Women of Plants: Ann Marie Amato

Ann Marie Amato has always felt deeply connected to the natural world. Growing up in the mountain wilderness of the Pacific Northwest of the USA, Ann’s days were spent outdoors – learning the lay of the land and what it means to be at one with it’s many ecosystems. When Ann became progressively unwell with a mysterious illness, plants came to her aid, strengthening her mind and body as she studied the pages of botanical books. Today plants continue to be at the centre of Ann’s universe. She works as a Seedstress at Cistus Nursery (a dreamland for serious plant nerds!), where she spends her days collecting and propagating seeds and cuttings collected from across the world.

How would you describe your relationship with plants? I cannot remember a time without plants in my life. One of my earliest memories is of a native dogwood tree (Cornus nuttallii) that bloomed outside of my bedroom window when I was a girl. It died in an ice storm and losing it taught me the lesson of mourning. Whenever someone dies, I’m triggered to remember the loss of that tree. I cried for years after that tree was gone.

My father was a publisher of fishing magazines and books, so my childhood was filled with nature and being outdoors. I grew up on the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest, learning to read water, spot insects, observe how the plants were important for the water temperatures and spawning habitat, and how it was all part of an ecosystem.

I’m part of that ecosystem and it’s always been a large part of my life. I think it’s a large part of why I design more naturally and chaotically and why I enjoy plant based designs so much.

Seedstress Ann Marie Amato

What draws you to plants? They’re so much a part of me that I’d be lost without them. I’ve lived in Oregon my entire life and my family has been here since the 1850s. I’m lucky to have been born, raised, and to have remained in the same place. The Pacific Northwest identity is attached to the water, wilderness and to being part of the environment.

I was raised to care about where I live and to be a steward to it. I’m very deeply rooted in being an Oregon girl and am an outdoorswoman. Plants are an important part of that for me.”

What began your plant obsession? The obsession began in earnest after I became seriously ill in my late 20s. I had been ill for many years leading up to it but there came a time when I lost a great deal of weight and was unable to function due to sudden and seemingly random swelling. Years into that experience I was finally diagnosed with the rare primary immune deficiency hereditary angioedema type III as well as a host of other autoimmune issues.

While I was lost in the desert, so to speak, I turned to botanical and horticultural books to ease my usually busy mind. It’s difficult to sit swollen in a chair for many years. I’d studied literature, several languages, and art history and biology before graduating from Portland State University but when I was ill I returned to plants. In large part this was also due to language difficulties I was having because my brain swelled. Books with pictures were easier for me and I didn’t need to think or speak a lot to study them.

Eventually I found a part-time job at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House in the Oregon Garden and it was there that I blended an arts management background with plants. That’s when I first met Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery. We’re both rather passionate chatty folks who enjoy a good laugh so we hit it off immediately. Like me, he is also deeply attached to different regions where he has spent a lot of time and it was through him that I first started to realize my own need to be deeply rooted in the horticulture world that I currently live in.

I already knew a great deal about the history of nurseries in the region, but it’s not easy to break into that world when you’re a woman dealing with some serious health issues.

Gasteria glomerata at Cistus Nursery. Image by Ann Marie Amato
Darlingtonia californica growing in the wild in Southern Oregon near Eight Dollar Mountain. Image by Ann Marie Amato
Petunia exerta, grown from seed, in Ann's garden. Image by Ann Marie Amato

What does the role of a Seedstress at Cistus nursery entail? Being a Seedstress means I work with seeds in the propagation department. As a small boutique nursery, owned by a man who regularly collects cuttings and seeds in the wild, we also sow seeds we’re given or are sent, and the nursery itself has its own display garden where I collect seeds regularly to propagate too.

I started collecting seeds as a child. Growing plants is my true obsession.”

I also sell my own seeds on Etsy in my shop Milton’s Garden Menagerie. Most are grown here at home, but I have friends who collect their seeds for me to sell and I collect also when I go on road trips. I seem to find seeds everywhere I go.

What’s the most unusual plant you’ve grown? I’ve grown Echium acanthocarpum from seed. It’s a critically endangered plant from La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

Are you a member of any plant societies? Yes, I’m currently a member of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon and the Mt. Hood Gesnariad Society. I would join more if I could afford to do so. These groups are great resources for seed lists.

Who are your favourite insta plant people? @thedangergarden @practical.plant.geek @_andesite @_sean_hogan @arcto_mountain

If you were a plant, what would you be? My friend Evan said, “If you were a plant, you’d be a tenacious, un-killable weed with loud, flashy flowers.” I think that goes well with my choice—the prickly pear.


Follow Ann’s seed collecting and plant growing adventures on INSTAGRAM

Nigella, the nursery cat, at Cistus Nursery. Image by Ann Marie Amato