Careers in Plant Science and Conservation | Part IV
Here, we continue our series of interviews between CNPS student advisors and professionals working in native plant science, conservation, and horticulture.
A conversation with Antonio Sanchez, botanist and nursery manager from Santa Monica Mountains
By CNPS Student Advisor Richard Rachman
R: Okay Antonio, can you introduce yourself?
A: Yeah, my name is Antonio Sanchez. I currently work with the national parks. I don’t work for the national parks, so I have a little bit of flexibility there. I work for the SAMO Fund, and I run the nursery and do outreach to the community, like kind of hype up native plants and all that bulls***. I guess we will cuss yeah, no?
R: Yeah, no, totally fine! So currently you’re with SAMO Fund with the National Park Service, where were you before that, how did you get to this point?
A: Oh, it’s been a long road. That’s like trying to get to Orange County from Malibu using inside streets through Oxnard. So it’s a lot easier to take the 101 to the 5 to get to Orange County, why I decided to take all the side streets. Well the last job I had was at a non-profit nursery vocational training job training for folks who are either homeless or recovering addicts. It was basically horticultural therapy. We’re teaching them how to do propagation, how to grow plants, how to water, even a little bit of sales. We were growing probably about 50 percent natives, 25 percent maybe Mediterranean type like Proteas and Australian stuff, and then succulents too. I was there for about a year. And before that, I’ve been everywhere. I live for native plants. I’ve been working in native plants for 15 years now. I started at the Theodore Payne Foundation, so I worked there for a year. I used to own my own native plant nursery with a cousin and a friend in Ventura. People still ask us about it almost at least every month. If not once a week.
It’s hard. Sometimes you question why you’re doing it. You look at a thousand acres worth of mustard. Like what the hell do I do with this? But you know that it’s correct. So that’s for me.
R: What was it called?
A: It’s called Nopalito Native Plant Nursery.
R: I’ve definitely heard of it.
A: Yeah, it was pretty well known, we had that for four years and then I ran the nurseries at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden [now California Botanic Garden] for four years. I worked at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for under a year. I used to work at Cal Flora Nursery, which is up in Fulton and Sonoma County. That was my first Native Plant job. Before that, I was working at farms. I used to work at Channel Islands Restoration with Ken Owen and Duke McPherson. So, you know, add all that up four years, plus four years. One year here, one year here, you add all those things in, and now you land here.
R: Yeah, was it a lot like grant chasing? Like if someone had a grant, hire you for-
A: Never, I’ve never worked on a grant at all. This is the first grant-funded job. Everything that is just paper chasing is just trying to make money.
R: Very hard.
A: I don’t think so when we had our nursery. We had a few different slogans: “Plant native, enjoy life.” Right? Because we were just having fun. It was just me, a friend, and our cousin, we were just having fun together. But our other slogans were “If you have a Prius, come see us!” but that wasn’t an official slogan. But basically we knew that if you had a Prius and you shopped at Trader Joe’s that’s who our crowd was. That’s who wants to plant native plants. It’s probably changed a little bit but not too much. And then our other slogan was “Native plants and capitalism don’t mix.” That probably should have been our main slogan.
A: Because capitalism is all about money. Capitalism with plants, it’s all pretty and easy. Native plants are easy, but they’re not pretty to most people, especially when you’re growing up in Southern California. It’s hard to compare with roses and palms and grasses.
R: Birds of paradise.
A: Birds of paradise, totally. Yeah, all those things are hard to compete with.
R: Right? Well, I hope this doesn’t come off as crass, but what was your educational background going into working with farming and native plants?
A: Nothing. So I worked. I was in the Marine Corps. I got out and I had the GI Bill, and so I took some random classes at Oxnard College and was in college for a year or two and then I got into more sustainability stuff at school like some community activist groups, and I found that I just wanted to do organic sustainable farming. So I tried to just do that to work, just working on farms. Working on farms is fun, and you can definitely advance, but it’s hard work, you know. I don’t mind hard work, but I decided to go to school for sustainable agriculture. I went to Santa Rosa Junior College and they had started a new sustainability program. I think it was the second year when I went there, but the woman who had started it was on maternity leave and so the program wasn’t very strong. I just ended up dropping out. They had us do a report on the history, like the foods of your culture, of your family, like where they come from. And so I did a report on foods native to northern Mexico, which is where my mom is from. I found a lot of similarities between the foods of northern Mexico and some of the ones from the Southwest, and those creep into California. And so I said, “I would like to get into native plants because I think they are probably more sustainable” and, yeah, it’s a lot easier than school for me. I just started working at native plant nurseries.
