Driving south on Beverly Glen Boulevard, down from Mulholland Drive, just before you reach Perdido Lane, look to your right. There you will see an unusual looking plant with gigantic leaves sprouting from tall, skinny trunks. Soon, from winter until spring, this horticultural treasure will be showing off large clusters of violet blooms. Close by the large specimen, you will see lots of smaller ones, too.
The species in question is fiberglass plant (Wigandia urens). Native to the Central American cloud forest, where it thrives at altitudes above 6,000 feet, this plant has somehow naturalized on the slopes of Beverly Glen. Naturalization refers to the phenomenon of a plant spreading throughout an area with no human assistance. True, someone had to plant the original specimen, but then, entirely on its own, it propagates itself. Sometimes this happens through self-sowing, as in the case of our fiberglass plant. Other times, the phenomenon occurs through vegetative propagation or self-cloning, as in the case of bulbous, rhizomatous, or tuberous plants, whether daffodils, daylilies or dahlias are involved. For naturalization to occur, soil conditions have to closely mimic those present in the plant’s habitat.
Fiberglass plants are known for the trichomes, or bristly hairs, that sprout on the surface of their leaves. Researchers of the fiberglass plant have proved that when soil is dry, more hairs are produced. Fiberglass plants in heavily irrigated areas have smooth leaves, whereas plants in dry soil have prickly leaves. Trichomes or botanical hair, on any plant, impart drought tolerance as they hold moisture on leaf surfaces, reducing water loss from transpiration.
Many rain forest species, orchids most notable among them, are remarkably drought tolerant. Rain forest ecosystems experience dry periods, too, and many plants that live there have consequently adapted to coping with drought. Classic indoor plants, which come from the tropics, commonly die from over watering. People draw the mistaken conclusion that, coming from a part of the globe known for heavy rainfall, indoor plants must need heavy watering in order to thrive, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The Beverly Glen ecosystem – and I am speaking of the gorge that runs between Perdido Lane and Greendale Drive — is as tropical as any you will find in Los Angeles. It is somehow protected from both harsh heat and chilling cold, much like Shangri-l a in the 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon,” by James Hilton. The most glorious fishtail palm (Caryota sp.) you will ever see is growing here. It looks as good, if not better, than fishtail palms grown indoors, which is where they properly belong in our Los Angeles desert. Nevertheless, this uncanny fishtail palm, wedged between street curb and garage façade, is an absolutely flawless specimen. Locally, the only fishtail palm I have seen growing outdoors was in San Pedro, a more southerly and presumably milder area, yet the foliage on that tree was torn and burnt and chlorotic, as typically happens, locally, when you plant fishtail palms — which are native to tropical Asia — outdoors.
Blue butterfly bush (Rotheca/Clerodendrum ugadense) is indigenous to East Africa yet it, too, has found a happy home in Beverly Glen. The curbside specimen on display has grown to over 10 feet tall and is covered top to bottom with flowers that perfectly resembly small blue butterflies. This is one of those plants that has “gotta have one” written all over it. Long considered highly medicinal on the African continent, its anti-hyperglycemic properties are being evaluated for use in treatment of diabetes.
Wild tobacco (Solanum mauritanum) is a South American relative of tobacco, tomato, potato, eggplant, bell and chili peppers, and it flourishes in Beverly Glen. It is a large shrub that blooms with flowers that will remind you of blue potato bush, a close cousin, except that it blooms all year long and its leaves are rather large and colored in an arresting grayish green. The fruit of wild tobacco, a member of the nightshade family, are absolutely deadly, so you might want to pick them off as soon as they appear.
Lest the Australian continent feel left out, a representative of their indigenous acacias, known as wattles, is to be found in Beverly Glen. The representative species is willow wattle (Acacia iteaphylla). Although acacias are supposed to bloom only in winter or spring, this one is flowering now with those classic fairy duster, suphur-colored spheres.
Tip of the Week: A flowering, leguminous vine that is not that widely grown is thriving in Beverly Glen to such an extent that it is now winding its way up utility wires. I am talking about snail vine (Cochliasanthus/Vigna caracalla). Another South American species, this vine is aggressive enough to be recommended for covering slopes. Rose to lilac, snail-shaped blooms just keep on coming, even in November, on a vine that is closely related to ordinary string beans.