Mendocino, CA 95460
By Andrew Scully
May 7, 2022
You could hear the call of the whippoorwill echoing across the large open fields at the Fairgrounds in Boonville last Sunday afternoon. I imagine it was a sound very familiar to Blanche Brown as she rode on horseback every weekday morning more than three miles over steep and rugged terrain from her home on the Anderson Valley floor to the top of High Peak Ridge, near Peachland. Every day, more than 100 years ago, Ms. Brown would dismount her horse and then take up the podium and desk in the one-room Peachland schoolhouse where she taught her five students, children of workers at a nearby mill.
It was there, in the schoolroom that her students heard her rhapsodize about the flowers. The wildflowers of the Anderson Valley were a particular sweet spot for Ms. Brown, one which she enhanced with considerable study over many decades both in the field and in the library. Blanche Brown imparted her love of flowers to her students in the classroom and in her frequent field trips and forage with the children through Anderson Valley trails and byways now long forgotten.
The many varied specimens gathered were displayed in her classroom, and in 1926 an exhibit of the flowers was staged for the community and became an annual event. Then in 1949 Blanche Brown retired from the Anderson Valley Schools after almost 40 years of service. When she left the schools, the wildflower exhibits stopped.
And they might have just passed into memory, but for a day in 1958 when the AV Campfire Girls group asked her to help put an exhibit together. Happily for everyone, Ms. Brown agreed, the show was a great success, and the next year The AV Unity Club assumed sponsorship of the Annual Wildflower Show, which continues to this day.
If the women of the AV Unity Club have anything to say about it, Blanche Brown and her legacy of service over several decades will never be forgotten. Her spirit lives on in people passing though the Valley as well as locals who have benefited from her imprint. Generations of Valley children, including many who would become teachers themselves, have been inspired by Ms. Brown. And they in turn are in service to the Anderson Valley.
The Unity Club is a women’s volunteer organization, now over 100 years old, dedicated to fostering community and supporting the children and people of the Valley. Incoming Club President Mary Ann Grzenda provided a comprehensive tour of the Show to a your intrepid correspondent, and helpfully explained along the way that the Unity Club goals are supported through staging two major events each year: the Wildflower Show in late spring and the Christmas Bazaar in the Fall, which features local crafts and goods. Money raised during these and other events staged goes to fund provision of mentors and classroom volunteers to support teachers in the AV public schools, Anderson Valley Teen Center operations, and to provide college scholarships for AV high school seniors.
The venerable Wildflower Show is a tangible legacy of Ms. Brown and her passions for learning, for people and for the wild things that make the Valley a special place. The Unity Club Garden Section women are responsible for producing the show each year, and President Grzenda explained that planning and staging for the event is a year-round process.
In addition to the more than 200 specimens gathered for display prior to each show, there is a live native plant sale, and these plants are propagated entirely by Unity Club volunteers using donated materials from local businesses. Two other major outreach initiatives of the Wildflower Show are to allied exhibitors such as the California Native Plant Society (Sanhedrin Section), and the through the public schools Wildflower Art unit that is incorporated into AV Junior and Senior High Art curriculum. The artwork created by these students is truly a highlight of the show.
As for the flowers and other plants, well they were bobby-dazzlers, to be sure! Impressive indeed, they were, beautifully arranged, and presented in Pioneer-days apothecary brown glass vases. More than 200 wildflowers were on display, along with outstanding examples of paintings created by the artists at Anderson Valley Jr and Senior High.
The many lovely and interesting flower cultivars gathered for display in the Floral Hall at the Fairgrounds all grow wild in the Valley – that is without intervention by humans. However the definition of “wildflower” was a matter of some friendly but spirited conversation among the Garden Section members in response to a reporter’s inquiry. As it happens “wildflower” in the context of the Unity Club may be defined as native and introduced cultivars that have been naturalized and now grow on their own every year with sufficient rain. Thus we have familiar local favorites such as rhododendron, California Poppies, penstemon and Indian paintbrush (all native to these areas) as well as flowers and grasses from all over the world that have naturalized to conditions in the Valley.
However defined, the sheer number of blooms on offer was impressive, as were the delicate and thoughtful presentations. Walking among the flowers was sublime. Even the fairgrounds themselves seemed peaceful.
In the quiet among the outbuildings, where the wind and the whippoorwill were the only sounds.