A: Sage Against the Machine [a band] is me and Evan Meyer, who is now the director of Theodore Payne, used to be the director of the seed program at Rancho. He’s a really good pianist. He’s probably a lot better pianist than he is a plant person, and he’s really good. He used to just play for some of the fancy events where they had wine. He would play his piano. We were saying goodbye to Bart O’Brien who’s a famous horticulturist. (He’s written a few books. He’s pretty well-known in the native plant industry, and he was going. Bart had accepted the directorship at the Tilden Garden at Berkeley.) So we’re saying bye to him and everyone was playing piano, and I had a few beers. And I’ll just sit next to Evan and he was playing this little riff on the piano, and I started like freestyling with them and I’m like “keep playing keep playing.” We just kind of made up a song on the spot about Bart and we thought it was funny, maybe nobody else is laughing, but we thought it was funny, and then me and Evan just started jamming out a little bit. I play a little bit of guitar, but Evan’s really good on piano. So we just started hanging out at Rancho Friday nights and just playing music. And then we started writing some songs and we had maybe like four or five songs. There’s a group at Rancho who were interested, who would hear our songs. We would play for like so-called botanists and very few other things, but we didn’t really do anything with it. And unfortunately, the only reason that we’re around right now is because our very good friend Jessica Orozco passed away and our good friend Nick Jensen had asked us to basically re-form since I had left Rancho. I was in Ventura and Evan was at UCLA and Nick said it would be really cool if, for Jessica’s Memorial; Sage could get back together. We said “Let’s do it.” We played some songs, and I think us playing together right now is almost like a legacy of Jessica. She was… like walking into the desert and seeing like a redwood tree there. Not that it’s out of place, like forget all the wetness, you know that it needs more water and all that. Just like you can’t avoid her, she just stuck out, sometimes like a sore thumb just because of her beauty.
R: She was a botanist?
A: She’s a botanist. Yes. She graduated with a Master’s at Rancho.
R: I did hear about her passing.
A: Yeah. She was a native girl. She was awesome. She was just a good person, but she’s one of the two people who would be at our shows up front dancing like she just loved life. She’s the type who would dance, who wouldn’t shut up, was probably not quiet in a movie theater. You’d be telling her to shut the hell up, probably at some random karaoke show, she would be singing the loudest. She just had so much life. And so we’ve been playing a lot. We’ve been writing more songs. We don’t get together and practice like “we’re like over here for Jessica”, but definitely it’s like taking care of part of her energy.
R: Yeah, that’s really sick. Yeah. I’m sure she appreciates that.
R: So I kind of want to shift gears a little bit. I guess not too much. So you mentioned a lot of native plant culture involves Priuses and Trader Joes and capitalism. Do you think the native plant world has a legacy of like white heterosexualism, like just white folks in general, and do you think that’s changing?
A: Well, I live in two worlds. I’m fortunate. I feel blessed to be able to live in the two. Well, there’s probably more than two native plant worlds but the two ones that I live in, that I think about every day: There’s the horticultural world, right. Which is basically 50 plants: white sage, Penstemon Margarita BOP, California buckwheat, etc. — those plants that someone can find at Home Depot. Really it’s gardeners, landscapers. Then the other native plant world I live in is the more scientific botanical world which obviously I didn’t go to school for. I don’t consider myself a scientist or anything, but I’m lucky enough to know enough people that I think I can pull from that, right? I understand. I think most horticulture folks don’t care, wouldn’t care about the California floristic province. They wouldn’t care about you know, CNPS Rank 1B.2s and all that. They wouldn’t care about the natural distribution of plants. They wouldn’t really care about genetic pollution of, you know, Penstemon Margarita BOP. That’s a hybrid being planted right next to the national parks where it could contaminate natural stands at Penstemon heterophyllus. I’m lucky enough to exist in those two worlds. For sure, both of those worlds are dominated by white folks. And they’re dominated mostly by males, even though in the botanical world, the scientific world, there’s a ton of females. There’s a lot of young, not necessarily young but up-and-coming female researchers and scientists. Horticulture for sure is more like dude heterosexually-dominated. That represents and reflects the plants that get chosen. Right, science, probably the research that gets done. I think Jessica, to go back to Jessica, she had wanted to do her doctoral research on chia, she wanted to follow chia up and down California. Do DNA tests to see if she could figure out if some of the chia, Salvia columbariae, had been traded between tribes instead of just occurring like naturally, locally genetically, right? Her theory, I think was that she would find a lot of the same genetics up and down the coast, their paths.
R: Are these other projects still being done?
A: No, you know, after she passed away. Um, she didn’t, she wasn’t going to, well at least that I know, she wasn’t going to continue on her doctorate. Just the fact that she had native blood and that’s what she was interested in reflects the research that she was doing, whereas somebody who might not be from the community or be from a lower income or minority community wouldn’t think about those things, right? So yeah, I think where you come from like reflects the work that you do.
