Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What’s blooming at UC Botanical Garden?

After I was done at the UC Botanical spring plant sale, I walked over to my favorite areas in the garden, the New World Desert and the Southern African Collection.

Somebody had told me that the puyas were in bloom. “In bloom” turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration but they are definitely starting. Unfortunately, the most impressive puya of them all, Puya berteroniana, wasn’t flowering yet, but the massive clump of Puya venusta on the edge of the New World Desert had quite a few flower spikes.


Puya venusta

130428_UCBG_SpringSale_Puya-venusta_09 130428_UCBG_SpringSale_Puya-venusta_12

Puya venusta

Monday, April 29, 2013

UC Botanical Garden 2013 spring plant sale

Last Saturday I did something I’d been wanting to do for a long time: I attended a plant sale at UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. As an on-again, off-again member and somewhat regular visitor (if once or twice a year counts) I’m fairly familiar with their collections and I know that many of their plants are unusual and rare. Not surprisingly, quite a few plants propagated from UCBG stock make it into their plant sales—which, I might add, are legendary in Northern California gardening circles.


Succulents lined up along the walkway

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ruth Bancroft Garden 2013 spring plant sale

A couple of weekends ago I attended the spring plant sale at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that this is one of my favorite public gardens in Northern California and that I try to go to every one of their sales. Not only is it great fun to browse hundreds upon hundreds of fantastic plants, many of them rare or brand-new introductions, it’s also a great opportunity to spend some time checking out what’s new in the garden or visiting old “friends.”


I could spend all day walking through the Ruth Bancroft Garden

In fact, the sale tables are scattered throughout the garden, so by the time you’ve looked at all of them you’ve walked through a large part of the garden. I like to bring our old Red Flyer wagon so I don’t have to hand-carry my plant picks as I explore and photograph.


Aloes in bloom

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Manzanitas in bloom

The botanical highlight of our recent visit to my parents-in-law in Mount Shasta was seeing the manzanitas in bloom. In Mount Shasta manzanitas are everywhere. I don’t think many homeowners plant them; they’re just part of the natural landscape.


With their evergreen leaves and their contorted trunks and branches, which vary from a rich reddish brown to a purplish black, manzanitas are attractive year round. In the spring, however, their beauty peaks when bell-shaped flowers ranging from white to pink erupt in dense clusters.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Terra Sol Garden Center, Santa Barbara

On our recent spring break trip to Santa Barbara I managed to squeeze in a visit to a nursery that came highly recommended: Terra Sol Garden Center. As it turned out, it was only a couple of miles from our hotel. It’s not a big nursery but the second I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore (or, in my case, Davis). Our nurseries just don’t have displays of bougainvillea out front!

The photos in this post show plants that are unusual or exotic in one form or another. Terra Sol also has most of the basic nursery staples—flowering annuals, plenty of veggies, bagged soil, fertilizer, etc.—but I decided to skip those.


View from the parking lot


Talavera pottery

Monday, April 22, 2013

Of avocados and agaves

On our way home from our visit to Santa Barbara, we decided to do some exploring in the hinterland of northwestern Ventura County. According to Wikipedia:

North of Highway 126, the county is mountainous and mostly uninhabited, and contains some of the most unspoiled, rugged and inaccessible wilderness remaining in southern California.

I love backroads, and State Route (SR) 33 crosses an area neither I nor my wife had ever been to before.


Map of our route from Santa Barbara to I-5

The initial stretch of Highway 33 beginning in the town of Ventura is called the “Ojai Freeway.” This is a bit of an exaggeration since this is a fairly windy country road that isn’t particularly fast. It quickly begins to climb into the hills where we found our first surprise: avocado orchards!


Avocado orchard along the Ojai Freeway

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ganna Walska Lotusland 5

← Ganna Walka Lotusland 4


The last garden I visited at Lotusland is also the last one that was installed. Its beginnings, however, go back many decades. Cactus aficionado Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap started his collection in 1929 and in 1966 promised it to Madame Walska, whom he had known since the 1940s. It was finally donated to Lotusland in 1999, 15 years after Madame’s death, but due to a lack of funds and the sheer size of the collection – 530 specimens from over 300 species – it took another few years before the new Cactus Garden was finally unveiled. Merritt Dunlap attended the 2003 opening and in the same year celebrated his 97th birthday in the Cactus Garden. He is said to have been very proud of how it turned out.


Entrance to the Cactus Garden

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ganna Walska Lotusland 4

← Ganna Walka Lotusland 3


If I had to pick out my favorite spot in all of Lotusland, this might be it. There is something so peaceful and serene, and it’s achingly beautiful. If I were a plein air painter, this is where I would want to set up my easel and paint away until the light begins to fade.

What is now the Water Garden once was the swimming pool of the estate’s second owners, the Gavit family. It was built in 1925; the pool house was designed by George Washington Smith, a leading proponent of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that gives much of Santa Barbara its distinctive look. Ganna Walska transformed the swimming pool into a pond and stocked it with Asian lotus, the inspiration for the name “Lotusland.” According to our docent, the Water Garden is a riot of color in the summer when the lotus start to bloom.


