as a source of lifelong friendships, nor as a means of making new friends almost constantly.”

Golden West College volunteers and friends (Bob Hogan, Dan Songster, Alan Lindsay, Sarah Jayne, a friend, Dori Ito, and Jan Klein). (Photo by D. Songster)

About Dan Songster

In 1987, Songster attended a conference in Claremont titled Ecological Landscaping Symposium. Mildred Matthias (renowned botanist and UCLA professor) was the keynote speaker. Throughout the day, Dan learned how landscapes should make sense both from an aesthetic point of view as well as ecologically, and came away from that and other early symposia knowing that he was not alone in his journey into the world of California Native Plants—with gardens and gardening always remaining his “first loves” (no matter how fascinating he finds botany).

Songster’s list of “native plant heroes” and mentors begins with fellow OC Chapter board members Celia Kutcher (1938-2019) and Sarah Jayne, both of whom have inspired Songster with their generosity in sharing their decades of knowledge and experience in growing natives (and working for native plant conservation).

Also at the top of Songster’s mentor list are Tree of Life Nursery’s Jeff Bohn and Mike Evans for their long-time support of native plant gardeners as they continue to share their hard-earned knowledge (and philosophy), up to and including recent videos and essays. Dan also appreciates the kindness shown by the staff at Tree of Life, which Dan attributes to Mike and Jeff’s leadership.

About Bart O’Brien, Songster says, “Whenever I see him, I learn something and am encouraged—and often obtain some new plants to try out.” Songster also mentions many more mentors: John Dourley, Carol Bornstein, Lili Singer, Glenn Keator, Bob Allen, Mike Lindsay, David Fross, and many others.

“I must also thank my wife Elizabeth,” Songster says, “for always being a willing and cheerful companion in our adventures with native plants and their people. Besides the many pleasant recollections of chapter field trips, meetings, and events, we still have treasured memories of our trips to State CNPS Board meetings (and later Chapter Council Meetings) in different parts of the state and the people we met, field trips taken, and gardens we visited.”

A Bit of California Native Plant Lore, as told by Dan Songster

Story #1

“In the early 1990’s I strongly remember Rod Wallbank and me going on a trip to hopefully learn more about native plants at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (now known as California Botanic Garden).

I asked at the desk who to talk with and was sent down the hall . . . to someone who turned out to be Garden Superintendent John Dourley. Bart O’Brien—who was just about to start work at the garden—was also there.

Our chat turned into over an hour of wonderful sharing of information (mostly one way, with Rod and I listening). The legendary Lee Lenz stopped by at one point. I have never forgotten how important their generosity was to us, and how their love of native plants was a very real thing. What a great example they were and are, and those conversations continued for years—whenever a question came up about a plant we might want to find, I called and talked with John or emailed Bart.

When I think of native plant moments in my life that were inspiring, I always think of the people before the plants.”

Bob Hogan does early morning bird watching at Golden West College. (Photo by D. Songster)

Story #2

“Glenn Keator was a hero of mine in the 1990s, although I did not know him at the time. At that time there was only one book about native plant gardening, Marjorie Schmidt’s Growing California Native Plants (published in 1980). Since this was well before the internet, we were starving for information about native plants.

Then, in 1990, Glenn Keator published Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California, followed (in 1994) by Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California. What a treasure trove of information these were (even though they were written with a bit of a northern California point of view). I spent hours going over his books.

I finally met Glenn at a plant sale up at Tilden Botanic Garden in the Berkeley hills just two years ago, and what a pleasure it was tell him how important his books were to me and to all native plant lovers at that time.”

Students learn about Ecology from instructor Vic Leipzig under a Coast Life Oak at Golden West College. (Photo by Dan Songster)

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