With me on this road trip to some of California’s botanical highlights were my eighteen year old daughter and her best friend. Although we enjoyed the trip and especially just the time together, I think outings like this leave lingering impressions, especially on young people.
Last week’s column was about the cultivated gardens we visited; today’s is about nature’s gardens, those without a gardener to sustain them. On Mount Diablo, east of the San Francisco bay, we searched for Mariposa Lilies, especially for a beautiful yellow version that is found there and no where else, Calochortus pulchellus. We found it; as beautiful and lovely as any flower bred by humans in any greenhouse or nursery field.
The delicate Mount Diablo Mariposa Lily (Calochortus pulchellus) grows only in a small natural area east of San Francisco-Oakland
Along the beaches of Big Sur we explored the fragile sand dune habitat that is nearly gone from the southern half of our state. There, the native yellows of lupines, Eriophyllum and Cammissonia combine so perfectly with the feather gray of sprawling Sandhill Sages and the always rolling, flowing foliage of native Dune Sedge. Pale blue Beach Asters (Erigeron) were blooming here more vigorously than in my own garden, perhaps happier in nature’s home. I wish I could paint this scene – and take it with me; the waves crashing, the cliffs resisting, and the plants and animals all in perfect, natural coordination with their environment. A wild, sensual, coastal garden.
In stark contrast to the exposed beaches to the west, we explored the shady, cool and moist redwood forests only a couple of miles inland. With quite different environments, the disparity of these two gardens was extreme. Lessons like these, when experienced firsthand and up close, are priceless as we often struggle in our own gardens to match plant to plot.
As we explored the lush redwood forests we were delighted with so many of nature’s woodland jewels: blooming violets, giant trilliums, delicate starflowers (Trientalis), beautiful red-flowering Clintonia and carpets of wild gingers (Asarum) and redwood sorrel (Oxalis). Huge orange banana slugs, some five inches long, stalked us as we enjoyed the spectacle.
Not far away I was rewarded with a view I will never forget. Three California Condors, soared over the coastal hills. Thirty years ago I was lucky enough to stand upon the 9,000 foot summit of a mountain 160 south of here and watch one of our last free flying condors. With only 27 birds persisting by 1987, the remaining condors have been the subject of an intensive captive breeding and re-release program. My teenage companions giggled as I momentarily lost my senses and struggled with my seatbelt and forgot how to shift into ‘drive’ as I tried to maneuver for a better look. Sorry girls, but this was my moment. I feared that I would never again see one of these magnificent birds flying over a California hillside. It was a life moment.
Our journey would take us to others of nature’s gardens, but none as significant as an area known as The Carrizo Plain. This wide open space, 15 miles in width and 50 miles in length is seldom visited by most Californian’s. At a glance, the gardens of The Carrizo Plain are bleak and desolate. This valley, 50 miles inland, is a rare remnant of what the central valley of California once was. It is now home to more threatened and endangered species than any other place in our state.
The Carizzo is a garden of isolation, 50 miles to the nearest gas station, public phone or flushing toilets. There are no trees, just low grasses, annuals and herbs. No telephone poles, houses or electrical wires either. It is a garden of extremes and the plants and animals have adapted to these extremes. Colorful wildflowers abound in the spring as do a myriad of pollinators, followed by the golden ambers and efficiencies required of a dry summer. The plants and gardens of The Carrizo support a vast array of wildlife and we found much of it: Pronghorn Antelope, endangered Giant Kangaroo Rats, four versions of owls, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, several hawk species, Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes and my first sighting of wild badgers. This is a magnificent place, a raw and wild garden, sometimes referred to as “California’s Serengeti”.
I hope and believe this botanical odyssey through California has left a meaningful impression upon my young companions; one that will serve them in later years, perhaps a lifetime. California’s gardens, cultivated or wild, are spectacular; I believe the greatest in all the world. I hope, as often as possible, you also find the opportunity to enjoy these gardens yourself.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar