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Know the West

Native Intelligence

Lili Singer turns Californians on to backyard bounty


NAME Lili Singer

AGE 48

OCCUPATION Special projects coordinator for the Theodore Payne Foundation in Los Angeles, Calif.

FAVORITE PLANT She loves them all

COLLECTS "Little teeny things. My whole life I've been picking up acorns," she says, and "the smallest shells I can find on the beach in Baja."

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, Calif., 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, a brusque, apple-cheeked woman with a ragged, ready laugh, 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 at the Hollywood Farmers' Market 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 through The Garden Show, a live, call-in radio program on KCRW that she hosted from 1982 to 1996. Nearly encyclopedic on everything from aphids to Zauschneria, 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 for The Los Angeles Times and has led garden talks at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden since 2004.

"(As a child) I always liked animals. I was not totally into plants. The garden to me was winding up the hose and raking up the fig leaves," she says. Her father opened a rare succulent nursery when she was 12, and she went to work for him, learning the Latin names of plants he would toss out at her until they became her second language.

We come to a large bush bursting with bright, yellow flowers. "Ah, look at this beautiful plant," she says, approaching it like a piece of fresh fruit at a farm stand - with her hands. "It's an Encelia, but I'm not sure of the species." She digs into the shrub. "Come and look at these funny little buds," she says, pointing out what look like tiny black pincushions on stems. She gently turns a frond of skinny leaves over in her pale hand. "Not a single pest on this. You are perfect."

Singer learned horticulture just like this, handling plants. At 17, she worked for a year in a little nursery in Canoga Park. "That was me and my dog and a Sunset (Western Garden) book. I always tell people who want to study horticulture to go work in a nursery for a year. You won't make any money, but you'll learn more about plants than you ever will in a classroom."

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."

The author lives and gardens in Los Angeles. Her recent work includes the book You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom.