Oaktown Native Plant Nursery
702 Channing Way (near Fourth Street), Berkeley

Oaktown Native Plant Nursery is perched on a small piece of land in West Berkeley where Channing Way dead-ends at the train tracks. The space is a hidden gem for local landscapers and gardeners looking to fill their home gardens with native flora — plants that attract bees and hummingbirds and other pollinators, plants that are more resistant to drought and help control land erosion. It’s also become a go-to for folks seeking to cultivate their own food, as well as restaurant owners seeking to enrich their spaces with California flora. But changes are afoot: founder Kristen Hopper is departing the business, handing the keys to an archeologist turned horticulturist who hopes to keep the business going for years to come.

It’s a big change for Hopper, who began the nursery as a hobby 21 years ago.

“I was a psychiatric crisis worker in downtown Oakland at the height of the crack epidemic,” Hopper said of her life before Oaktown. It was a tough job. Long hours, little pay, stressful conditions. And Hopper soon realized it was a career she could not sustain. 

“It was pretty rough. I was young and idealistic and kind of soft-hearted. I took it bad when things didn’t go right and things didn’t go right a lot.”

Plants offered her refuge from the demands of social work. She grew up around plants and her parents were avid gardeners, and they were also how Hopper came to know and fall in love with California. As a native New Englander, California’s lack of seasons was at first shocking to her. But once she got to know the native plants, and came to understand the normal cycle of summer drought and opposite dormancies, California flora became an obsession.

“The idea of ecological restoration was new and I was kind of excited about habitat restoration and doing good things in the ecosystem,” she said. “I guess I kind of thought of it as a different kind of social work. Social work for the ecosystem.”

At the time, there weren’t a lot of nurseries specializing in plants native to California. She used to go on long hikes and would see plants that she never saw in nurseries in town.

“I would see stuff out hiking or on trips and think, wow, that would be really cool if you could propagate that and people could put it in their gardens. It would add habitat value and visual interest. And not only that, I’d get to grow it.”

How the nursery was born

Hopper first launched Oaktown in a backyard in Oakland off Park Boulevard, then moved it to Alameda Point for four years before landing in its current space on Channing Way in Berkeley in 2010. The Channing lot was owned by Pacific Coast Chemical Company, a group that specialized in food additives including many products used in the wine industry, and a former Pacific Coast employee, an old Italian man named Primo, had used the space for a veggie garden and had planted berry vines and olive trees and fig trees. It was a good omen, Hopper thought.

Pacific Coast gave Kristen a break on rent and she built the space from the ground up. She put in shade structures and irrigation systems and pathways and gardens. She left untouched one of the fig trees the previous tenant had planted, a tree now lovingly known as Primo’s Fig.

The lot is small, no more than 1000 square feet, and half of it marked as “Employees Only,” although customers routinely ignore these signs as they weave their way through the many flats of plants being propagated in the space. The voices of kids playing at Aquatic Park can sometimes be heard drifting across the train tracks. Restaurant Vik’s Chaat, which is just across the street, provides a steady flow of foot traffic to the small nursery.

For such an out of the way space, it’s surprisingly lively, a community cultivated by Hopper over the years. When asked to cite highlights of her decades at Oaktown, it was relationships that came up the most, like how she was asked to help curate the new Cafe Ohlone space, ‘oṭṭoy, on the UC Berkeley campus.

“Vincent and Louis come into the nursery occasionally,” said Hopper, referring to Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, the iconic Indigenous dining spot’s founders. “When they first came in, they thought they were coming in incognito, but we heard them speak and stuff and so we knew who they were.”

Hopper struck up a friendship with the men and ended up donating all the plants for the cafe’s new outdoor space, which was designed by the landscaping firm Terremoto.

I asked Hopper what it meant to her to have her plants in this space, given the fractured history of the land on which the restaurant stands. 

“It’s very gratifying,” she said, and described watching a recent story about Cafe Ohlone on PBS NewsHour.

