Leach plant showcase thrives under volunteers; more requested
by: DENISE FARWELL, Gresham volunteer Janet Dorow surveys the starts Thursday in the greenhouse at Leach Botanical Garden, a 26-acre native-plant sanctuary that narrowly escaped becoming a site for condominiums in 1980.

Twenty-five years ago this fall, Charlene Holzwarth and a handful of others were scaling the fence at an overgrown, five-acre garden in Southeast Portland.

They were sneaking onto the old Leach family property, which had been in disrepair for nearly a decade, to pull weeds and uncover the surviving plants of the old neighborhood garden.

Today, due to health problems, Holzwarth's activities at Leach Botanical Garden are limited to the manor house where she answers the telephone on Sundays. She is one of dozens of volunteers who, after countless hours of work, remain loyal to the garden and the Leach family.

'I still love to go there,' said Holzwarth, now 79 years old. 'It's such a romantic place.'

John and Lilla Leach lived in their home, at 6704 S.E. 122nd Ave., for 40 years. John Leach owned a pharmacy on nearby Southeast Foster Road, and Lilla was a retired teacher and avid botanist who discovered five plants, one dating back 10 million years, that was named Kalmiopsis Leachiana in her honor.

John Leach shared his wife's enthusiasm for Northwest plants, and together they planted and maintained a garden on nearly all of their five-acre estate.

'A lot of people in the Lents neighborhood knew John Leach because he would share his plants with them,' said Holzwarth, who co-authored a book on the Leaches.

Holzwarth loves to tell a story about how the Leaches treated groups of children who visited their garden on classroom field trips. She said that near the end of the garden tour, John would ask Lilla if he forgot anything, and she would ask, 'What about the lollipop tree?'

'Of course, the kids' ears would perk up at the thought of a tree that grew lollipops,' Holzwarth said. 'So John would lead them to a tree where he had tied on one lollipop for each student to pick off.'

The Leaches also hosted neighborhood children for an annual Halloween party in their garage, and John Leach employed neighborhood kids during the Depression, paying them nickels and dimes to rake and weed his garden.

The Leaches never had children of their own. Holzwarth said their relationship was always very romantic. The couple never left town without one another, and John Leach frequently penned poems for Lilla, some of which are preserved at the Leach Botanical Garden manor house.

When John Leach died in 1972, he left his house and garden to the Oregon Parks Foundation, which transferred ownership to Portland Parks and Recreation. Leach's will required that the property be used for a botanical garden and museum and, if the city did not comply within 10 years, ownership of the property would switch to the YMCA, with which John Leach was very active.

For nearly a decade, the parks department simply operated the Leach family home as a rental and did not maintain the garden. In 1980, shortly after Lilla Leach died, the YMCA notified the city of its plans to take over the property since the city was not complying with Leach's will.

At the time, the YMCA was suffering financial hardship because its youth camp had been destroyed when Mount St. Helens erupted. The organization planned to sell off the Leach property to a condominium developer.

'I had two friends who worked for the city, and they knew the city was planning to release the property to the Y,' Holzwarth said. 'They called me for help because I was a member of the native plants society.'

Holzwarth had one year to convince the city to hold on to the property. She and a handful of neighbors quickly organized monthly meetings, creating a nonprofit organization called Leach Garden Friends in November 1981.

'At first, there wasn't very much hope that we could pull it off,' Holzwarth said. 'It rained cats and dogs every time we had a monthly meeting.'

The Leach Garden Friends were successful after organizing community tours of the garden and encouraging neighbors to write letters to the then-new director of Parks, Charles Jordan.

Instead of signing the property over to the YMCA, Jordan found funding to bring the Leach home up to code and develop a master plan.

Since then, the Leach Botanical Garden has been run primarily by the Friends group, which funds a full-time gardener, a director and several part-time positions. More than 100 volunteers do the rest, which includes operating an international seed exchange with other botanical gardens.

'They are all amazing people,' Holzwarth said. 'Many of them volunteer every single day.'

Funds are raised through a variety of sources including event rentals for weddings and meetings, plant sales from the nursery, gift shop sales, fundraisers and grants.

The Leach Garden Friends board of directors also is considering expanding its education program to offer regular gardening classes for adults.

The garden now covers nearly 26 acres, which are home to thousands of native Northwest plants. Plans for two newer parcels of land include native grasslands and bog plantings, since the property includes Johnson Creek.

Now that the garden is operating as the Leaches intended, as a botanical resource for gardeners worldwide, the next challenge is to round up more volunteers because many of the current ones are not as agile as they used to be. Most of the volunteers are retired, many of them in their 80s.

'Anyone who has volunteered here says they still feel John and Lilla roaming the rooms, and they are happy with what we've done,' Holzwarth said.

Leach Botanical Garden, 6704 S.E. 122nd Ave., is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

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