Gilbert Amy Voss (1946 to 2011)
Horticulturist and Curator, SDBG
As Gardener, then Horticulturist, Gil Voss was instrumental in the early development of Quail Botanical Gardens, bringing a high level of professionalism and scientific techniques to the Garden in its earliest years.
Gilbert Amy Voss was born in Los Angeles on August 29, 1946 to Howard Madera Voss and Merdith Eleanor Fravel Voss. Howard, a sound man for MGM Studios (starting in 1929 with the first “talkies”) had returned from WWII after serving in England as a member of Clark Gable’s aircrew (B-17’s). Merdith was a transplanted Kansas farm-girl, her family having left during the Dustbowl years. His brothers, Howard Jr. (Bud) and Edmund (Eddie) were 17 and 16 years older, so Gil was raised as an “only” child. He grew up sharing his parents’ passions— movies, model-making, music, astronomy, cooking, cats and gardening, especially cactus and succulents. Merdith took him to garden club meetings and nurseries. Their favorite was Johnson’s Cactus Gardens in Paramount. Gil learned to read with Johnson’s beautiful, color catalogs, and Donald Duck comic books. Binomial nomenclature was part of his earliest vocabulary!
Gil was a small and born with a number of health issues that became apparent as he became older. It didn’t help that he contracted polio when he was four years old and spent months in an iron lung, where he was understandably miserable. His mother had him released to home care in time for Christmas, where he was surprised with his first train set.
Howard and Merdith had always wanted acreage. They purchased property in Cardiff-by-the-Sea in the late 40’s, and built their ocean-view retirement home on Birmingham Drive (which was a dirt road at the time). They moved there in the mid 50’s and setup Westview Gardens (Howard’s retirement project) — a nursery specializing in tuberous begonias. They started exhibiting at the Del Mar Fairgrounds annual Flower Show and won first prize in their category every time. They also sold tuberous begonias at a booth on the Fairway, where Gil and Alison later first met.
It was at the Fairgrounds that Gil pointed out an error on a plant label in the Palomar Cactus and Succulent Society’s exhibit. After verifying that he was correct (he was 11, and small for his age), they invited him to join, and elected him their President at the age of 12. By then, he had started corresponding with other cactus and succulent collectors in the U.S. and Europe. His contacts with UK experts, Brian and Edgar Lamb, led to his nomination to the Royal Horticultural Society, where he was elected a Fellow at age 18.
Gil always loved learning: history, cultures, food, plants, music, astronomy, mythology, comparative religions, geology and fossils. High school summers were spent traveling in Mexico with Clark “Craze” Marhdt, and Dan Sheedy, collecting plants, fossils, artifacts, herps and rocks.
After an A.A. at Palomar College in 1964, he went on to SDSU to get a B.A. in Botany, Anthropology and Zoology in 1967. Immediately after graduating, he worked as a National Science Foundation Research Assistant and Photographer, doing the IGY mid-winter (our summer) survey of pelagic birds in the South Atlantic. While there he re-discovered the South
Right Whale, which was previously thought to be extinct. He also continued research work on melocactus in southern Argentina, Chile and Guatemala. Returning to San Diego, he continued on as a co-owner of Westview Gardens; worked at Walter Anderson Nursery; was a research assistant for the San Diego Natural History Museum (Botany, Birds & Mammals); a field investigator and editorial assistant for California Academy of Sciences; a leader-naturalist for the SDNHM and H&M Sport fishing tours of Baja lagoons and islands; and a field-collector for the USDA. Along with his field research and collecting, he was publishing his finding, starting in 1965 with the Mammillaria Society Journal.