R: Yeah. What advice do you have for community college students, low-income students trying to make it into such a white space. Do you think that you could possibly pull from like your life or I mean what you saw with Jessica? I mean you seem to, she seems to have a really huge impact on your life.
A: Mmm-hmm, man. I don’t know that I have any advice. It’s, be ready to not make any money. I think there’s this: I didn’t go to college, right? But I think a lot of these youngsters are coming up, they feel the pressure to go to college from the parents, first-generation families. Whether it’s said or unsaid to get a job that’s going to make money. I think the botanical world is not that sexy money, right? It’s just not one of those worlds where people are like rolling through with like these F350 $80,000 trucks, right? Not that that’s what folks want. But that to a lot of folks is success, especially when you come from places with nothing but dirt roads in Mexico, or it’s a lot of those or any country really in the neighborhood. So I could see how it would be hard to be into plants if you’re not guaranteed that it’s going to make you money, if you can’t support your parents, or you can’t buy your own house. So I would say I don’t know any, do I know any native plant people who are comfortably wealthy? I don’t think I do. Alright, you know, I think all of them are day-to-day struggles, some of them month-to-month. A lot of them it’s year to year.
R: Yeah. It almost makes it that much more important that state, federal, and regional governments financially support the conservation of native plants and their propagation, habitat restoration. I don’t know, just an aside.
A: Yes. I think they should. I mean this conversation won’t make it happen, you know? But if we talk about it enough, you know. I was in the military, I support the military. I love the military. I don’t love everything the military does but in a lot of other places youngsters are forced to go into the military to serve their country. And you know if people stop to register with such a service and all that, I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a green army of youngsters if they don’t go to college right away or for whatever reason for a year or two. They go do green work. Right? Which would include trail building, conservation, restoration, seed collection, all those things. It helps build character. It’s hard work. It lets you know your neighborhood if you didn’t grow around green. A lot of kids in Oxnard or LA, they don’t even, they have no idea. It’s not their fault. When you drive from here to school and then you go to the swap meet on the weekends and then you go to your aunt’s house for a quinceanera or for a party, like there’s just no chance to get access to the natural world.
R: The two cities you listed are pretty prime examples of environmental racism, like a lot of those have large factories built-in right next to the schoolyard or are just devoid of green spaces.
A: It’s hard to move away. Only if you have the money.
R: You have to live in the spaces. They’re so cheap. I mean where else could you afford to live in LA? You would think too that it would be a matter of National Security because of climate change and the effects that racism has. If we did have some sort of environmental volunteer force, it could help.
A: This sounds weird, but I think it will actually happen eventually, this young group. So I mean whether people know it or not, what you were taught in schools is kind of what you spout off, at least partly. Who you grew up with in elementary school and all that, and then you have that effect on your friends, and whatever events happened at home, right? All these people work to make you who you are. Basically like a plant right? The water, the soil, the sun, reflects what the plant is. So what I see a lot more now is that they’re starting to talk like green and environmentalism. And I don’t think it’s their brainwash. I think that’s just a part of like, science, and life that we’re making part of the curriculum out in school. And so I think maybe not in the next 10 years, but I could see in the next 50 years that there will be those types, groups of young environmentalists. I mean they already are like Conservation Corps, but those seem like rough jobs. People don’t, most people don’t want to go into the Conservation Corps. It doesn’t pay much and it’s pretty hard work. Right, but I could see that, things like that expanding because people want to help kids who want to help, and going to school doesn’t necessarily help, right? It’s not that you can’t get your hands dirty at school. It’s just hard to get dirty in the classroom.
R: I noticed a lot of students are graduating with lack of field experience. I don’t think it’s their fault they don’t understand plants, but they lack actually touching and feeling a wild plant, understanding it.
R: So I understand that disconnect, between education and the botanical world, sometimes it’s driven academically so often. But I do have another question. Scientific names. I’ve heard some critiques of the usage of scientific names, well it’s a lot of Latin, right? So it heavily depends on a dead, white language. What are your thoughts on the usage of scientific names versus perhaps indigenous names or common names?
