“An afternoon drive from Los Angeles will take you up into the high mountains, where eagles circle above the forests and the cold blue lakes, or out over the Mojave Desert, with its weird vegetation and immense vistas. Not very far away are Death Valley, and Yosemite, and Sequoia Forest with its giant trees which were growing long before the Parthenon was built; they are the oldest living things in the world. One should visit such places often, and be conscious, in the midst of the city, of their surrounding presence. For this is the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination; this untamed, undomesticated, aloof, prehistoric landscape which relentlessly reminds the traveler of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth. “You are perfectly welcome,” it tells him, “during your short visit. Everything is at your disposal. Only, I must warn you, if things go wrong, don’t blame me. I accept no responsibility. I am not part of your neurosis. Don’t cry to me for safety. There is no home here. There is no security in your mansions or your fortresses, your family vaults or your banks or your double beds. Understand this fact, and you will be free. Accept it, and you will be happy.”
― Christopher Isherwood, Exhumations
California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see,
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi”
― Woody Guthrie
“But there is one tree that for the footer of the mountain trails is voiceless; it speaks, no doubt, but it speaks only to the austere mountain heads, to the mindful wind and the watching stars. It speaks as men speak to one another and are not heard by the little ants crawling over their boots. This is the Big Tree, the Sequoia.”
― Mary Austin, California, the Land of the Sun
“God will break California from the surface of the continent like someone breaking off a piece of chocolate. It will become its own floating paradise of underweight movie stars and dot-commers, like a fat-free Atlantis with superfast Wi-Fi.”
― Laura Ruby, Bad Apple
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
In 2014, I was, for six weeks, the (kind of) director of the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.I was enlisted by John Greenlee and the new owners and we worked hard to elevate the show to a standard befitting one of the best horticultural and landscape design centers in the world. I believe we did a good job given the restrictions and, let’s just say, personalities that were present .I will also pass on describing the emotional and logistical ups and downs of coming to a flower show just six weeks before it opened. It was a mess. I lost one friend who had a temper tantrum but I gained a couple of new ones. So it goes.
I went to the Show today. It is opening day. I went with as much of an open mind as possible. I had recovered from the miasma of 2014 and now…not my circus, not my monkeys. I wanted the show to be great. After all, the Bay Area has some of the best landscape architects, garden designers and nurseries on the planet. Evidently they were all elsewhere when it came to this year’s show.
In its heyday, the show featured 20 to 30 gardens. They were elaborate gardens, many of them excellent. Today there are ten gardens. I almost liked a couple.
What I saw, as I entered the gates of the show, left me gobsmacked. Gobsmacked is a British slang word meaning extremely surprised or shocked; astounded. I will forbear on writing a lengthy criticism and let the photos speak for themselves.
Around the corner from where I live, two small trees are in full bloom. They are Photiniaserrulata, the Chinese Photinia, with a rounded canopy and dense clusters of white flowers. Planted up against a pinkish brick wall at the end of the former state capital building, they are magnificent. I wonder if other people notice them. I hope so.
There is a great diversity in the street trees and gardens of Benicia. Some gardens are highly cultivated while others… well there’s no point writing about the others.
The range of trees here is quite broad. Lots of Callery Pears unfortunately, but beyond that, there are many Aleppo Pines(Pinus halapensis), Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis), Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) and New Zealand Christmas Tree (Metrosiderosexelcus) to name a few. And Palms, lots of palms.
It has been spring in Benicia for about six weeks. We are now in the second of our three springs. We have had good rain and the air from the bay is fresh.
My own tiny garden plot is bursting after the rain.
The third spring will see the herbaceous plants and grasses really begin to flower. With such a wet winter, the flowering will be abundant.Soon, after that, the first of three summers will be here. Fine warm days and cool nights. Living in California is not bad, not bad at all.
Last week, I was given a tour of the site of the Oman Botanic Garden.Located in Al Khoud, about 20 kilometers west of Muscat, the Garden is being developed on 423 hectares (1,045 acres). It is one of the largest botanical enterprises in the world and will feature plants found in all of the plant geographical regions of Oman.
While touring the site, I met Abdulrahman Al Hinai. As an ethnobotanist, he has been gathering plants and stories from around Oman. Stories about plants used for food, medicine and culture. Stories that are being lost as the old wisdom, held in the minds of old men and women, fade under the onslaught of time and modern culture.
We arranged to go into the mountains the next day. To the mountains, the Western Hajar, and to one village in particular, Wakan, in search of a rare variety of lentil.
It rained that night, torrential rain washing the streets of Muscat and filling the wadis with water. Wadis are ravines or dry creeks except in the rainy season. One moment they can be dry gravel beds, the next, with dark clouds in the mountains, they can be a torrent.
The next morning, meeting Abdulrahman, he told me that some of the mountain passes had been washed away and he wasn’t sure if we could reach Wakan. There was a momentary pause and we both said at the same time, “Let’s go anyway”.
We stopped to look at the rushing water in a wadi. Around us, locals were taking photographs of the water. In the desert, water is an event. Along the margins of the water, Saccharum kajkaiense , a relative of Ravenna grass, with giant cane (Arundo donax), and a rush, Juncus rigidus began to turn green.
Onto Wakan we went, passing through gravel desert and dark hills and cliffs of ophiolite, an igneous rock thrust up from the oceanic crust. Oman is a geologist’s dream.
Wakan is 2,000 metres above sea level and is a small village winding on top of a crest of rock and looking down to Wadi Mistal below. It exists because of year-round mountain springs that provide drinking water and irrigation for many small terraces of subsistence crops. Like many habitations in Oman, you see the green clusters of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera ) before you see the houses.
