As the afternoon sun crests a ridge of redwoods, it sets the spindly leaves of some 120 cannabis plants aflame in every shade of green imaginable. A closer look at the foliage reveals purples, reds, yellows, and the oranges and browns of fine crystalline fur. Here, on a sundrenched slope high above Boulder Creek, is a pristine garden of cannabis so diverse its flowering colas span every continent except Antarctica.
“Amazingly, there seem to be cannabis appreciators in every nook and cranny of this planet where they can grow it. Each one is a living expression of their culture, terrain, and intent,” says Jeff Nordahl, who is hosting this garden of 25 heirloom strains for Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM). The owner of Jade Nectar, a small cannabis farm that produces non-psychoactive tinctures for various medicinal uses, Nordahl says he hadn’t touched cannabis for 10 years before he rediscovered it as the only thing that gave him relief from a long battle with Lyme disease, and began growing it.
“I’ve been collecting and amassing seeds for a while, but never had an opportunity to pop them,” says Nordahl. “Each one is a mystery. We didn’t know what any of these were going to turn into. You could read about them on the internet, but you didn’t know. So, now, we know,” he says.
As large monocrops set the tone for post-legalization profits, WAMM’s new garden is a unique oasis far from commercial ag drift, where, in the absence of pressure to generate revenue, quality of experience and preservation of strains on the fast track to extinction avail over the trend to grow bigger, faster, more potent varieties.
“These aren’t designed for maximizing yield. They’re actually the antithesis of a production plant,” says Nordahl. “Smell this one,” he says, of the sweet-smelling Malawi Gold, a sativa from Africa. “That is probably my favorite.” But he’ll say the same about several other strains as we walk through a virtual spice rack of cannabis, paying homage to Jamaica’s Natural Mystic, Afghan Gold, Tajikistani, the zany looking Zamal, Columbian Gold—a strain many boomers will remember from the ’70s—and so many others.
“My sense, just by experiencing some of the plants that we’ve already harvested,” says Nordahl, “is that you’re getting a much broader spectrum of cannabinoids. And, in the end, are we just trying to impress people with lab results that show 30 percent or higher THC numbers? My sense is that actually something in the 15-percent range of THC with a whole wide spectrum of other plant compounds, cannabinoids and terpenes, is actually going to be a much richer experience than a one-dimensional wall of THC.”
Beyond being a living museum for long-cherished domesticated and landrace strains, the garden also thrums with a sweet irony: the people among us who need cannabis the most, but can’t afford it after legalization, will now have access to some of the rarest heirloom strains in the world. For free.
“This garden is a thank you gift to WAMM,” says Nordahl. “For its commitment. Instead of backing off or cutting some deal when they were raided by the feds all those years ago, they stood up for what they believed in. If they had backed down, no change would have come.”
Valerie Corral, co-founder of WAMM and co-author of Prop 215, sits at a picnic table under an oak tree, overlooking the expanse of green. In contrast to our last meeting in the sleepless throes of uncertainty just before legalization, Corral is glowing with gratitude. Which is not uncommon for her, but there’s something else, too—she’s excited. Corral did not know Nordahl when he approached her about hosting the garden, but the door he opened, along with his shared values for the plant as medicine, couldn’t have led to a more synergistic collaboration.
“This has opened up WAMM,” says Corral. “It’s much more of a shared journey. It always has been. But now that it’s legal, we have to speak in different terms. It’s an investment in true return for gifting. It gives the opportunity for everybody to give.” The garden is closer to the original WAMM garden in its variety, she says, and she and Nordahl look forward to companion planting with other medicinal herbs in the years to come.
There were times last year that Corral thought she might even leave Santa Cruz, but that’s all changed, and the only move WAMM is making now is across town to the Sullivan Building on Soquel Avenue early next year. “The dispensary will be a small part of it, and then the rest of it will be a community center for health awareness,” says Corral. WAMM’s new center will offer palliative care, workshops and potlucks on all topics of health, including regular visits from Nonna Marijuana, Corral’s 95-year-old mother of YouTube fame. “No single thing heals,” says Corral. “I’m so grateful to the city and the county for the recognition, and honoring the work, and trusting.” She adds that it has always been in her mind that new WAMMs would pop up in other communities, “but now it’s far more practical than it has ever been before.”
The garden takes up only a tiny fraction of Nordhal’s 250-acre property, the site of a former camp in disrepair that was overgrown with Scotch broom when he bought it. “Not one single tree is being taken down,” he says. “The entire property is a beautiful sanctuary in nature. We want to preserve that and be the most responsible stewards of the land as possible.”
The botanical garden is the cornerstone of a slowly blossoming dream: a regenerative and sustainable Jade Grove Farm & Wellness Center. In time, individuals will be able to make reservations to come out and spend a day decompressing in nature, taking hikes through the forest, sweating in saunas, learning about (and consuming) landrace strains of cannabis, and absorbing plant energy of all kinds.
“We see cannabis as a gateway to plant medicine,” says Nordahl. “If we can provide access to this plant in the purest way that we know, and if this can benefit people’s lives and connect them to nature in some way, that is the magic we’re after.”