This column is dedicated to the memory of the innocents murdered in Newtown, Connecticut.
Last Sunday was drizzling and cold. It had been many years since I had visited South Coast Botanic Garden, located on Palos Verdes Peninsula in the South Bay. Considering the mood of the moment, though, it seemed to be an appropriate place to visit. Newtown, Connecticut, is surrounded by forest and, whenever I think of a thickly wooded area, South Coast Botanic Garden comes to mind. Many of the trees in the garden are from arid zones like our own. Thus, they do not necessarily provide a canopy overhead in the manner of a New England forest, yet the 87 acres that compose the garden are still crowded with arboreal specimens, albeit mostly evergreen, leathery or pinnately leaved, and thus comfortable in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California. The one truly forested area in South Coast Botanic Garden is the banyan grove, where you will encounter giant ficus trees, whose buttress roots send you far back in time.
As I wandered through the garden, meeting not a soul, I wondered if I would come upon a plant or tree that would capture the sensations of the days just past. Suddenly, there stood in the distance a tree whose weeping habit of growth and silvery glow seemed to reflect the feelings of sad inspiration that have been felt by many. Unspeakable sadness tempered by stories of self-sacrifice and unfathomable love.
It was a dark and overcast day, yet the silver foliage of the tree before me, a weeping acacia, seemed to glow with increased intensity the darker the skies became. Is this not the message of Newtown, whose very name conjures hope? Could it be that against a background of senseless killing, a new way of living and caring would come to be?
In Psalm 149, we are instructed to “sing to the Lord a new song.” This new song is what we will sing when redemption comes. Yet redemption is nothing less than a return to Eden, the first garden, where God’s pulsating presence was clearly evident in every rock and tree and human evil had yet to be introduced into the world. Perhaps that is why we seek out nature and gardens in trying times. There is something elementally spiritual to be found in a garden that can be found nowhere else on Earth.
Yet even before Adam and Eve were created, the Earth had sinned. God’s plan was that the wood of trees would be as sweet and succulent as their fruit. Unfortunately, the earth disobeyed and brought forth trees whose wood, although necessary for fruit to grow, was itself bitter and inedible. And so the idea that “the ends (sweet fruit) justify the means (bitter wood)” was born. In a redeemed world, wood and fruit will be equally edible; means will be as sweet as ends.
* * *
Weeping acacia (Acacia pendula), from Australia, is a highly ornamental small tree that grows no more than twenty feet tall. It is well suited to the Valley’s climate. Foliage is silver to blue gray to green, depending on sun exposure; the more sun it gets, the more silvery it becomes. Like many other acacias and leguminous trees in general, a weeping acacia may experience branch may die back within its first decade or two of life. Still, it will pleasantly persist for some years, showing off fresh cascades of leafy shoots.
Pink Australian fuchsia (Correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’) is a compact shrub that also grows well in the Valley. Called a fuchsia because of its dangling flower bells, it is much easier to grow than true fuchsia species. At South Coast Botanic Garden, there is a display of a large variety of true fuchsias growing in hanging baskets under an arbor. Close proximity to the ocean makes this display possible whereas, in the Valley, it is virtually impossible to grow true fuchsias. Australian fuchsias, whose flowers may also be red, orange, or white are far less challenging to grow.
Black flower mint or Andean silver-leaf sage (Salvia discolor) is a fascinating plant for several reasons. Its flowers are as close to black as any you will encounter. Blackish flowers (there is no truly black flower) are nearly always the result of hybridization, such as in the case of black tulip, black iris, black pansy, and black petunia. But the black observed in Andean sage flowers is naturally occurring. As a bonus, rub its two-toned foliage — silver on the top and green on the bottom — for an aromatically minty delight.
To complement your Andean silver-leafed sage, consider underplanting it with silverleaf geranium, a highly medicinal ground cover. Native to South Africa, silverleaf geranium (Geranium sidoides) is one of the most medicinal plants under the sun, a staple in the medicine chest of several African tribes. It has been written up in numerous medical journals for its curative properties, especially in the realm of winter maladies such as colds, flu, and even acute bronchitis.
Butterfly agave (Agave potatorum) has softly lobed, if spiny leaves. Its species name potatorum refers to its potable potential; that is, it is a source of alcoholic beverages, in the manner of blue or tequila agave (Agave tequilana). Butterfly agave is visually distinguished by its compactness, growing no more than two feet tall and three feet wide, and by its uniquely soft and undulating, if still spiny, leaf margins. Not too far away, a butterfly bush (Clerodendrum ugadense), whose flowers are shaped like butterflies, is thriving. This butterfly bush should be grown in half-day sun, to be distinguished from an unrelated, more common, and sun-loving plant also known as butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
South Coast Botanic Garden, located at 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula, is open 364 days a year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is an admission fee except for every 3rd Tuesday, when admission is free. For more information call (310) 544-1948 or visit www.southcoastbotanicgarden.org.
Tip of the Week: One of the best bulbs for naturalizing, or producing ever-expanding clumps from single bulbs, in Valley gardens is paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazetta ‘Paper White’). At South Coast Botanic Garden, paperwhites have naturalized under a ‘Pink Cloud’ flowering cherry tree (Prunus serrulata ‘Pink Cloud’). Locally, you can find dozens of mature ‘Pink Cloud’ cherry trees, which are grown for their flowers alone, along the periphery of Lake Balboa.