In the waning years of the 20th century, people seem to have two contradictory desires. On the one hand, they crave extraordinary excitement and thrills – from heart-stopping action movies to nonstop Las Vegas night life to upside-down roller coaster rides. On the other hand, they long for serenity – as expressed in a desire to lead a slower-paced, simpler life, to find the time and the inner peace to draw closer to family and friends, to nature and perhaps to God.
An autumn journey to Wildflower Hill at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley can fulfill all of your heart’s desires. Fall is not the recommended season to visit a garden of native plants, since most natives are not in bloom at this time. Yet nature, it turns out, holds at least as many thrills as a casino or an amusement park, even during the supposedly dormant season.
Only a week ago, a group of students and I ascended Wildflower Hill. We saw areas that had been cleared to plant wildflowers – clarkia and California poppies, to be precise. We saw California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) – a strongly pungent, lacy-leaved perennial – that was marked with a sign explaining its usefulness in treating, especially, the ailments of women. And we saw two plants that, according to the books, should not have been in flower and yet were blooming abundantly.
At the end of the path, which forms the first leg on the journey up Wildflower Hill, on the down slope side, we saw the plant that made our trip worthwhile. It was woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum), and it was in full bloom. We saw its velvety violet petals from which curly purple stamens stick out like serpents’ tongues. Its dark green leaves are white and woolly on their undersides, making this a well-insulated plant, indeed. In fact, woolly blue curls requires no water once it is established; will grow to a height of 5 feet and should live for five to 10 years.
Directly opposite, woolly blue curls, on the other side of the path, we saw the scarlet and orange plume of an Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.). The Indian paintbrush is a parasitic plant whose roots grow into the roots of its host, in this case a gray-leafed sage. Other local parasitic plants – the leafy mistletoe that grows out of tree limbs and the yellow, thread-like dodder that winds its way around low-growing brush – are not noticed for their flowers. It’s hard to believe that a parasitic could have flowers as beautiful as those of the Indian paintbrush.
Contemplating these colorful fall bloomers, we worked our way up the hill and, nearly at the top, digressed from the main trail. Soon we came upon some undisturbed chaparral, consisting mostly of California buckwheat, California sagebrush, greasewood, laurel sumac and sage. Although this vegetation was dressed in demure shades of gray and brown and olive green, it did have a beauty of its own, which seemed to grow as we spoke of it amongst ourselves.
Who were we? An international group of plant lovers from Thailand, Lebanon, Israel, Ukraine, Wyoming and Woodland Hills. Seeing these plants together helped bind us together. Perhaps, who knows, the community of plants, if we study it closely, can give us humans hints as to how we, too, can live together as a single community. Actually, as a single species, we humans have more in common with one another than any two species of plants have in common. Yet, two unrelated species of plants can live side by side for generations in perfect harmony. Each grows to its full potential, in no way hindered by the other’s presence.
The Theodore Payne Foundation is at 10459 Tuxford St. in Sun Valley. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. A plant sale will be held Dec. 17-21 during these hours. For more information, call (818) 768-1802.
In researching wildflowers on the Internet, I happened upon the Web site of Dan Pierce. Pierce has taken exquisite photographs of flowers – including woolly blue curls and Indian paintbrush – he found growing wild in the Santa Clarita Valley. To browse his gallery, do an Internet search for “Trichostema lanatum” and access his snapshots from there.
Tip of the week:One of the best bulbs to grow in Los Angeles, and to plant in the fall, is Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica). As recommended in the October issue of Garden Design, “plant bluebells lavishly: 70 per square yard, 4 inches deep, in rich, loamy soil.” These are bulbs that will not disappear after one colorful show, but continue to grow and produce flowers year after year in our climate. Thanks to Vera Sweeney, a reader from Van Nuys, for the bluebell reminder.