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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

First wave of always-unpredictable wildflowers bursting on campus grounds


The next few weeks will be prime time for wildflower sightings along Stanford's main arteries.

Swatches of color are popping up at about 20 sites, most located along or near Campus Drive.

Budding plants are filling median strips by Stock Farm Road, where red poppies are springing up alongside their golden counterparts. And an island of lupines stretches like a royal carpet by the Cowell Student Health Service building. Expanses of wildflowers also ring the Oval.

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The wildflowers currently in bloom on campus are part of the first wave expected, although "you can't predict what's going to come up," says Mary Nolan, grounds crew supervisor with Facilities Operations.

Her crews have planted a basic mix of California coastal wildflower seeds that include white yarrow, ox-eye daisy, scarlet flax, Flanders poppy, California evening primrose and the ubiquitous pygmy-leaved lupine and California poppy.

Soon the greenbelts edging the roadways will sprout flamboyant native foliage with filmy petals that undulate with the breeze. Wildflower program coordinators hope the blossoms will keep into June.

"Last year we had late winter rains that helped lengthen the season and one could even enjoy them on commencement day," recalls Judy Chan, associate director of the University Architect/Planning Office. "It was delightful to see graduates, caps and gowns adorned, knee-high in wildflowers ­ we hope this year is just as spectacular."

In other budding developments, the university's climbing roses are putting on quite a show at Stanford's "storefront," the approach along El Camino Real running from Stanford Avenue to Quarry Road. Shrub-planning crews led by Dave Sunseri maintain the 700 blooming plants, all of a deep red color one might even mistake for a cardinal hue.

To launch the annual wildflower effort, each fall a team composed of representatives from grounds, the planning office and the landscape contractor meet to share horticultural knowledge, application techniques, lessons from previous year's program, sites for application and other relevant subjects.

"The best time to seed the wildflowers is during the late autumn for a springtime show," Chan says.

The wildflower program started more than 10 years ago as a landscape concept from Chan's office.

"We were searching for ways to retain a bit of the 'rural farm' as the campus density grew and became more urban in character," says Chan.

Also, the wildflowers were a way to "bring a bit of beauty to the campus and celebrate the subtle seasonal change from the winter to spring with a modest amount of funding."

The program operates through the contributions of the Stanford Infrastructure Program (SIP), donations and the grounds unit. While initial funding for the "landscape experiment" came from Norma and the late Harry LeClaire, five years ago Helen Bing began underwriting it with funds and enlisting landscape contractor Ragno and Associates Inc. Ragno staff works with the university to create the right method and wildflower mix for Stanford's climatic and horticultural conditions.

Helen, who is married to trustee Peter Bing, for years has contributed to the gardens at Stanford Hospital.

And lest dazzled beholders are tempted to filch native blossoms to take with them, they should know that wildflowers don't make good cut flowers ­ so it's best to leave them be. Once harvested, they'll wilt right away, Nolan says. SR