Australians & South Africans in Los Angeles
They are imported from across the seas and, having seen so many of them over the years, in such a diverse array of shapes, colors and textures, you have sort of made an unwritten commitment to yourself to visit their lands of origin.
If nothing else, you have at least developed an armchair attachment to these lands, on account of their flora, whether you ultimately visit or not.
The plants I am talking about are natives of Australia and South Africa. You see vast numbers of them in Los Angeles gardens, far more than you see of California native plants.
It seems that every type of water-thrifty species that grows well in those places will grow here, too. Australian trees take up a large share of our urban forest when you take eucalyptus, paper bark (Melaleuca), bottlebrush (Callistemon) and acacia into account.
And when you consider that geraniums and most succulent ground covers come from South Africa, it is difficult to look anywhere without seeing representatives from one or both of these parts of the globe.
Just the other day, on the corner of Chandler Boulevard and Whitsett Avenue in Valley Village, I came upon two species of kurrajong trees from Australia in full bloom. Both of these trees belong to a genus known as Brachychiton or bottle tree.
Among the indigenous people of Australia, these trees are known as kurrajong. Kurrajong means fishing line and refers to the Aborigines’ use of bottle tree bark fibers for the purpose of making fishing tackle.
The trunks of these trees tend to be bottle shaped, suberized and highly water retentive.
The Valley Village trees are growing in a narrow planter that is built into the side of a building and elevated high above street level. While you can look at these trees, they are too high up to touch. Yet their flowers are strewn all over the sidewalk below so that you can pick them up and study them at your leisure.
There is a carpet of bell-shaped, rose-colored blooms that have fallen from the Queensland lace bark or pink flame tree (Brachychiton discolor). These flowers are covered with fine hairs, giving them a woolly texture.
Hirsute plant parts — whether flowers or, more often, leaves — are insulated against water loss. Surface hair keeps these plant parts cool and reduces transpiration (botanical sweating).
Not far from the lace bark bell-shaped flowers are flowers of a completely different appearance, although they belong to a related species.
These flowers are silky, tubular yet beadlike, and scarlet red, and blanket the Australian flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius).
Trees from arid zones grow in response to climatic conditions. Confronted with drought, they grow barely at all but, following a wet winter, may increase significantly in size.
Dry climate trees are recommended as street trees since their roots grow straight down and they do not lift sidewalks. Their roots, however — like the roots of trees generally — will grow into sewage lines, especially where such lines are made of vitrified clay or corrosive metal or cast iron, so make sure your sewage lines are either ABS plastic or, if old and leaky, improved with fiberglass lining if you intend to plant trees on your property.
Just as Australia has its signature trees, the lands of South Africa have their signature succulents.
Primary among these are the Euphorbias. While cactuses are exclusive to the Western Hemisphere, popular succulent species of Euphorbia are found most often in South Africa, as well as Asia and South America.
Many of these were on display recently at the drought-tolerant plant show at the Sepulveda Garden Center in Encino.
Medusa’s head (Euphorbia caput-medusae) has multiple snakelike appendages that more than live up to the plant’s name.
Euphorbia lactea ‘Variegata’ possesses succulent white candlesticks tipped in red.
Oxbane (Boophone disticha) is highly poisonous; it got its name from the fact that it is deadly to livestock. However, its unique foliage makes this bulbous amaryllis relative a highly worthy garden selection.
Cyphostemma uter is a rare selection from Namibia whose trunk resembles eucalyptus and whose foliage resembles a Pelargonium.
Last but not least, it was difficult not to get carried away by the many brilliant Dyckia specimens on display at the Sepulveda Garden Center show. These bromeliads will remind you of starfish. They make wonderful containerized specimens and conversation pieces for a well-lit living room or dining area.