In 1974 Voss was hired by San Diego County as a Gardener at Quail Botanical Gardens. And, here in 1975 he married Alison Rowe in the Walled Garden on a misty spring morning. In 1980, they moved onto the grounds and he officially became S.D. County Horticulturist and Curator at QBG. That same year he met Jim (Jaime) Bauml, then Botanist at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Gil and Jaime formed a collecting partnership that lasted the better part of 10 years, with regular trips to Mexico, soon concentrating on the ethno-botany of the Huichol Indians in the Sierra Madre Mountains. This isolated and hostile area was the home of only indigenous people not conquered by the Aztecs or Spanish. Even today, they live under their own government, not accountable to the outside world. Outsiders (it is only reachable by small plane), require permission from the “gobernardor” (tribal governor) to visit, stay and collect.
Voss initiated the scientific approach on his arrival. He started by renovating the cactus and succulent collections, incorporating a focus on parallel evolution and biodiversity between the Old World and New World gardens; establishing a phyto-geographical planting scheme; developing the nursery and hiring a professional propagator; helping set up the Docent Society along with Alison; setting a goal of accreditation by the American Association of Museums; starting the herbarium; computerizing the plant records; hiring the first Plant Recorder; co- founding the American Bamboo Society and establishing a bamboo quarantine and introduction facility, which imported/introduced more new bamboo species to the U.S. than any other facility; and co-authoring an Institute of Museum Services grant to survey, grid and map QBG and to study their three most important collections: bamboos, cycads and palms.
He also made trips to Peru and Columbia, underwritten by QBG Foundation member Bill Gunther, to collect plants and bamboos for Quail. While he was adding new collections and expanding previous ones at QBG he continued writing for both professional and popular publications, consulting and giving programs.
He also shared his expertise with colleagues as a Research Associate for the California Association of Nurserymen by serving on the Zoo’s Exhibits and Collections Committee, and the Southern California Conference of the AABGA, where he was a founding member. In 1987, as a co-founder with Richard Haubrich of the American Bamboo Society he was invited to attend the first International Bamboo Congress in Anduze, France. After the conference, and driving around France, Gil and Alison toured Switzerland by train.
Gil and Alison left QBG in December 1989, moving to Vista, where he setup a private consulting business. For next five years, he worked for a number of clients, including: Extracts
Plus and Shaman Pharmaceuticals (sourcing materials for commercial use); the Drylands Institute in Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego State.
In 1994, Gil and Alison moved to Eugene, Oregon, for her job as the Executive Director of Mt. Pisgah Arboretum. After a brief fling at retirement, Gil did several temporary jobs, Wise Woman Herbals and Brandy Peak Distillery, until he went back to work as a field ecologist for the Nature Conservancy of Oregon, where he worked until finally, really retiring in 2008. While primarily working at Willow Creek Preserve, and out of the Eugene Nature Conservancy office, Gil also traveled around the state to various Nature Conservancy lands, doing ecological inventories, supervising habitat restorations, collecting native plant seeds, and starting seedlings for revegetation. After outgrowing the native seed propagation efforts at home, he set up a propagation area and nursery at Willow Creek. During the same time, with another botanist, he developed and wrote a grant to create a Willamette Valley ethno-botanical resource area to be managed and used by the indigenous people to assist in preserving their heritage. Working with state and local agencies and native peoples, this project successfully completed a five-year grant.
Gil’s passions exemplified his lifelong understanding of the fundamental importance of biodiversity and his commitment to interdisciplinary synthesis practices. An adjunct to all of this was his joy of learning and sharing. Over the years, he accumulated many friends, communicated with numerous professionals in many fields, gave countless programs, wrote papers and articles, and mentored a small army of people of all ages.
Gil knew his life to be blessed. He was a wonderful son to his parents, and they adored him. He married the love of his life, in the process acquiring a wonderful family he was proud of and enjoyed immensely. He worked his entire life, sharing his passions, and making lifelong friends. Gil’s health issues—polio, one kidney, Muir-Torre Syndrome, skin, prostate and colon cancers— took an increasing toll on his life. But, as new issues arose, he approached them with his scientific and objective manner, partnering with health professionals to make the best of the situation, and often deflecting depression with his sense of humor. In the end, God was merciful, taking him swiftly and almost painlessly at home with Alison and his favorite cat, Toby, looking out on the last garden he created.
Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb