Monday, March 19, 2012

A visit to Sacramento Capitol Park: other treasures

In yesterday’s post I talked about Sacramento’s long history—or should I say obsession?—with camellias and the 800+ camellias blooming in Capitol Park right now.


This post will cover some of the other botanical treasures found in this 40-acre jewel in the heart of the California capital, just a 20-minute drive from where I live.

This article gives a good introduction to Capitol Park. Here’s brief excerpt:

Plants were imported from every climate and continent in the world. Fruit trees arrived from Europe and Asia, pittosporums came from Australia, fir trees from Norway, cedars from the Himalayas and Lebanon, date palms from Africa, and hundreds of other plants were sent to Sacramento to become part of Capitol Park. Many species thrived in the temperate climate of Sacramento including the cedars from the Himalayas and California coast redwoods which continue to live in the park.

It is true, the variety of plant materials, especially trees, is astounding, especially since this is not a botanical garden but rather a green oasis in the center of town to be enjoyed by everybody.

For me, the plants I will forever associate with Capitol Park are camellias and Seville oranges. I still remember visiting Sacramento for the first time in 1989 and I was amazed by the multitude of orange trees laden with fruit. I simply couldn’t understand why nobody would eat them. Then I was told these are Seville—or bitter—oranges (Citrus × aurantium). Their fruit is tart to be point of being inedible but their thick, dimpled skin is prized for making orange marmalade and liqueurs.

Apparently the Capitol never contracted with a company making marmalade or liqueur because in 2012 the Seville orange trees are as covered with fruit as they were in 1989. Eventually the fruit falls to the ground where inquisitive squirrels will pull it apart, but even they seem to dislike what’s inside.




You can enjoy Capitol Park without ever knowing what any of the plants are. Maybe that is the best way to appreciate its diversity and beauty. But I have an inquiring mind and I always look for plant tags.

None were found in here, at the Spanish-American War Veterans Memorial, but I immediately recognized the plant at the foot of the soldier statue as leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’).


Around the corner from the leopard plant, I came across a huge Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) getting ready to bloom—it’ll be beautiful sight in just a week or two.


In the Civil War Memorial Grove my eye was drawn right away to this variegated pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Variegata’).


Most azaleas were not in bloom yet, but this one was, probably because it’s planted out in the open in front of a small brick building that appears to serve as the office for the park staff.


Amidst a cluster of camellia bushes around the corner I spotted a yellow flowering maple (Abutilon × hybridum ‘Luteus’). It provided a nice contrast to the reds, pinks and whites of the camellia blossoms (see yesterday’s post).


In May, the Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) will be covered with their humongous white blossoms. But even now I find them very attractive, not only for their glossy dark green foliage but also for their surface roots. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be happy to have all these roots in my garden, but in a larger space they are very decorative.


While olive trees aren’t exactly rare in our area, this one had a sign saying that it was propagated from trees planted in the 1700s. And it was laden with olives!


Capitol Park has just a few succulents. This elegant yucca (Yucca gloriosa) stands out because of its multiple trunks.


Even more impressive is this large clump of sago palm (Cycas revoluta). I blogged about this plant in the summer and showed photos of the cones (gone now, most likely removed by the gardeners). I love the über tropical and primal look.


Across an expanse of grass from this sago palm is a small cluster of trees with beautifully twisted trunks. I had no idea what they were until I got closer: They are strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo), but much larger and older than the ones I see as street trees in our subdivision. I had no idea that they are this stunning as mature specimens.


Behind the strawberry trees is a small stand of bananas (Musa acuminata). Their leaves were gone and the pseudostems were mostly brown. What a contrast to what I saw in the summer when one of these bananas was flowering!


Next to the bananas is a grove of timber bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides). It looks like there are four individual plants, each one forming a large clump. Even though this is a running bamboo, the growth habit reminds me of a clumper. I wonder if that is typical for Phyllostachys bambusoides? I assume the park staff performs regular maintenance to keep the bamboo contained.


These smooth-trunked trees contrast nicely against the lush green of timber bamboo. Since they are still bare, I didn’t immediately recognize them as crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica).


I wasn’t at all familiar with the next tree I stopped to photograph: Cryptomeria japonica. Apparently it’s English name is Japanese cedar although it’s not related to true cedars. (But then, Western redcedar isn’t a cedar either.) I was fascinated by the new growth tips and the seed cones.


