Living Art

Gerda Maxey and her caladiums

golden shower tree (Cassia fistula)

croton (Codiaeaum sp.)

maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp.)

persimmon tree

Gerda Maxey is an artist in the truest sense.   As you tour her home and garden in Sylmar, you appreciate Maxey’s need to be surrounded by art, both indoors and out.  Maxey is a portraitist and her walls are covered with oil paintings she has created over the years, including a portrait of her great-granddaughter dressed in blue.  Outdoors, you encounter vivid collections of brilliant tropical plants.    

The purpose of my visit was to look at a tree I had never seen before.  Imagine long golden chains of five petaled flowers, so profuse that they completely obscure the tree’s foliage.  This species is appropriately named golden shower tree or laburnum of India (Cassia fistula) and will remind you of true laburnum, the tree that is classically associated with long chains of yellow flowers.  The national flower of Thailand, it so happens, is the same one presently seen by the thousands on Maxey’s golden shower tree.  Throughout Southeast Asia it is revered both for its beauty and for its medicinal properties in combating a large vaireity of ailments, from colds to stomach ailments to skin disorders. In Paraguay, where Maxey lived until she was twenty-one and from where the seed that grew into her tree was taken, golden shower is known as lluvias de oro.
Maxey has lived in her house, nestled halfway between the 210 and 5 freeways, since 1949.  “It was the first tract home built in this area,” she informs me.  “At that time, there was nothing but orange and olive groves as far as you could see.”
Both golden shower and true laburnum are in the pea or legume family, which means that their seeds are contained in elongated pods.  However, true laburnum is native to the cold winter climate of the French Alps and will simply not flower in Southern California.   A plant native to a cold climate requires cold to produce flowers (and fruit) and this explains, for example, the absence of sweet cherry (Prunus avium) trees in Los Angeles gardens.
Golden shower tree is well-suited to our climate so it is a mystery why you never see it here.  And there is another stunning leguminous tree in gold, also strangely absent from our gardens, that is called yellow jacaranda due to form, foliage, and flowering season that approximate those of the familiar blue-flowered jacaranda.  I have seen yellow jacaranda (Peltophorum pterocarpum) growing close to Israel’s Mediterranean coast from Netanya in the north to Ashkelon in the south and I think it would perform just as well in Los Angeles.  Both golden shower and yellow jacaranda are medium sized trees, 30-40 feet tall, and hardy to 25 degrees Fahrenheit so they should make it through Valley winters just fine.   
You can locate seeds of both species on eBay where they sell for around $2.50 for a packet of 25 seeds.  If there is a better deal anywhere for any product under the sun, I’d like to see it.  10 cents for a seed that brings as much dazzling beauty as any extravagant light show or firewarks display. 
The procedure for germination of seeds from leguminous trees is the same for all species.  They generally have hard seed coats on account of their drought tolerance, giving them the ability to survive many years of drought without loss of vitality until rain finally comes.  Leguminous tree seeds may also contain chemicals that prevent germination until, when seeds are finally submerged in water after a soaking rain, these chemicals are diluted or leached out.  Therefore, you should first soften the coats and remove these chemicals by plunging the seeds in water that has just been boiled.  Keep the seeds in the cooling water for 24 hours.  Maxey germinates golden shower seeds without pre-soaking them but it has been demonstrated that pre-soaking increases the percentage of seeds that sprout.
Two years ago, Maxey sent photos of a tree growing in her parkway that I had never seen anywhere in Los Angeles.  It’s known as flamboyant (Delonix regia) on account of its brilliant display of deep red-orange flower clusters known as corymbs.  If you have ever been to the tropics, from Hawaii to Yucatan to East Asia, you have probably seen this unforgettable tree.  In any case, after an extensive Internet search, the most northern grown local specimen of flamboyant that I could find is in south Orange County, in La Habra Heights, quite a distance from Sylmar.  
I don’t know what Maxey’s secret is but she did grow her flamboyant from a seed and you never know what genetic traits, including cold tolerance, may be found in a seed’s DNA.  Perhaps this could be a rare cultivar that withstands more cold than flamboyants are supposed to tolerate.  I did notice that there is an enormous carob tree on the adjacent property to the north of Maxey and perhaps this tree provides the flamboyant with protection from chilling north winds and frost coming down from the hills.
Maxey’s backyard is a study in horticultural finesse.  She has the largest collection of Caladiums I have ever seen, grown from bulbs that she received from Florida in the spring.  She also has a large batch of leathery-leafed crotons (Codiaeum variegatum), including several green and gold specimens that have reached a height of five feet.  These are tougher than the more colorful types, which include red and pink coloration in their foliage, as welll as yellow.  Finally, she has a formidable collection of large maidenhair ferns (Adiantum).  Although her backyard is devoted almost entirely to pool, pool deck, and tropical plants in containers, she has a fruiting persimmon and fig tree growing in patches of earth.  There is even the remnants of a row of corn, from which many healthy ears were recently harvested, squeezed between her pool deck and back fence.
Maxey confesses that she spends more time taking care of her outdoor than her indoor space.  “I don’t like house work,” she confides.  “You don’t see results like you do from growing and taking care of plants.”  
Tip of the Week:  Maxey’s clustered collections of tropicals demonstrate two benefits of massing plants together.  First, the design effect is second to none when many plants of the same type coalesce.  In order for a plant to be fully appreciated and remembered, you need to see many individual plants of that type close to one another.  Second, plants benefit culturally from close proximity to one another as long as light exposure and air circulation are adequate.  The living mulch created by the foliage of cheek-by-jowl plants means that water application is minimized.
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