We had to attend a family wedding in San Diego this last weekend. Not willing to pull my mind from my fall garden, I focused on my plan for a lawn substitute for the front yard, trying to study the native steppe matrix as it whipped by at 80 miles an hour out the window (yes, that is the actual speed limit). I tried to take in as much as I could given my experience with California didn’t promise much for inspiration.
I usually visit the High Sierra Desert, the lower Central Valley, and L.A., mostly oppressive wastes of concrete, heat, traffic, and smog. Any sense of plant life that doesn’t have a plasticine sheen to it seems to have been paved over or been buried by mono-culture agribusiness. Where native Californian flora can be found, the landscape is again spare, and can only be seen as a homogenous blur of brown and desert green from the window of the car. Imperial County was a welcome change.
Like the many cities of coastal California, San Diego is something of a Disneyland of temperate-climate biomes: Australian outback, Louisianan bayou, and South African kopje and karoo meet the mountain rainforests of Hawaii, deserts of the high Sierra, and the golden coasts of Spain and France, and so on. It is a strange melange, like artifical plants arranged on a movie set for effect alone.
The hallmark palm trees of SoCal are still here, but in La Jolla they cannot match the ubiquity of the Eucalyptus trees. In the foggy weather, their smell is enveloping. It was like living inside a mentholated humidifier, which was welcome as it cleared up my head cold.
Though, there are plenty of native plants here to fascinate; the kelp along the beach held me and my children in particular thrall. We combed the shore, marveling at and tugging on the tough rubber rope-like kelp fronds stranded on the beach. We found remnants of a kelp float that must have been 10 inches in diameter with walls that were two-thirds of an inch thick. Its size and strength took us by surprise so much it took us a couple of minutes to discern whether it was in fact a kelp float or part of a rubber buoy.
Of all our plant encounters, I was most taken with the abundance of the South African plants, which are right at home among the highly sculptural native Agaves, Yuccas, Cacti and grasses. The San Diego Zoo uses them in their gardens and to great effect. I have to admit that while everyone else in my family was looking at the animals, I was more likely to be admiring the aloes as many were in bloom.
It is strange to encounter these temperate plants growing so plentifully in such a foreign environment. Brugmansias not constricted in pots but growing in the ground comfortably reaching heights of 15 or 20 feet, their branches heavy and full of their pungent, trumpeted flowers. Growing alongside them are Hibiscus bushes blossoming garishly, and next to them luxuriant Cycads, and tropical Scheffleras, orchids and ferns. As I kept encountering plants I couldn’t identify, this world of plastic plants became less fake and grew more intoxicating, a Wonderland as discomforting as it is enchanting.
I can’t help but feel sorry for those trying to rid California of all of these “invaisives.” With such huge a huge palette of stunning and intriguing plants from all over the warm parts of the world, they have a hard fight ahead of them.
How do natives have a chance when the flamingos are real?
The coastal fog, unusual for this time of year, clung to us until Barstow and the high Sierra. As we drove up into Utah we were met with rain and that shrub-steppe that held my attention for hundreds of miles on the way there seemed very grey and very drab on the way back. Back through the drizzle, even those inland wastes and L.A. had taken on a new luster. I kept thinking of what I would write about this trip and I kept thinking of the line from the movie L.A. Story —
He says if the sprinklers stopped, you’d have a desert.
But I think…I don’t know. It’s not what I expected.
It’s where they’ve taken the desert and turned it into their dreams.