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

I had no idea that avocados are grown commercially this far north (I personally associate avocados with San Diego Country). One particularly orchard had stunning panoramic views of the rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.


Avocado orchard along the Ojai Freeway

The avocado trees were laden with fruit:


Hass avocados

I couldn’t help myself and snatched one avocado from a branch overhanging the fence. It was completely green when I picked it, but it ripened perfectly in the two weeks that followed. We had it for lunch on Sunday and it was delicious: a perfect Hass avocado.


Hass avocados

After what seemed like forever (a good hour, with several stops for photography along the way) we finally arrived in Ojai. Ojai is the only town of any size in this part of Ventura County—the last town, in fact, we would see for the next few hours. Even though it has less than 10,000 residents, Ojai is known all over California for its spiritual retreats and its focus on organic living. The main drag, Ojai Avenue, is picturesque in a laid back sort of way. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, and the small coffee houses (no chain stores allowed in Ojai) were busy serving fair-trade coffee to healthy and fit looking individuals. It did seem a bit like the “Shangri-La of Southern California” it proclaims to be, albeit with an undeniable tinge of sleepiness.


Downtown Ojai


Downtown Ojai


Downtown Ojai

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Downtown Ojai (the lilacs in the Ojai Garden Club sign were real)

I did spot one nursery on the outskirts of town and while there wasn’t time to walk inside, I took a few snaps of a perfect specimen of Agave americana ‘Marginata’ and an old bathtub filled with colorful flowers.


Agave americana ‘Marginata’ outside of an Ojai nursery


Bathtub filled with colorful flowers

A few miles up SR 33, we spotted the “U.S.A.’s smallest post office” in Wheeler Springs, which wasn’t even a town, just a wide spot in the road. The post office, about the size of a drive-through coffee kiosk you might find in a mall parking lot, was closed, as was the restaurant next to it.


Wheeler Springs post office

I wouldn’t even have mentioned Wheeler Springs hadn’t it been for the most beautiful specimens of Agave americana I’ve ever seen. Growing out of a narrow strip in a terraced retaining wall, several of them were suspended above ground as if defying gravity. The largest one had an almost perfect rosette.


Agave americana


Agave americana


Agave americana


Agave americana, with a passing car for scale

I spotted more Agave americana growing next to a blooming bougainvillea hedge…


Agave americana and bougainvillea

…and a flowering vine with very large, unusual-looking flowers. I didn’t know what it was but a reader identified it as cup of gold vine (Solandra maxima).


Solandra maxima (thank you for the ID, Flora!)

Another surprise was waiting a few miles north: a large clump of Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’). I definitely did not expect to find bamboo in the middle of nowhere, let alone this species, which happens to be one of my favorite bamboos.


Mexican weeping bamboo


Mexican weeping bamboo


Mexican weeping bamboo

After an hour we crossed the Transverse Ranges, leaving behind the more forested area we had just traveled through and descending down into the Cuyama Valley.


Crossing the Transverse Ranges, looking towards Cuyama Valley


Descending into Cuyama Valley

On our climb and descent over the Transverse Ranges, I spotted many Hesperoyucca whipplei. Like many agaves, they die after flowering, and their dried flower spikes are usually the first thing you see.

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Hesperoyucca whipplei, commonly known as “our Lord’s candle”

As you can see from these photos, Hesperoyucca whipplei typically clings to steep hillsides where water drains very quickly.


Hesperoyucca whipplei

The soil here is extremely loose and doesn’t look like it would be able to retain water even for a day.


Hesperoyucca whipplei

Looking at a few specimens up close, I was reminded why I love this yucca relative: Their pale turquoise leaves are truly stunning.


Hesperoyucca whipplei

I don’t know why I haven’t added Hesperoyucca whipplei to my collection yet.


Hesperoyucca whipplei

The rest of the our trip home was uneventful except for one last surprise outside the Central Valley town of Coalinga. Next to a field I spotted this sight which seemed completely out of place:


Bonsai stand outside of Coalinga

A makeshift bonsai stand next to gas station along a major Interstate freeway? Who would have thought.

Unfortunately, my fellow passengers threatened mutiny when I declared my intent to check it out so I will never know what I missed.


  1. That Bonsai stand would have been a great place for a mysterious vehicle "breakdown".

    Looking forward to future posts about your large Hesperoyucca whipplei collection. ;-)

    1. Our van has 165,000 miles on it so I don't make jokes about it breaking down :-).

  2. What a picturesque drive! The area seems very much worth exploring even if ones intent is just for botanical reasons. That Agave americana growing on the wall, wow!

    1. I love exploring the backroads because you never know what you might find - like that stunning Agave americana!

  3. The agave are amazing! Looks like a fun drive!

    1. It was a fun drive for sure, but also a long one. You can't drive very fast on winding mountain roads.

  4. Beautiful photos of the road less traveled. You've made me regret not picking up a Yucca whipplei when I recently had the chance ($19 is what stopped me)...maybe I'll need to go back.

    1. H. whipplei is never cheap. I don't know why. Maybe they're hard to propagate? Down here they are actually quite difficult to find.


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