Golden Hour

The Colors of Dunsmuir’s Botanical Gardens…

Ernie Wasson is a painter of sorts. His canvas features every color in the rainbow, colors that vary from season to season.

Wasson’s canvas is the Botanical Gardens in Dunsmuir’s City Park. Over the past three years, as the Gardens’ manager, he has roamed through nurseries in Southern Oregon and Northern California, looking for bright, showy flowers and other plants with interesting, attractive features. 

Tuberous Begonia

Starting this spring you’ll see the results of his forays: the red, pink, yellow and white blossoms of the rhododendrons, the large white blossoms of the dogwoods. And in the fall, the purple, red, yellow and white flowers of the sages; the yellow, pink and red blossoms of the begonias; and the brightly colored leaves of the maples and dogwoods.

The Gardens feature plants from Asia, Mexico and Greece, as well as a wide variety of native plants.

A friendly, loquacious guy who loves to share his knowledge of the plant world, Wasson is happy to show off the Gardens to visitors. And there’s a lot to see. Among the more interesting features are the elegantly long, velvety soft needles of the Japanese umbrella pine; the rare Shasta snow-wreath shrub, found only here and in the Sacramento River canyon in Shasta County; the orange milkweed in the bee-attracting “pollinator garden” at the Gardens’ main entrance on Dunsmuir Avenue.

Summer flower border

Work on the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens began in the early 1990s. They were conceived as a way to draw visitors to a town that was in the economic doldrums due to the shrinking workforce of the town’s major employer, the Southern Pacific Railroad. To make matters worse, in 1991, a derailed Southern Pacific tank car spilled toxic chemicals in the Sacramento River just north of Dunsmuir, decimating fish populations and striking another blow to a town that had been a magnet for sport fishermen.

Today, with a fully restored river running right by them, the Botanical Gardens draw visitors from the Bay Area, Sacramento, Portland and well beyond. A big, bold sign at the Gardens’ entrance beckons to motorists on nearby Interstate 5. 

Summer flower border

Wasson often meets families who’ve been coming to the Gardens for decades to picnic and enjoy the plant life. The Gardens provide a colorful backdrop for weddings, children’s birthday parties and music concerts on an outdoor stage at the north side. One day Wasson watched as eight motorcyclists roared down the steep road that leads to the Gardens. They got off their Harleys, staged a brief marriage ceremony in the middle of the Gardens, then charged back up the hill.

After a long career working in nurseries and public gardens, Wasson, now 70, moved to Dunsmuir nearly eight years ago to retire and pursue new interests. He signed up to volunteer at Dunsmuir’s Siskiyou Arts Museum and is currently its board president.

But when the Gardens’ previous manager, Candace Miller, moved out of town, Wasson was the obvious choice to be her successor. His plans to retire went out the window, but he keeps his work down to no more than 10 hours a week. He does the pruning and scouts for new additions to the Gardens, while his assistant, Shirley Magnuson, does most of the maintenance.

Japanese Umbrella Pine

It’s easy to practice social distancing while touring the Botanical Gardens, so they’ve been open to visitors throughout the pandemic. “The flowers are going to be there for everyone, wearing their best colors, pandemic or no pandemic,” notes Luann Krahn-Wiegele, president of the Gardens’ board of directors.

If you take a walk through the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens this spring, you’ll get to enjoy those colors. And, who knows, you just might be inspired to take up a little Ernie Wasson-style painting in your own backyard.

Fall color in Japanese Dissectum Maple Photo by Ernie Wasson

Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens
4841 Dunsmuir Ave, Dunsmuir • (530) 235-4740

About Tim Holt

Tim is a longtime journalist, the editor of the quarterly Northwest Review, and the author of “On Higher Ground,” a futuristic novel set in the Mount Shasta region. He lives in Dunsmuir, and is an avid cyclist and hiker.

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