A: So I started working on farms and no one uses scientific names on farms. I think the scientific name for corn is Zea mays or something like that. But what farmer whether you’re in Oaxaca, or Chihuahua or even Iowa said “Yeah, give me some of that Zea mays” right like seed selection whatever, Bonnie’s delight, no one. So when I first started with native plants because I had that agriculture background, I was resistant. Like no one uses scientific names, and then I kind of started hanging out with more native plant people and they do use almost exclusively scientific names. They might say foothill penstemon, but they will almost always first say Penstemon heterophyllus or Salvia apiana, white sage, right? I was super resistant and I hate the idea of using scientific names, but I think it all depends on where you’re at. Like what your purpose is with the plant. If you’re just at home and you’re trying to relate to your neighbor about what this plant is, who gives two sh*ts about the scientific names? No one, no one cares. So in Spanish, Yerba buena is “the mint.” Those are all non-native. They’re not native to Mexico but every Mexican probably past the age of three, probably knows that’s Yerba buena, right? Almost every Mexican is like, “I know that, Yerba buena, cool, yeah Yerba buena.” In California, Clinopodium douglasii, which is you know, Yerba buena. That’s the California mint. Two different plants. It’s the uses of the plant, right? I think once you’re in the neighborhood, and you’re talking to folks who are just regular neighborhood folks, like why would you even bring that in? No one gives a sh*t about scientific names. In fact, they might think like “why you talking fancy white? Where are you? Who are you trying to impress with the scientific names?”
But you know now Nopalitos as an example. When we opened up in Ventura, started selling to the public, we were just three guys from out the real part of Oxnard, selling native plants to mostly like Prius folks from Thousand Oaks and Ojai in Santa Barbara. They come back. No one from our area came to see us. No one, no one. And you just know what language to use, it’s basically like the language of the street. You just know if you’re talking to someone who would understand Yerba buena, you use Yerba Buena. If you’re talking to someone who would look down to you for using Yerba buena, then that’s when you have to kind of step up your game. That might be the advice that I have to two youngsters you asked about like low-income or like kids from like Latinos or whatever. The question was, like don’t forget who you are and don’t ever be afraid to like eat tortillas in front of people. When you step up to a different level, that’s a different culture and sometimes you have to adjust. So I have no problem using scientific names when I have to, right? If I have to give a class on maintenance in front of folks at Thousand Oaks and I feel it’s appropriate to use scientific names, then let’s use scientific names. If we have to collect seed and I have to give a class scientifically on things like collecting seed, I’m not going to stubbornly say, ‘I’m not using scientific names, we’re collecting Yerba buena.’ I think to know and to push those boundaries as to when to use. And it’s not just the names. It’s just the language that you use, the way you dress, all those things like, you kind of you don’t want to forget who you are. But you also have to change because most of the Native Plant World is outside of your neighborhood. So you just have to, unfortunately, adjust. So for the most part, I don’t like scientific names, but I have to use them.
R: I want to comment, and I guess it is not a question. Because of people like you, I think the native plant world is changing very quickly in the best way possible and becoming more diverse. I don’t know if you want that on your shoulders, but I think in the coolest way people like Antonio here with SAMO Youth are just doing such incredible work and returning the face of native plants to what they used to look like. So thank you. I think we hit a lot of marks, and I hate to take any more of your day. Is there anything else you’d want to say before we finish up to potential college students? Or not college students?
A: Yeah, if you’re into native plants, this is the right path. It’s the right path to me. It’s like a religion.
A: I can put my head down and know every day that I’m doing something correct. I might not be doing it in the right way. I think phytophthora is one of those things. So people are concerned about phytophthora right now in nurseries, and there’s sudden oak death in northern California. There might be someone growing native plants in a very sustainable way who has phytophthora in their plants and is actually introducing that disease into the ground, and I don’t think that that’s a bad person. They have good intentions. I think, when you work with native plants, there’s all these small hurdles. You have to drive a car, you know, there’s just all these things like genetics, I wouldn’t let that get in your way. I think just if you just treat it like it’s the right thing to do for our state, it is. You know that, and you can’t be wrong. You can be wrong in the small things. But in the long run you pass your work on to someone else, and they build off of it. So I don’t think it’s ever wrong. Whether you spend just a small internship for three months with native plants, or you plan to spend the rest of your life with native plants. It’s always correct, you know, you’re correct if you’re doing it. It’s hard. Sometimes you question why you’re doing it. You look at a thousand acres worth of mustard. Like what the hell do I do with this? But you know that it’s correct. So that’s for me. That’s how I get through every day as I just feel that this is the right thing to do.
R: Yeah. Cool.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Richard Rachman is a plant ecologist based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate student and instructor at California State University, Northridge, as well as a vegetation monitoring technician with Nature Serve working alongside the BLM in Northeastern California and Nevada. Previous research has been in dendrochronology with Artemisia tridentata, vegetation communities in Greater sage-grouse habitat, native rodent stress and bait preference, and arachnid microhabitats. Richard enjoys watching movies in his free time, playing PokémonGo, botanizing, eating at vegetarian restaurants, and advocating for habitat restoration and for the Queer community..