7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles (1,2,3 &4)

king palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) grove at Virginia Robinson Gardens


7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles (1,2,3 &4)

If you are considering sights to see during the holidays, I have some suggestions for you.  Call them the seven wonders of our local botanical/horticultural world.  Four of them are described below.  The other three, as well as some honorable mentions, will appear in next week’s column.

Number 1 of 7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles
1.  I initially thought of making such a list many years ago when I first set eyes on what is, in my opinion, the most breathtaking tree in Los Angeles.  It is located in the Mildred Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA.  The garden is to be found in the southeast corner of the campus, where it is bordered by Hilgard Avenue along its eastern edge and by Le Conte Avenue to the south.  The garden is open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Saturday and Sunday, when it closes at 4 p.m.  Admission is free.
The tree in question is a Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) and its presence in Los Angeles is highly unusual.  You almost never see a Torrey pine in this city, although it is touted as being tolerant of smog.  Native stands of Torrey pines are found in only two places:  the coastal bluffs flanking Soledad Valley in San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island (one of the Channel Islands).
Standing beneath this tree, which appears to have reached its mature height of around 70 feet, you are overcome with feelings of reverence and gratitude. You feel reverence towards the Creator of such a miraculous work of arboreal art. You feel gratitude to the prescient gardener who, decades ago, planted an unassuming seedling that somehow grew into this awe-inspiring pine.
While visiting the Mildred Mathias Garden, you may as well take note of some other exceptional trees that are growing there.  There is a dawn redwood which is thought to be the tallest specimen of its kind in North America.  It was only in 1944, in a remote part of south central China, that the first living dawn redwoods were discovered, a species known beforehand exclusively from fossils.  That region of China is the sole habitat of this tree, which is also the only deciduous redwood species.  The tree in the Mildred Mathias Garden was planted in 1948.
You should also take note of two gigantic rose gums (Eucalyptus grandis), which are the largest representatives of this species in the US,  a humongous floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) with its green and thorny trunk, and a kaleidoscopic Mindanao gum (Eucalyptus deglupta), just outside the garden entrance, with its glorious rainbow colored, exfoliating bark.
Number 2 of 7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles
2.  The oldest tree in Los Angeles, to the best of my knowledge, is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Orcutt Ranch in West Hills, which is thought to be more than 700 years old.  Of all the botanical treasures mentioned here, it is the only one that, in all likelihood, germinated on its own and grew up without human assistance.  This tree imparts to Los Angeles, with its aura of newly begotten riches and transient fame, an aspect of solidity and permanence that feels strange, yet comforting nevertheless.  While at Orcutt, you can enjoy a stroll through the old orange grove from which you are allowed to pick fruit, for a nominal fee, at selected times of the year. You can even get married here for a most reasonable sum.  The ranch, located at 23600 Roscoe Blvd., is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk and admission is free.
Number 3 of 7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles
3.  Entering the king palm forest in the Virginia Robinson Gardens for the first time can be a disorienting experience.  At first, you might think that this is just a very sophisticated movie set, that all these trees cannot actually be real.  Especially since you are in Beverly Hills.  Surely some big Hollywood producer has simply set up this surreal forest for amusement purposes.  But then you look closely and realize that these are authentic king palms(Archontophoenix cunninghamii) after all.  You learn that this is reputed to be the largest grove of king palms, which are native to tropical Australia, in North America and the only naturalizing collection of such trees.  In botanical jargon, where trees are concerned, to naturalize means to drop seeds that produce viable seedlings in place.  Virginia Robinson Gardens is open to the public by appointment. You can arrange for a tour by calling 310-550-2065, or by email at visit@robinsongardens.org.
Number 4 of 7 Botanical Wonders of Los Angeles
4.  If you haven’t grinned lately from ear to ear, and have begun to wonder what that sensation might have been like, you need only visit he poinsettia hedge just south of the Ventura Freeway in Camarillo.  Take the Camarillo Springs Road exit to get there.  This is another one of those cases where you just have to step up to the plants and touch them to make sure they’re real.  First of all, who ever saw a poinsettia that was eight feet tall?  And a 1,000 foot long hedge of them?
When you get done smiling, you just might start to dance.  You will definitely want to sprint from one end of the hedge to the other, just to test your endurance against that of this botanical marvel.  I wonder if in Mexico, the poinsettia’s native land, poinsettia hedges are as commonplace as those ever blooming oleander hedges once were in California — before a bacteria and its glassy winged sharpshooter insect vector destroyed them.
It would be interesting to clone one of these Camarillo poinsettias and see how much cold it could tolerate.  I once saw a poinsettia growing outdoors in Granada Hills that was around six feet tall.  It was thriving in front of a stucco wall that faced east.  If you have a frost sensitive plant but just have to try growing it outdoors, I suggest planting it against an east facing wall.  Being in front of a wall means that it will benefit from heat radiating out at night, the same heat that the wall absorbed from the sun during the day.  Also, facing east means that if the cells of a plant are slightly frozen, the morning sun will perhaps be enough to quickly thaw them out and keep the plant alive.
Tip of the Week:  As long as we are on the topic of colorful hedges, Arabian lilac needs to be discussed.  Its botanical name is Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’ which, as you might imagine, references its purple aspect.  In the case of Arabian lilac, we are talking about the leaf undersides which, when looking out over a long hedge of this plant, may as well be the top face of the leaf itself, since the dominant color observed is an unmistakably purple or violet hue.   Once established, Arabic lilac is highly drought tolerant.  There is a sharp pepper scent to its crushed leaves and mildly fragrant lavender flowers are produced.
Licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) has grey foliage and may be grown, in the manner of Arabian lilac, as an informal hedge.  While Arabian lilac can reach a height of ten feet or more, licorice plant stays low, at around three feet tall.  Its leaves, when dry or on hot days, emit a licorice scent.  Although its flowers are insignificant, it is also drought tolerant once established.  Foliage has a pleasantly soft and woolly texture.

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