Friday, April 22, is Earth Day, and for Elizabeth Appel it will include digging around in the ground on hands and knees, carefully selecting and collecting samples of Nature’s bounteous plant species on hillsides and roadsides from the Monterey County line south to Cambria.
Charlie Lawrence, meanwhile, will spend his Earth Day dutifully walking the banks of the now-flowing Santa Rosa Creek, getting his hands dirty and carrying a bucket of water as he digs out (or clips with scissors) perfect samples of myriad species of San Luis Obispo County wildflowers.
And the fact that Friday happens to be Earth Day is entirely coincidental to the duties these two — and 13 or so others — will be performing. They gather wildflowers every year on the Friday before the Saturday and Sunday of the Cambria Wildflower Show. This year, the 11th annual event is April 23 and 24 in the Veterans Memorial Building in the West Village.
The idea of a wildflower show occurred to Appel when her longtime botanist friend Doc Miller — involved for many years with the Pacific Grove Wildflower Show — began to hear grumbling from members of the Pacific Grove group that they didn’t like him bringing in wildflowers that looked like “weeds.”
At that point, Appel remembers saying, “We should have our own show in Cambria.” So 13 years ago, Appel and Miller approached JoEllen Butler, a leader among Fiscalini Ranch Preserve volunteers, and a Cambria wildflower show began to blossom.
Interviewed in her Park Hill home April 14 — a stone’s throw from the ocean — Appel said the No. 1 purpose of the wildflower show is discovery: “Just that joy of discovering the name of a plant that you’ve seen, or discovering new plants that grow in this county that you might be able to locate yourself.”
Secondly, there is the educational aspect, Appel noted.
“This year we are including information on medicinal plants and edible plants.”
But moreover, Appel smiled, “It’s just fun! It is fun to see what Mother Nature presents to us every year. I never know what stimulates people to come, in particular, but we want to get the word out to a broad audience that we have something really special (as many as 400 or more species) to share with them.
“New plants are discovered every year,” she explained.
Birds may carry the seeds, or individuals’ shoes may carry seeds from another region in California — and the wind may carry seeds, as well.
When collecting, Appel and Lawrence carry buckets with water and the stem of each plant unearthed is gently wrapped in newspaper and kept “constantly wet” in the bucket. Around 5 o’clock Friday, the collectors (about 15 volunteers) return to the veterans building and another crew removes the plants from the buckets and places them in jars and bottles.
Lawrence, interviewed April 15 at his home in Paso Robles, had been an avid birder for many years. Because he was and is driven by a passion to learn more about the natural world, seven years ago he attended botany classes given by Doc Miller.
With that fresh knowledge in mind, he attended a nature hike at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. At the Ranch that day, he met Butler, who was soliciting volunteers for the wildflower show.
“I said yes, and for my first job, I started out as a person who, with great enthusiasm, rinsed the jars and vases, a big job.
“And when the collectors started showing up with their plants on Friday afternoon, I did not have enough experience my first year to be placing the plants in the jars and vases. But I volunteered for Saturday morning’s front desk,” as the greeter, which he will do again this year.
After two years of learning the ropes, Lawrence — whose career included two tours of duty with the U.S. Navy (one in Vietnam) and many years as a quality engineer at TRW in San Luis Obispo — went out collecting with Butler.
“It was fabulous. I carried the bags and bucket, and tools, and my camera. For everything we picked, I took a picture.
“Later I posted the pictures on a big sheet and wrote the names of the plants under each picture. That’s how I memorized the names of plants.”
This year he will again collect with Butler.
The 76-year-old Lawrence embraces the values of Buddhism. From a chair on his front porch — surrounded by containers with three varieties of Swiss chard, several hybrid broccoli-kale plants, celery and tomato plants — he said the wildflower show isn’t just about education.
“It’s spiritual,” he emphasized.
Looking into the DNA of these plants “opens up a universe of complexity that is so amazing,” he said. “I handle these plants with care and reverence. I have learned a new world.
“I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but I meditate. Watching wildflowers come up, then go away … something that seems really important to me is the manifestation of the creation that you can find in botany. It’s right there.
“Also, being outdoors in their element — I’m the visitor. We’re sharing a habitat with all the bugs, the birds, and small mammals and rodents that cooperate in that environment. You don’t have to think about all that stuff; it’s just a feeling of humility.”
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at john fitz44 @gmail .com.
Cambria Wildflower Show
The Cambria Wildflower Show (sponsored by the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve) is open Saturday, April 23, from noon to 5 p.m., and is open Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Information is available by calling 927-2856 or visiting firstname.lastname@example.org. A $3 donation is requested, and students and children can attend free.