The Secret Garden in Bolinas

I was already twenty miles past it when I realized I’d missed the turn.

The citizens of Bolinas had done it again.

To be fair, I had been warned. A friend told me that the people who lived in the tiny unincorporated community were notorious for cutting down the highway sign that points “outsiders” towards their hamlet. Yet for some foolish reason I had looked for it anyway.

After a quick backtrack south, I hit my target, and walked over to the beach to meet Ian Maclaird, a friend of a friend — my inside man.

At least someone still uses signs in Bolinas!

When I told him about my goof, he laughed. “The county finally stopped replacing the signs,” he said. “It was costing them a fortune.”

It was the first sunny, deliciously warm day I’d experienced along the coast so far, and the surfers were out in full force. I salivated looking at the peeling waves, but I pulled myself away.

I had come to Bolinas for a reason: to learn about magic plants (and, no, not the hallucinogenic variety).

Ian and I drove to BoTierra Biodiversity Research Gardens, and met up with John Glavis, the botanist who founded the gardens (and one of Ian’s old colleagues).

“Did you know that quinoa leaves are 20 percent protein?” John asked me upon arrival. “Everyone eats the seed and ignores the best part of the plant!” he added as he held one up for emphasis.

Ian offered me a handful of purple seeds to try.

“Now those, those are from Styrian pumpkins,” John said as I chewed. “They have no pesky seed coat to remove and are often pressed for oil high in Omega-3s.”

John (L) and Ian (R) in the greenhouse.

Nutty, meaty almost. Lots of flavor.

“Our motto is ‘plants from the past, food for the future,’” John said, as we continued our tour.

All of the plants (there are about 60) that John grows at BoTierra come from places with climates similar to the Bay area’s and were traditionally grown by the indigenous peoples there, but have been largely forgotten.

“Ah, now this one, this is Ashitaba from Japan. Researchers at Tufts University have had exciting results with its sticky yellow sap curing liver cancer,” John said as Ian handed me an Inca berry in a golden husk.

I enjoyed the burst of sweet and sour from the tomato-looking fruit inside, as I listened to John talk about each plant with the boastfulness of a proud dad.

Taraweeh is being used to feed children in the Andes. Plus, it smells like honey.

The greenhouse was the last stop on our tour. John’s face lit up as he pointed out a pretty purple and yellow flower that smelled like honey.

“Now this little guy is the Taraweeh, or Andean Lupine. His seeds are made of 40 percent protein, and they’re being fed to mal-nutritioned school children in the Andean highlands, where the plant originates,” he said beaming at the flower.

“For me, growing flowers to feed children is about as good as it gets.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I thanked both Ian and John for sharing their secret garden with me.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.


  1. […] new podcast. Recorded at last year’s Heirloom Expo, botanical researcher John Glavis of BoTierra Biodiversity Research Gardens talks about Ashitaba, a medicinal and […]

  2. Ben
    June 25, 2012, 9:29 pm

    Sounds like some pretty amazing magic bean, seeds, and berries!

  3. Flamenco Ballet Madrid
    June 22, 2012, 4:44 am

    Go east and hit the coast at Muir Beach and pay a while staring at the infinite blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Head any north to go to Bolinas, an enthralling coastal city filled with artists. Bolinas is simply an hour’s drive from San Francisco.

  4. Brendan Lange
    San Francisco
    June 21, 2012, 1:59 pm

    Great Blog Post Shannon! So HAPPY you got to experience BoTierra and share it with the world :) Hope your travels are still going great!

  5. Shannon Switzer
    June 20, 2012, 5:31 pm

    John and Ian will soon be opening up BoTierra to public visits and work-study programs….definitely get in touch with them if you found this interesting!