The Botanical Wonderland of Mourning Cloak Ranch

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, Outdoors, People
on July 1, 2001

Einstein once said, One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life. That certainly applies to Ed and Marian Sampson, who escaped to their magic garden, where they indulged their love of flowers, trees, and open land.

In 1973, while looking for the perfect acreage that would include fruit trees and room to raise Hackney horses, Ed and Marian (who passed away two years ago) discovered the town of Tehachapi, Calif., (pop. 6,602) tucked away where the Sierra Nevada joins the Tehachapi Mountains, 45 miles southeast of their Bakersfield home. Due to its 4,000-foot elevation, Tehachapi has four distinct seasons, where winters are mild and the surrounding mountains are often snow-capped. This environmentally unique area is a transition zone between mountain and desert.

Sampsons Mourning Cloak Ranch is built on the historic site of Williamsburg, a town that predates the city of Tehachapi. Brite Creek, swollen with water until the scorching summer months, winds through the ranch.

We were immediately drawn to this property by the many large and very old valley and blue oaks, says Sampson, who has a background in entomology and horticulture. The name Mourning Cloak is taken from a beautiful butterfly that breeds in great numbers, with thousands of larvae found on the willows along the creek. The grounds are approximately 30 acres, with 22 acres completely landscaped.

The rolling hills are alive with more than 30 mature oaks, some estimated to be 400 years old. One Quercus lobata (valley oak) is 72 feet tall and has an expanse of 128 feet, Sampson says.

The entrance to the ranch is a sculptured iron gate that opens to visitors from all over the world. Last year we welcomed over 10,000 people, including two busloads from China, Sampson happily points out.

Visitors take a bridge over the running creek and wander the garden paths lined with old oak trees and timber. The ranch house is nestled into the side of a mountain surrounded by trees and plants, while quail and deer feed on native plants.

Sampsons neighbors include gray fox, raccoons, skunks, possum, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, and deer. There are also 71 species of birds recorded in the annual National Audubon Society bird counts, along with California quail.

In our largest trees we host migrating turkey vultures, continues Sampson. Some nights we have 800 roosting birds.

One hundred percent of my waking hours are devoted to the gardens. We hired a plant propagator, Maria Aquirre, whos been here for 14 years, and two additional gardeners. The big secret here is our docent program. Without the trained guides, the gardens wouldnt have succeeded. We are fortunate to have 10 lovely ladies who give guided tours and work in the gift shop.

In the beginning, we found little information available for this growing area. We decided to experiment, grow many plants, and keep accurate records, so the information could be shared with the many newcomers arriving in the area, Sampson says. Twenty-seven years later, the garden includes 2,200 species of plants, mostly exotics, but also 500 native California plants.

A frequent visitor is Tehachapi City Manager Jason Caudle, who notes, Eight years ago my first visit to the ranch happened when Marian invited the townspeople for coffee, cookies, and a seminar. My wife and I bought six trumpet vines that continue to grow in our back yard today. Something as beautiful as Mourning Cloak Ranch doesnt happen overnight. It takes a passion and a lifetime of hard work.

Surrounded by acres of beauty, a new flower has sprung up at Mourning Cloak Ranch. Sampson cultivated it and has lovingly named the flower the Marian Sampson. With just the slightest touch of poetic justice, this dazzling scarlet-red flower was recently named the official flower for the city of Tehachapi.