Speaking of unusual conifers, the next one is definitely the most unique tree in Capitol Park. When I spotted its extremely tall and narrow column from a distance, I thought at first it was one of those fake cell phone towers disguised as trees. Walking up to it, I knew that I was a relative of the monkey puzzle tree and the plant tag confirmed it: It’s an Araucaria bidwillii from southeast Queensland, Australia. It’s common name is bunya pine, or bunya-bunya.

Capitol Park used to have a magnificent monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) native to southern Chile and western Argentina, but I couldn’t for the life of me find it. I assume it must have died.


The bunya-bunya’s closest park neighbor is this sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) which, while nowhere near as massive as what you find in Yosemite National Park, is still impressive. Just as intriguing was the weird growth at the base. I have no idea what causes that.


Growing at the edge of a lawn is this Taiwanese photinia (Photinia serratifolia). It’s not a tree I’m familiar with, but it was covered with umbels of white flowers that reminded me a little of elder flowers.


Next to the photinia is this flowering magnolia (Magnolia ‘Galaxy’). I bet it put on quite a show  a few weeks ago. Now most of the petals have fallen, but they still look beautiful against the green grass.


The final two photos were taken at the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I found a beautiful flowering cherry right next to it, and it provided a cheery note to what is otherwise a somber spot.


In fact, this couple seemed to think that this site was the perfect backdrop for their wedding photos!


Sunday, March 18, 2012

A visit to Sacramento Capitol Park: camellias

California gained statehood in 1850 and Sacramento became its capital in 1854. (Between 1850 and 1854, the government had tried out several cities—San Jose, Vallejo and Benicia—and found each one inadequate as a capital.) Construction on the California State Capitol, modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., began in 1860 and was completed in 1874.


The Capitol sits at the western edge of Capitol Park, a 40-acre expanse of lawns, walkways, trees, shrubs and monuments. Special collections include the Civil War Memorial Grove, established in 1897 with saplings transplanted from Civil War battlefields; the World Peace Rose Garden featuring 600 bushes from 140 varieties; and the Pioneer Camellia Grove, planted in 1953 as a living memorial to the early builders of California.


Camellias have been inseparably tied to Sacramento since the 1850s. According the Camellia Society of Sacramento:

The first Camellias [...] arrived in Sacramento, February 7, 1852. They were imported from Japan by James L.L.F. Warren, a seed store proprietor, at Front and J Streets. James Warren’s first plants came to Sacramento by circuitous route. They were shipped from New York to Panama, across the Isthmus to the Pacific and again by ship to San Francisco by riverboat to Sacramento.


The plants thrived in the fertile river soil. After an initial wave of popularity, public interest in camellias waxed and waned, but after annual camellia shows were started in 1924, Sacramento has had a steady love affair with these flowering shrubs and has been known as the “Camellia Capital of the World” since then.


The peak of the blooming season is usually the end of February or early March (the 88th Sacramento Camellia Show was on March 3rd and 4th this year). Capitol Park is said to have 800 camellias, including heirloom varieties no longer commercially available, and many of them were still blooming their heads off when I was there on Saturday, March 17th.


It’s quite an experience seeing so many different flower colors and shapes. In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias, Stirling Macoboy lists these flower styles: “Single,” “Semi-Double,” “Anemone,” “Peony,” “Higo-Form Single,” “Rose-Form Double,” “Formal Double.” Being a camellia agnostic, I had no idea there was so much diversity in what to me is “just” a flowering shrub.


I can tell you that camellias, like rhododendrons and azaleas, should be kept moist but not water-logged and that they need slightly acidic soil rich in humus. I won’t be able to give you expert advice beyond that, but there are plenty of resources on the web.

Instead I want to show you some of the stunning camellias I saw at Capitol Park in hopes you will fall in love with them, too.

Reproduction of the Liberty Bell
Statue of Thomas Starr King, a “Unitarian preacher credited with keeping California from seceding from the Union at the dawn of the Civil War.”
Statue of Father Junipero Serra. In typical revisionist fashion the plaque describes him as “the first Franciscan missionary to whom California owes an everlasting tribute—he brought civilization to our land and in deed and character deserves a foremost place in the history of our State.”

The carpets of fallen flowers underneath and around the trees were a magic sight.


Here are some of the varieties I found particularly beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no idea what they’re called.


I came across this heart of camellia blossoms on the edge of the Pioneer Camellia Grove. Clearly a romantic at work!


Check out part 2 of this post: Other treasures I found in Capitol Park, including a bunya-bunya.