Lili Singer turns Californians on to backyard bounty

?Native Intelligence:Lili Singer turns Californians on to backyard bounty

By Erika Schickel

Lili Singer is special projects coordinator for the Theodore Payne Foundation in Los Angeles, CA

Smell this, it's called 'Cowboy Cologne.' " Lili Singer stands in the nursery rubbing the leaves of a small gray-green plant between her fingers and takes a deep whiff. I follow her lead. The scent is pungent and heady - pure California hillside. We are visiting a new shipment of native plants that has just arrived at the Theodore Payne Foundation - a Sunland CA organization dedicated to restoring native California landscapes and habitats and educating people about them. Singer greets the plants like old friends. "Somewhere around 18, I discovered my God was in a carrot seed," she says. "To me, that process alone - growing something from seed - is miraculous."

So it's fitting that Singer took a position at the foundation as the director of special programs. Theodore Payne also found God in a seed. A young British horticulturist, Payne settled in Santiago Canyon in Orange County in 1893. "While he was there, he discovered matilija poppies and other California natives, and he saw development coming in," Singer explains. "He saw that people in California had no affection for their own beautiful plants. So he started collecting seeds and promoting them."

Now, Singer carries on Payne's legacy, bringing native plants to the masses and coordinating the foundation's popular garden tour, where members can see firsthand the beauty of native gardening. There is far more at stake here than pretty flowers, Singer says. "There are shrinking wilds out there and the garden can play an important role in preserving local plants and animals" by maintaining the continuity of native habitat.

Singer, a California native herself, first became widely known to Angelenos throughThe Garden Show, a live, call-in radio program on KCRW that she hosted from 1982 to 1996. Nearly encyclopedic on everything from aphids toZauschneria, Singer and her easy enthusiasm made the program ear candy for listeners. After the show went off the air, Singer worked as a garden consultant, wrote and published two award-winning newsletters, freelanced forThe Los Angeles Timesand has led garden talks at the L A County Arboretum & Botanic Garden since 2004.

As we exit through a nursery gate festooned with a climbing manzanita, Singer grows pensive. "Payne's idea of preserving California and the beautiful plants in it, as he saw the wild spaces going away, was visionary. We need to listen to his message even more today, because we didn't before."