  Lotus pond and pool house


Closer view of pool house; notice the pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) in bloom

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ganna Walska Lotusland 3

← Ganna Walka Lotusland 2


The Aloe Garden was started in the 1950s and today features almost 200 different aloe species, including many tree aloes which have reached impressive heights. However, the first thing I noticed when entering the Aloe Garden was a wall of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). You don’t often see bamboo planted right next to aloes, but at Lotusland anything goes.


Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) forming the border between the Japanese Garden and the Aloe Garden

Some people might think that a garden dedicated to a single genus is boring. Not so here. The genus Aloe offers far more diversity than most plant aficionados realize, and the Aloe Garden at Lotusland presents a stunning cross-section. Just take a look at the photos in this post, and you will agree!


Aloe plicatilis

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Majestic valley oaks

Once upon a time, California’s Central Valley was full of valley oaks (Quercus lobata). The largest of the deciduous oak trees endemic to the U.S., the valley oak can grow to 100 ft. and live to 500 years. Over the past century and a half, 90% of the marshy wetlands that were once a dominant feature of the Central Valley have been transformed into drier farmland and the natural habitat of these majestic trees has all but disappeared.

Driving home from my in-laws recently, I spotted a pocket of valley oaks on a ranch near Redding. While these aren’t the methuselahs found at Micke Grove Regional Park in Lodi, they are beautiful in their own right, especially at this time of year when they sport of new coat of vibrant green leaves.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Ganna Walska Lotusland 2

← Ganna Walka Lotusland 1

While Lotusland has many native trees, like coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), the most beautiful trees are the thousands of palms growing on the property. Quite a few date back to the estate’s first owner, Kinton Stevens, who operated an exotic plant nursery in the late 1800s. Ganna Walska continued to increase the collection during the 40 years she lived at Lotusland. The story has it that leading up to a visit from the Palm Society Ganna Walska was so nervous that her collection of palm trees, which featured decades-old rarities from Kinton Stevens’ nursery, wouldn’t be impressive enough that she had truckloads of additional specimens hauled in.

Walking through Lotusland, I was very happy that Madame Walska hadn’t held back. The number and variety of palm trees is mind-boggling. I had never seen anything like it on my travels—not even in Hawaii where, yes, there is definitely no shortage of palm trees, but they are mostly the same kind. I’m not a palm connoisseur but I thoroughly appreciated the many different shapes and patterns in the trunks and fronds.


Many different kinds of palm trees along the main road

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ganna Walska Lotusland 1

Together with the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Lotusland has been at the top of my must-see list for many years. Needless to say it was the destination I was looking forward to the most on our recent trip to Santa Barbara.


Entrance on Cold Springs Rd

Ganna Walska Lotusland, as it is officially called, is located in Montecito, a few miles south of Santa Barbara. The 37-acre property was purchased by former opera diva and wealthy socialite Madame Ganna Walska in 1941 for $40,000. She originally named it Tibetland with the intention of creating a retreat for Tibetan priests. The priests never came—they were unable to travel to the U.S. because of World War II—and Ganna Walska’s marriage to her 6th husband soon fell apart. Turning her back on men for good, she decided to invest all her energy and her considerable fortune—the spoils of several very lucrative divorces—into creating a botanical wonderland unlike anything that had ever been done before.


Entrance on Cold Springs Rd

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Speaking of California poppies…

In my recent post about Mission Santa Barbara I included a photo of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). Ever since then poppies have been on my mind. Yesterday afternoon I visited a friend, and near her house I came across the densest mass of poppies I’ve seen all year. The intense orange from thousands of flowers causes people to stop dead in their tracks. I’m surprised there hasn’t been an accident yet as drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike are distracted by the spectacle in front of them!


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mission Santa Barbara

One of the highlights of our trip to Santa Barbara was visit to the mission. Founded in 1786, Mission Santa Barbara, or Misión de la Señora Bárbara, Virgen y Mártir, was the 10th of the Spanish missions built in Alta California. It’s often nicknamed “the Queen of the Missions” because of its graceful architecture. Ironically, it is the least authentic of the 21 missions because it has been restored so many times, but for me that doesn’t take away from its beauty. You have to be a real Grinch not to be awed the first time you lay eyes on it—and each time thereafter.


360° panorama of Mission Santa Barbara. This panorama was created on my cell phone so it’s not the highest quality but it gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be standing in front of the mission.


Capilla (chapel) at Mission Santa Barbara


Chapel with agaves

While I could go on and on about how marvelous the buildings are, I’ll instead focus on the fantastic plantings both in front of the mission and in the garden and cemetery.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Santa Barbara: Moreton Bay fig trees

The Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) is native to the rainforests of the eastern coast of Australia. In its original habitat, its seeds germinate high in the canopy of a host tree and seedlings live as epiphytes until their roots are long enough to touch the ground. As the Moreton Bay fig grows, it strangles its host until it becomes a standalone tree.


Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) in the cemetery at the Santa Barbara Mission

When used in residential or public landscaping, seedlings of course are planted straight in ground so you don’t see the aerial roots that would exist in the rainforest.  However, the Moreton Bay fig never has a traditional trunk. Its exposed buttress roots, which resemble giant wooden tentacles stretching in all directions, give it a completely unique appearance.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Santa Barbara Zoo

Just because we love plants doesn’t mean that our family members feel the same. I could easily spend an entire vacation hunting for and looking at plants, but I know that my family would rebel. Therefore, it’s crucial to find places and activities that strike a balance between my interests and theirs. Zoos are perfect because everybody—kids and adults—loves animals, and the landscaping provides plenty of horticultural bang for the buck.


Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) and dragon tree (Dracaena draco)

Called “the Audrey Hepburn of zoos—petite, charming and beautiful” by the Food Network, the Santa Barbara Zoo is impeccably maintained and small enough to explore in one afternoon. While I did look at some of the animals, especially the California condors and the Channel Island foxes, I spent much more time admiring the plants, which ranged from the fairly commonplace to the downright exotic.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Santa Barbara: downtown and beyond

Santa Barbara: The name alone conjures up visions of Spanish architecture, palm-lined streets and balmy weather. All of it is true. Few places in California, possibly in the entire country with the exception of Hawaii, have a more pleasant climate. No wonder the wealthy have been seeking out the “American Riviera,” as Santa Barbara is sometimes called, since the early days. Pick up any of the free real estate magazine and you’ll see that living in Santa Barbara is not for people with an average-sized bank account.

I’m not going to go into the long history of Santa Barbara. There is plenty of information available on the web if you want to delve deeper. As always, Wikipedia is a good jumping-off point.

One of the most spectacular building in Santa Barbara is the County Courthouse located right in downtown. Lovingly called the “most beautiful public building in the U.S.,” it attracts both tourists and locals who enjoy sunbathing on the extensive lawn. It is also a popular wedding venue; in fact, we witnessed a wedding from the top of the clock tower!


Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Santa Barbara hotel sanctuary

When we booked our hotel accommodations in Santa Barbara, we mostly went by price and reviews on sites like Travel Advisor. We ended up choosing the Ramada Limited because they had suites a very decent price, especially for Santa Barbara. We really needed the extra space because in addition to the four of us my mother was traveling with us.

Our expectation were far exceeded. While the hotel has been around for a while, the rooms are large (ours even had two balconies!) and everything was ultra clean. However, what really blew me away was the landscaping. There are two lagoons surrounded by plantings so lush, you might think you’re in Hawaii.


Lagoon at Ramada Limited in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara teaser

It will take me a while to go through the 1500+ photos I took on our recent trip to Santa Barbara—over 600 at Lotusland alone—but here is a preview to whet your appetite. Warning: If you’re a succulent lover and suffer from high blood pressure, take an extra pill before you look at these pictures :-).



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Serendipity in Solvang

The destination for our spring break trip this year was Santa Barbara, CA. En route we stopped for an hour in Solvang, a Danish village in the Santa Ynez Valley about 30 minutes from Santa Barbara. Solvang was founded in 1911 by Danish settlers and after WWII became one of the country’s first “theme towns.” Now it sports four windmills, half-timbered houses with thatched roofs (often both the timbering and the thatching are fake), Danish bakeries and lots of wine bars (a nod to the nearby wine country). The last time I’d been to Solvang had been in 1986, but nothing much seems to have changed since then.

One of the first things I noticed as we drove through town were the flowers: masses of them, everywhere…


Index: April 2013 trip to Santa Barbara, CA

Complete list of posts about our April 2013 trip to Santa Barbara, CA:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bamboos are waking up

The thing that speeds up the heart rate of any bamboo grower is the emergence of new shoots. Some bamboos, most noticeably members of the subtropical genus Bambusa, shoot in the late summer or fall, but many others produce new shoots in the spring. I’ve been making a concerted effort to keep my bamboos well hydrated and it’s beginning to pay off. Here are the ‘boos in our backyard that have started to shoot:


Pleioblastus viridistriatus
Easily one of the most vibrant bamboos there is. I routinely cut the old culms down to the ground in late winter to maximize the effect of the new leaves.

Monday, April 1, 2013

After the rain

On Saturday night we had a pretty rare event: a full-blown thunderstorm complete with dizzying bolts of lightning, foundation-shaking claps of thunder—and an awesome downpour. We needed the rain so badly. Since the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is just 55% of normal this year, we may well find ourselves in a drought this summer. Against this backdrop, Saturday night’s rain was even more welcome, even though in the end it was only ½ inch.

On Easter Sunday I was delighted to find beads of rain clinging like diamonds to many plants in the garden. I quickly grabbed my camera to capture this short-lived spectacle. I hope you’ll enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.


Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’


Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’