Loran Whitelock, Cycad King

Wood's cycad (Encephalartos woodii)

Wood’s cycad (Encephalartos woodii)

There I was, waiting at the gate. Waiting for the master gardener to open it.
I did not spend my time idly, but rather reflexively snapped pictures of epiphytic staghorn ferns that were hugging the trunks of windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei).
Other staghorns were solidly affixed, as if by suction, to a wooden fence that bordered the property next door. I quickly made a mental note: Next time someone asks for the name of a vine that covers a shady fence, suggest attaching staghorn ferns (Platycerium species) instead.
I was standing on a driveway before a remote control, automatic gate, having parked in the street. I parked in the street because I could tell from the gigantic cycads erupting in several contiguous front yards that I must be in the proximity of the legendary Loran Whitelock’s residence.
The front yard display was sufficiently overwhelming to have me convinced that this was the extent of Whitelock’s garden. Silly me! It was nothing but an appetizer for the incredible botanical feast that was yet to come.
Finally, the automatic gate opened. I slowly ascended the driveway and walked up into a scene for which I was completely unprepared.
I say scene because it was hard to believe what I saw was real, considering that this was Glendale and not a Caribbean island or an Amazonian retreat. Heightening the drama was the absence of the person who opened the gate. You could call it a Jurassic Park in miniature, sans dinosaurs.
Whitelock’s garden covers a backyard slope, more than an acre in size, navigated by a serpentine walkway, with botanical treasures popping out at every turn.
For several minutes, I waited, eyes glued to enormous cycads and exotic palms, an epiphytic orchid (Laelia sp.) in full bloom, several types of tropical, huge-leafed begonias, luxuriating in cycad shade – plants you thought could only grow in a greenhouse and had no business thriving in the ground – and a crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii) hybrid with unusually large clusters of bright red bracts which, I later learned, came from Thailand.
You might think that if you live in close proximity to Hollywood, as many Valleyites do, you invariably develop a flair for the dramatic, whether your front yard consists of an elaborate Halloween display or a collection of botanical wonders.
Yet, when it comes to plant people, you could not be more wrong about the implications of their creative endeavors. Spend an hour in the presence of Whitelock and you may well desire to create a special garden, too, but not for dramatic effect.
When I asked him about the genesis of his garden, he explained: “I could not travel as much as I would have liked and so I decided to bring the distant places into my backyard.”
Like other devoted plant people I have encountered, there is an ingenuousness in Whitelock that could be compared, I suppose, to that of Adam and Eve when they first set foot in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps that explains why people surround themselves with plants. Somewhere, embedded in our DNA, is a yearning for a primal, pristine horticultural and spiritual environment.
When Whitelock finally appeared, I found myself in the presence of someone whose quiet, calm and patient demeanor blended seamlessly into the atmosphere evoked by his garden. Cycads, you see, are slow-growing plants, their trunks putting on vertical growth of an inch or two per year. Nothing to hurry up about in a garden of cycads.
With Whitelock, you felt comfortable asking questions, that no question would be considered too elementary, even though he had probably answered the questions you asked many, many times. Whitelock is the author of what some consider to be the seminal work on this subject, a volume simply titled “The Cycads” (Timber Press, 2002).
As we walked up and down his garden pathway – consisting of bricks salvaged from a right-of-way excavated during construction of the Hollywood Freeway – I asked Whitelock if there was a plant that was of particular interest to him.
He pointed to a robust specimen of Wood’s cycad (Encephalartos woodii). Native to South Africa, only one wild specimen of Wood’s cycad has been discovered. It is an unusually fast-growing and arboreal cycad, eventually reaching
20 feet in height. The species is dioecious, which means that plants are either male or female. Since the only discovered specimen was a male, all of its pups or offsets have been male as well.
The search continues for a female counterpart as, meanwhile, biotechnologists explore the possibility of inducing sex reversal, a process that occurs naturally in some cycad species.
Cycads may be found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica. There is even a cycad native to Georgia and Florida (Zamia floridana). Nearly all types are drought tolerant.
Although cycads are the dominant form of plant life in Whitelock’s garden, he also has outstanding collections of begonias, bromeliads and Chamaedorea palms, with a famous potato chip palm (Chamaedorea tuerckheimii) among them. Potato chip palm was named in deference to its ridged, Ruffles-style foliage.
Whitelock also took pride in showing off his window pane palm (Reinhardtia gracilis), whose leaf bases are graced with narrow, elongated gaps. There was also a fascinating bromeliad sphere (Deuterocohnia brevifolia), a shark-toothed Dyckia and a Neoregelia, typically grown as an indoor plant but used here as a ground cover.
Although in his 80s, Whitelock takes care of his plants almost entirely by himself. His maintenance regime is as follows:
Irrigation is provided by shrub head sprinklers, traditional stationary spray heads screwed onto above-ground risers strategically placed throughout (except for the spaghetti tubing that waters his fence-bound staghorn ferns); fertilization is achieved by a slow release 10-10-10 formulation, applied every six to nine months; mulch, laid on the soil surface, is a fibrous, aromatic product that goes by the name of Kellogg’s Gardner & Bloome Soil Building Compost, enriched with bat guano, kelp meal and chicken manure.
Tip of the week
Thanks to Loran Whitelock, I have a new answer to the question: What should I plant under my oak tree? The answer is: Ceratozamia cycads. Whitelock told me that in Mexico he noticed Ceratozamias growing in lush profusion under oaks. These cycads appreciate acidic soil, made possible by the acidifying action of steadily decomposing oak leaf mulch.

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