“Vincent is talking about tribal recognition and what the meaning of what he does is, and then there’s this little yarrow flower that came from Oaktown sort of bobbing in the frame. It just kind of gave me a thrill to see the plant as the backdrop for their important message.”

But like Primo before her, Hopper eventually decided to move on from Oaktown. She was just waiting for the right person to come along and take over the fertile space. 

“A bunch of nerds who like to be outside all the time”

Oaktown’s new owner, Suzanne Howard-Carter, found her way to plants through a career in archaeology. Her emphasis was on California historical archeology and she spent a lot of time working in the Sierra Foothills and in the mountains along the Mendocino coast. 

“I fell in love with the plants that I saw out on survey,” she said. “So I got a degree in landscape horticulture and just jumped right in.”

The career shift seemed natural to Howard-Carter, who admitted that a lot of people in the archeology community are similar to those in the gardening community. “Just a bunch of nerds who like to be outside all the time.”

That designation boded well for her future at Oaktown Nursery, the catchphrase of which is “wildly diverse plants for the nerd and novice.” 

As a novice, myself, I asked Howard-Carter for some tips for those who aspire to garden at home. She told me that those with native trees in their yard — oaks, say, or manzanitas — can use the roots and understory of the trees to their advantage. 

“When you have a big native tree that dominates your yard and a lot of leaf litter, that can be frustrating if you’re trying to do just a standard type of garden. So that’s where the natives come in.”

She encourages people to leave their gardens a little messy. “You don’t have to manicure everything. Don’t pick up all the leaves. We say ‘leave the leaves.,” the debris from which will attract native bees and moths.

She even recommends leaving spent flower stalks alone because certain bees that don’t have a nest (for example, longhorns), like to sleep on them. “If you’re out in the early morning, you can find them napping on extra stalks that you’ve left.”

Howard-Carter took over the Oaktown space in early 2023, just as the atmospheric rivers were raging across the state. She said that erosion control has become a pressing concern among her customers. 

“Oh boy, we’ve got lots of good plants for erosion control,” she said. “Plants are really the cheapest way to fix your environment. Cheaper than hardscape, cheaper than retaining walls, of course.”

She recommends coyote brush and elderberry as good options. Plants with a really good taproot that will anchor to hillsides. 

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Longtime Oaktown employee Violet Moon pointed me to some other plants used to solve problems of a more internal variety.

Moon, who is also a clinical herbalist, walked me through some of the nursery’s native herbs, including mugwort (good for gas and constipation), stinging nettle (a “superfood” that makes a great pesto) and yarrow (a natural pain reliever). “Herbal medicines … are so effective. And also accessible, and free,” Moon said.

What the future holds

Howard-Carter plans to keep the operation going pretty much how Hopper left it, but does hope to expand its offerings, including a book nook that will be well-stocked with handbooks from local authors, field guides, and a selection of gardening and folklore fanzines.

“I think people get tired of peeking on the internet and seeing random stuff, and sometimes it’s nice having all the information right there,” she said. 

In the meantime, Howard-Carter still has a lot to learn from Hopper. “She’s really a master propagator,” she said of the former owner. “She can propagate anything. She’s done ferns, all kinds of wildflowers, all kinds of shrubs. So I still have a lot to learn from her before she retires fully.”

In a letter announcing her retirement that she posted on the Oaktown website, Hopper signed off as a “Newly Minted Nomad.” When I spoke with Hopper, she was in Richmond getting some work done on her truck and readying it for a camper, transforming the vehicle into a new home for her and her husband.

First, she said, they will set off for Alaska, then will loop back through Canada, dipping down to Montana, before landing on the East Coast for a spell to attend the summer wedding of a former Oaktown intern.

“So now I just have to figure out a way to grow stuff on the road,” she said, before conceding that that plan won’t be very practical. But she does hope to spread her gift of propagation as they visit friends across the continent.

“You know, start them a flat of something cool that’s local for them and tell ’em how to take care of it and they’ll put it in their garden. Maybe I’ll be like the Johnny Appleseed of North American native plants.”