Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Where succulents go to university: Pitzer College (1 of 2)

Imagine going to college in a place where the sun shines 290 days of the year, where it virtually never freezes, where it’s warm but not unreasonably hot in the summer—and where there are succulents everywhere. Where, in fact, the entire campus is one large succulent garden.

What a nice dream, you might say.

But it’s not a dream, it’s reality. At Pitzer College in the Southern California town of Claremont.

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Planting bed along the edge of the Sanborn parking lot

Pitzer College, a private liberal arts college with about 1,000 students, is part of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five undergraduate and two graduate schools all located on one integrated campus about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The entire campus is about 1 square mile in size, so all the colleges are within walking distance of each other. Most of them have fairly traditional landscaping—lawn, shrubs and trees—but Pitzer is different. Very different.

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I could tell right away when I pulled into the staff parking lot you see in these photos. Instead of boring shrubbery, there are succulents. A huge number of succulents of all descriptions. (A word of caution: I would advise against parking in a staff lot without proper ID but I visited in the late afternoon on New Year’s Day, and there was virtually nobody around.)

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Kalanchoe thyrsifolia (left) and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ (right)

The one plant I noticed immediately was Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’. I would see it in many places on the Pitzer College campus. In the warm afternoon light, it truly was on fire.

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The obvious question is how did the Pitzer campus come to be a large succulent garden?

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Agave attenuata and camellias

The answer is Joe Clements. The former curator of the Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino 25 miles up the road was hired by Pitzer College in 2000 as their grounds and arboretum manager. He immediately began to transform the conventional plantings—similar to what you still find today in the other Claremont Colleges—into a sustainable low-water landscape heavy on succulents as well as Mediterranean and California natives. (This April 2010 article from Pacific Horticulture Magazine has a wealth of background information.)

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Today, virtually the entire campus of Pitzer College is part of Rodman Arboretum, named after a political science professor who promoted environmental protection early on. According to a press release from Pitzer College, Joe Clements’ desert garden has been called “the most sophisticated and artfully presented collection of succulents, desert plants, and Mediterranean-climate plants outside of a botanical garden.”

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Agave attenuata ‘Boutin Blue’

In June 2015, the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA) held its biennial convention at Pitzer College. I wasn’t able to go, but the resulting coverage of Pitzer’s desert garden in blogs like A Growing Obsession raised my awareness of a place I had only heard mention in passing.

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According to A Growing Obsession, Joe Clements retired in June 2015, but his influence will last for decades to come.

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Agave attenuata with the most interesting variegation, going from all green to all yellow

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Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei)

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Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii)

As I was driving from Palm Springs to Claremont on New Year’s Day, I didn’t quite know what to expect because I had a hard time visualizing how everything was laid out. Even though I had read that succulents are everywhere, I still expected a traditional botanical garden. That simply isn’t the case. The whole campus is a garden. Succulents grow in front of administrative buildings, classrooms and dorms—even in parking lots. I don’t think there’s another place like Pitzer anywhere in the world.

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Dasylirion longissimum

I wandered through the deserted campus in complete awe. What I was seeing weren’t simply dime-a-dozen plants, there were many truly spectacular specimens that would make the heart of any collector beat faster. I hope my photos convey the sense of excitement I felt.

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LEFT: Cow-tongue prickly pear (Opuntia linguiformis)  
RIGHT: Boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

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The densely branched tree on the left is a desert willow (Chilopsis linearis)

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Agave tequilana ‘Sunrise’

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LEFT: Aloe marlothii and Euphorbia tirucalli
MIDDLE: Dracaena draco
RIGHT: Succulents planted in a palm tree stump

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George C.S. Benson Auditorium

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Mead Hall

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Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’, with Euphorbia lambii in the foreground

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Massive ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in front of Grove House

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Agave colorata

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Massive Cereus hildmannianus

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Agave shawii

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NOID cholla (Cylindropuntia sp.)

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Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’

I took so many photos at Pitzer College that I can’t fit them all into one post. Check part 2 for a lot more succulent excitement!

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6 comments:

  1. The planting is just wow! Pays dividends if an institution hires a plantsman to do their grounds :)

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  2. Thanks for the great photos of the Pitzer plantings. While you were there, did you happen to visit the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens in the foothills above the Clarement Colleges campus (http://www.rsabg.org/about-home)? I haven't been there in years (since I was a student at Pomona College, where I studied under Lyman Benson), but I remember it as a wonderful collection of plants native to CA and the southwest.

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  3. Oh my!!! Wonderful, simply fabulous. I remember that Pacific Horticulture article and Denise's post. Been wanting to see it for myself ever since. This is almost as good!

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  4. Amazing, right? So glad you were able to visit. There should be a law that former botanical directors landscape public spaces, colleges, supermarkets, etc.

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  5. It's impressive. I hope my Dasylirion develops a skirt like the one you photographed - mine's getting a sun burn.

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