The terraces are small and defined by raised soil “walls”. Each has a gate of a rock that can be removed to direct water that comes from a central water channel – falaj in Arabic. Walking past terraces of garlic, wheat, a kind of fava bean, and spring leaf crops, we came upon three elderly men sitting in the shade. A fast and loud conversation took place between them and Abdulrahman. I just smiled. We all shook hands. Such soft and respectful handshakes. One of the elders was carrying a bag of male date palm pollen. Hand pollination of female date palms is one of the oldest agricultural techniques in the world and it was time for the palms of Wakan to be pollinated.
Abdulrahman and I climbed 700 steps through the village talking about ancient techniques of subsistence farming, varieties of crops that are drought tolerant and the need to preserve and protect botanical knowledge as a cultural necessity. The steps were shaded by fig, pomegranate, apricot, almond and peach trees. A few flowering herbaceous plants grew in the terraces. They were of more interest to us than the village inhabitants. They rarely name a plant that does not have agricultural or medicinal value. We found Gladiolus italicus and the rare orchid, Epipactisveratrifolia growing at a base of a wall.
Walking down the steps, we encountered the three old men. We were invited to enter the village men’s meeting room, the majilis : مجلس, where we sat on cushions and conversed. Bowls of dates were brought and sweet oranges quartered and offered. Once again, the conversation was loud and vibrant. I smiled a lot. At one point, one of the men, hand shaking with age, pulled out a very old cell phone and slowly dialed a number. Words were spoken and the phone was given to Abdulrahman. What appeared to be a very detailed conversation ensued and I was told later that this was a conversation about lentils (!) The farmer and Abdulrahman were discussing the old variety of lentil that was in the farmer’s possession. The farmer, being half way up the mountain with his goats and not near his farm, offered to show the ethnobotanist the lentil next time he came to visit. This appeared to cause great excitement amongst my hosts. Once again we shook hands. They are beautiful, tough, sweet, hard men.
The confluence of time struck me as funny. Visitors arriving in a modern 4-wheel drive car to an ancient village to see farming techniques that are at least 2,000 years old and discussing lentils on a ten year-old Nokia mobile phone so that the lentil can be grown at a modern botanic garden.
It was a perfect day.
“How many a desert plain, wind-swept, like the surface of a shield, empty,impenetrable,have I cut through on foot ?
Joining the near end to the far, then looking out from a summit, crouching sometimes, then standing, while mountain goats, flint-yellow, graze around me, meandering like maidens draped in flowing shawls.”
I am now in Dubai, at the beginning of a two-week journey to learn a little about the Middle East and some of its gardens. After a fifteen hour flight, half of my brain has stopped working and, looking at myself in the mirror, I look like a very old baby.
This morning I went to the Miracle Garden. It is a little hard to describe. It is 72,000 square meters in size and contains 45 million flowering plants, most of them Petunias.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit this ‘desert paradise’. While the future of gardens is based on sustainability, environmental sensitivity, using native plants and so on, public gardens are dependent on popularity. The Miracle Garden is hugely popular and, while I may think it vulgar and kitsch, many don’t share my view, and flock to the garden in droves. It is so popular that they are planning on installing air-conditioning coverings over sections of the garden so that it is cool in the 100 degrees plus weather of the summer.
Two days after returning from Costa Rica, I am still dreaming.Three days from now I will get on a plane and fly 14 bum-numbing hours to Dubai and then to Jordan, Oman and back to Dubai and home. A series of new experiences awaits.
But I cannot leave without saying goodbye to Costa Rica. Here are a few photographs.
Last week, while slouching around the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, I came across many plants that were new to me. I hiked close to the Tarcoles River and visited, for the tenth time, the Carara National Park, one of my favorite places in Costa Rica. Carara is important for many reasons. It is a transition zone between two climate types – sunny and dry and cloudy and humid. It contains a significant area of primary rainforest and is a nesting place for many Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao cyanoptera). White-faced capuchin monkeys ((Cebus capucinus) are common.
Further south, near Dominical, I visited a private garden designed by a friend, Dennis Schrader of Landcraft Environments, Ltd. http://landcraftenvironment.com/ .I will write more about this wonderful garden later and elsewhere. There were three plants and one bird that caught my attention.
The bird, the northern jacana (Jacana spinosa), was much disturbed by visitors to the water-lily filled lake that is its home. Raising its wings in territorial defense, the yellow wings against the dark brown body were striking.
As to the plants, the first is Siam Ruby Banana. I have never grown this, not even in the halcyon days at Chanticleer. In Costa Rica, the banana was freshly unfurling. The leaves are ruby-red sprinkled with lime-green flecks. Strong with color even under the shade of large Heliconias, it is listed as growing to a height of 8 feet. Here, the young growth was just above 3 feet. Siam Ruby is a sport of a banana found in Thailand (Siam), hence the name. What a treat.
There are between 200 and 250 species of Heliconia, and a number of hybrids and cultivars. In Costa Rica, in the house of the private garden, there was a tall, glass vase. In it was a sublime flower arrangement of the pink and the hairy Heliconia. The pink (Heliconia chartacea) is unusual in that the waxy bracts are a bright pink. There is a cultivar, ‘Sexy Pink’. The species is sexy enough. The other Heliconia, one that really made me drool, is the hairy one. My knowledge of Heliconia is limited to say the least but if I could grow just one, it would be H. vellerigera. The bracts are red-orange and are covered with a soft fur. I may be wrong about the species. It matters little.
It would have been horticulturally pornographic if the flower arranger had included Heliconia vaginalis but, in this case, restraint held firm.
To paraphrase a quote by David C. Day, “The flowers are louder when there are fewer of them.”