Note: The following was written shortly after a major earthquake in January, 1994.
Whenever I walk my dog, I see a microcosm of Los Angeles at the end of the block.
In the ruins of an earthquake-damaged apartment building, a bird of paradise grows out of the rubble. The bird of paradise is growing at the top of stairs which lead nowhere. Immediately below, in an old storage closet adjacent to the garage, a homeless person has taken up residence, or at least found a proper place for the deposit of stuff accumulated on the street.
A few days after the earthquake, one of the entrances to this building was boarded up and then tagged in black spray paint with the words: “The fat lady has sung.”
This bird of paradise represents the glamorous life to which those in Los Angeles aspire. Beneath the stairs leading to glamour and fame is the un-beautiful life that is the reward of those who don’t make it. But even among those who do see their names in lights, there may be a restless, almost homeless feeling still present, since the glamorous life achieved is neither substantial nor sustaining – and often leads nowhere.
Actually, the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) is a plant of rare substance. Exactly three years after the earthquake, it blooms amid the rubble with distinction, not having been watered, fertilized or even touched by human hands for 36 months. It is named for King George III’s queen, who came from the family of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
The bird of paradise is the official flower of the city of Los Angeles, even though it is native to South Africa. Although home gardeners propagate it through rhizome division, it is grown commercially from seed. This means that every nursery-bought bird of paradise is different from every other, since every seed produces a different plant with different characteristics. What this ultimately means is that some birds of paradise will produce more flowers than others.
Not many plants bloom in January, but those that do leave a lasting impression. Two magnificent magnolias are flowering now, both of Chinese origin. One is called the saucer magnolia (Magnolia X “Soulangeana”). The other the star magnolia, grows to only 10 feet and has white flowers. Although exquisite while in bloom, they assume a completely different character during most of the year when their foliage is out. Except for a brief moment in late winter, these magnolias would just as soon be ignored when in leaf. As soon as spring arrives, every flower fades and every leaf is burnt to a crisp.
Another famous winter bloomer, the camellia, also comes from China. The story of how the camellia reached Europe is told by Stirling Macoboy in “What Shrub Is That?” (Portland House, 1990).
“When tea reached Europe in the mid-17th century, it was immediately adopted by fashionable society. The British East India company, sensing a commercial bonanza, tried to export some of the tea plants (Camellia sinensis) by bribing Chinese officials. But it seems the Chinese outsmarted the company and substituted more decorative plants of the ornamental camellia (Camellia japonica), the leaves of which were useless for tea making. Those first camellias arrived in England early in the 18th century, and their blooms immediately caught the fancy of nurserymen. Their rapid growth in popularity may be judged by the fact that the number of camellia varieties bred since, from these few, early plants, is estimated to be as high as 30,000.” One of the great camellia collections in the world is growing under the oak trees at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge.
A colorful ground cover that is blooming now has flowers that resemble pink gumdrops (Polygonum capitatum). This is a vigorous, spreading, invasive plant that will swallow up everything in its path, so don’t plant it around small shrubs or perennials. Pink gumdrops have dark green leaves with red chevrons. This is a decorative ground cover in every respect. Plant it behind retaining walls and it will cascade down and soften the concrete or stucco facade; plant it in a hanging basket or in a clay pot and it will happily spill over the edges of your container. Pink gumdrops can take sun or light shade and will even grow under trees – such as pine and eucalyptus – that resist association with most plants.
In response to last week’s honeybee article, Jamie O’Halloran writes: “We recently became acquainted with Bill’s Bees in Little Tujunga Canyon. We were so enamored of Bill’s sage and buckwheat honeys that we shipped jars to all our relatives as holiday gifts. He also sells his wife’s hand-dipped beeswax candles and homemade scented soaps.” To contact Bill, call (818) 896-6506.
Tip of the week: January is an excellent time to plant California natives, whether you wish to surround yourself with manzanita, ceanothus or poppies. Whatever your native desires, the Theodore Payne Foundation can satisfy them. Call (818) 768-1802.
pink gum drops (Polygonum capitatum)
Photo credit: HAMACHI! / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND