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Olompali Historic State Park celebrates heritage, rehabilitates gardens

  • Marilyn Geary
  • Many years ago I would take my young son on day trips to Olompali Historic State Park off Highway 101 north of Novato. There he could freely wander about as we roamed past the pomegranate hedge to the neglected historic Victorian garden and the vast grounds overlooking the Petaluma River and San Pablo Bay. Back then, picnicking in the fern grotto near the 20-foot-tall lava rock fountain, it seemed as if we had all of Olompali's vast acreage to ourselves. Yet everywhere we looked, we saw remnants of its prior residents.
    Olompali has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years.
    For most of that time it served as a major Miwok trading hub. In 1852, James Black, Marin County's first judge and tax assessor, purchased the land from Coast Miwok headman Camilo Ynitia, the only Native American to have been awarded a Mexican land grant. Black gave the land to his daughter Mary when she married dentist Dr. Galen Burdell.
    In 1866, the Burdells moved permanently to the property, which they operated as a working ranch. Historian Jack Mason writes in his book Early Marin, that "the orchards were of many kinds of fruit: apple, pear, quince, fig, pomegranate, persimmon, apricot, peach and plum. Fifty acres were planted in 30 varieties of grapes, a kind of experimental vineyard with 'a hint of noble wines to come.'" The banana trees did poorly, but 200 orange trees were the equal of any in Los Angeles, according to Mason.
    The Burdell family sold the property in the 1940s, and it has since been home to a Jesuit retreat, a dairy ranch, a private swim club and a hippie commune. The State of California, together with Marin County Open Space, purchased the property in 1977 to preserve it as a State Historic Park.
    Recently, I was surprised by the many changes in the 700-acre park since my last visit a decade ago. The 1874 Frame House contains a visitors' center, a small, informative exhibit and a bookshop. Signage designates the blacksmith shop, cottages, barns and the walnut orchard - historic sites and structures that date from the 1850s to 1870s.
    Much of these improvements are because of the Olompali People (TOP), a nonprofit group of volunteers that supports the park. In 2006 TOP successfully applied for a $100,800 planning grant to create a rehabilitation plan for the Mary Burdell Victorian Garden and Grounds - one of the only surviving examples of 1870-period gardens in the Bay Area and California and has been designated an Historical American Landscape Survey Site.
    Mary Burdell designed her 2.5-acre garden in the late 1860s. In 1874, at a time when many botanists were combing Asia to collect plants, she traveled to Asia with a friend, bringing back numerous exotic specimen plants along with six Japanese gardeners to tend them.
    Some of the many exotics still living in the garden include the Australian Bunya-Bunya (Araucaria bifwillii), Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), mourning cypress (Chamaecyparis funebris), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), Australian bottlebrush (Callistemon) and a grove of myrtle (Myrtus) trees. The garden suffered from more than 60 years of neglect, but volunteers from the original plants live on. Offspring from a specimen Sago palm (Cycas revolute) that died two years ago still survive in the garden.
    The rehabilitation plans for this rare intact Victorian garden call for restoration of its greenhouse, gazebo and the pathways that wind through the drought-tolerant specimen plants from Asia, Australia and South America. With plans in place, TOP is raising funds for the garden project's construction phase.
    Along with the Mary Burdell Victorian Garden, TOP tends the Miwok Ethnobotanical Garden, another designated Historical American Landscape Survey Site. Located in the re-created Miwok interpretive village beyond the dairy and barn, this native garden is a partnership project of TOP and Marin Master Gardeners. Meandering near the creek and through the village in a U-shaped path, the garden educates visitors on the Miwok use of native plants.
    Native plant specimens are grown from seed or from plants native to the Olompali area. Master Gardeners work under the direction of TOP, including Clint Kellner, biologist/ethno-botanist, and Diane Einstein, chairwoman of TOP and Sonoma Master Gardener.
    "The geology of the Olompali area creates a unique watershed. Mount Burdell is replete with springs that have made water available in this area through periods of drought," Einstein says. A stone reservoir and water system constructed by Galen Burdell with the help of Chinese workers is still in use.
    The native garden contains more than 50 plants, including wild onion (Allium amplectens), checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvaeflora ssp. malvaeflora), hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus), manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), the sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) and chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata).
    Temporary signs denote the names and uses of each plant. The Coast Miwoks ate wild onion bulbs, baked checkerbloom leaves, munched on fresh hazelnuts and wild rye seeds, and drank a beverage made from manzanita berries. They also boiled sticky monkeyflower leaves for greens and packed acorn bread with chain fern leaves to give it a good flavor.
    The Coast Miwoks also used plants to construct houses, boats, and tools. Plants were important sources of medicine and were used to create musical instruments, ceremonial charms, and in many other aspects of ritual and spiritual life.
    One goal for the native plant garden is to develop permanent interpretive signs and maps. The Marin Master Gardeners have given the project a small grant to develop line drawings of the native plants for the signs.
    Since Miwok traditions have been passed down orally without benefit of a written language, each sign is reviewed for accuracy by elders of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria - Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo.
    TOP also plans a basketry garden, in which plants traditionally used by the Miwok basketmakers - horse tail, bullrush, sedge and tule - will be planted for harvesting by current day Miwok basket weavers.
    Plan to stop by May 17 for the 24th annual Olompali Heritage Day, a free day featuring a guided tour of the Burdell Victorian Garden, native plant and bird walks, native dancing, natural and cultural history talks, and demonstrations of blacksmithing, basketry, flint-knapping and adobe brick-making.
    You can also learn more about native plants by joining TOP on gardening days, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the second Sundays of each month, in the native plant garden.
    Donations for rehabilitation of the Mary Burdell Victorian Garden can be sent to The Olompali People, P.O. Box 1400, Novato 94948.
    What: 24th annual Olompali Heritage Day
    When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 17, 2009
    Where: Olompali Historic State Park
    Admission: Free
    Information: 898-4362, ext. 14