AT THE GENTLE MERCY OF PLANTS -- ESSAYS AND POEMS
Gentle Aliens: A Strolling Conversation
THE INTRODUCED SEMITROPICAL plants, chiefly trees, growing in southern California, are exotics so well established that they have altered the environment. It is more exact to say that they are the environment, and that to trace each one is an ambitious, fascinating and impossible task to perform, since today the introduced plants of this completely planted area overwhelmingly outnumber the natives. Director Francis Ching of the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia says that introductions account for 98 percent of plant life in Southern California gardens. From where do these exotics hail? What have they given us? And what are we, today, giving them? It is hard to realize that some of them, numerous members of great genera, or species and varieties less prominent but all desirable, have been here for one hundred and even two hundred years. There is no need to explain our surprise at time's velocity. We are glad that it passed in the presence of trees. Perhaps they are more entitled to the land than we ourselves are. It is already long ago that they settled down, and now they are valiantly, and even elegantly, fighting it out with what is one of the most congested, traffic-and smog-afflicted, greedily urbanized and industrialized areas of the globe. That is what we have given them in return for their countless endowments to us. If some alien plants have abused the native plants, these I am thinking of are not of that class. We have lived with them for so many years that they now possess for us the meanings of home, inheritance and daily life. If they were suddenly to depart, as creatures no longer able to put up with the intensities of traffic and population, we would stand here, or fall here, deprived of roots and dreams.
I have spent much of my life looking at plants. And recently it seems that plants, with sympathy, are looking at me. I wish I could get them to look the other way. It has all to do with memories, memories of the time when Southern California was different, or the world was different, and so was I.
Whom do I address? -- a resident, a traveler or myself? Just a conversation, no matter with whom, about exotics.
Parks and arboretums from Santa Barbara to San Diego are excellent for such conversations, and we will not overlook them, but this piece will be about what we find for ourselves as plant watchers, strollers and drifters. It should be exciting and satisfying to wander through a landscape that resembles a rich mosaic defined by prominent patterns.
To begin, let us remember that behind every foreign plant there stands, immediate or remote, a plant explorer or a plant introducer. Also remember that we are looking for trees, not merely herbaceous plants. The literature of plant exploration is a dramatic story of courage and patience, joy and desperate failure, danger and even violent death. Of the men who have gone down the tropics or up the Himalayas hunting for new material to enrich the gardens and farms of Europe and America, not all have returned. We have their journals, we know their ardors and their hardships. Something stirs in the trees overhead, something in the flowers at our feet.
Be careful where you step, my friend, not on a frail primula from Tibet, but a knobby seed capsule from the Tasmanian eucalyptus under which we are standing. It is Eucalyptus globulus. To be less formal we may call this massive tree the Tasmanian blue gum. Of all introduced trees the eucalypti are the most plentiful. This one, which may reach the height of 180 feet in its native earth, is the most extensively planted in California of all the species. To us it is the image of the entire genus. It is big, messy, a boss of a tree, with a blue cast to its buds and its juvenile foliage. The seedlings of this and other species were first brought to San Francisco in 1856 by a Mr. Walker, whose name should be mentioned, since he started an enthusiasm which eventually introduced so many kinds of eucalyptus to the coast that some people have supposed the tree to be native. Blue gum is the dominant immigrant exotic, uniting north and south with its characteristic odor and litter of bark. In the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century it was planted for lumber and firewood, but was not suited commercially for these purposes. However, it remained inconspicuous. A few years ago, between seventy-five and ninety species were counted as growing in California, yet in spite of its general popularity scarcely more than one-third of these are commonly seen. The rest turn up in collections.
In Australia there are some 300 species of eucalyptus, some of them giants that grow to more than 300 feet. An excitable encyclopedia reports heights of 575 feet, but even the truth is not modest. Eucalypti provide timber for paper pulp and oil. They are ubiquitous on the continent, present in Tasmania, and a few are found in Malaysia. Although eucalypti are numerous in California in every type of planting, and we might call them our senior exotics, still they are not easy trees to get familiar with. Only the botanical specialists can know them well. For the amateur they offer confusion, fascination and endless diversities of bud, bloom, fruit, foliage, scent and bark. It is probably first of all the sight of so many kinds of bark which suggests to the casual -- but soon absorbed -- plant-watcher that although one or two species of the genus may predominate, they are not alone. Most frequently planted as specimen trees are the various gums whose barks come off periodically in strips and ribbons. But the term "gum" is used for others as well. And we must not confuse the ribbon-strippers with the stringybarks of similar-sounding designation but of fibrous covering. The ironbarks, dark or furrowed, are easier to recognize. Perhaps. There is also the business of those stockings that give way to smooth limbs above, differently in different species. To be noticed with interest and pleasure are the varying hues of brown, yellow, gray, khaki or soft red, where the bark has come off and left a mottled skin. Or it may be smooth and "brilliantly white." As for the leaves, they are simple, entire and frequently sickle-shaped, Again, they are roundish or ovate-lanceolate. They may be redolent of eucalyptus oil or they may smell like peppermint. The mystery of a flower without sepals or petals must leave you aloof and sensible until you have secured a twig in bloom and seen the halo of stamens that fringes the calyx and radiates from it.
Much better than one twig in bloom but harder to put your hand on is the volume entitled Eucalypts, a collection of 250 faithful and charming water-color paintings by Stan Kelly, the remarkable engine-driver of the Victorian Railways, who for many years has found time to follow an additional schedule, that of the flowering and fruiting of the Australian forests. His paintings, sprays of bud, bloom, seed vessels and foliage, show you how sepal and petal, fused into caps or lids, are pushed off by the silky weakness of the showy stamens. The stamens are the aesthetic evidence of the flower, single and illuminated white in Tasmanian blue gum (E. globulus), striking red in scarlet gum (E. ficifolia) and drooping rose in red iron bark (E. sideroxylon), a queenly tree. The seed capsules are of great variety in shape and size, from match head to large pipe bowl.
Why not pick up seed capsules, plentiful and various on the ground? You might find some of those splendid tiny toys, the quarter-inch seed bowls of a very tall tree, the red gum, E. rostrata. One of them could hold two drops of bright rain for a dark, dry day.
At this point I pause to remind us all of an old-fashioned craft once associated with eucalyptus, and a questionable craft it was, one of the least attractive ordeals of art nouveau. My own mother practiced it, timorously and once; the stringing of eucalyptus portieres. All that was needed was a bushel of green buds of strong-smelling globulus, heavy thread, a very sharp, long needle and a lot of bloodletting. The result: a seductive curtain that smelled like Vick's Vapo-Rub and swung and clattered lightly as we passed through.
Eucalyptus is assumed to be the fastest-growing tree in the world. A blue gum has been paced in its upward race at fifty feet in less than five years from seed. It was this speed of growth that encouraged "the eucalyptus craze" of 1904, when a rumor gave rise to a fear that the country was giving out of hardwoods. The eucalypti, being hardwoods, were regarded as saviors, also as an easy way to make quick fortunes. Fifty thousand acres of various kinds were planted in the state for investment, and methodically neglected in the conviction that eucalyptus flourished without irrigation or other attention. At the end of ten years, the profit so confidently expected was neither lumber, shingles nor railway ties, but only a rich chagrin.
It was in 1770 that Captain James Cook, the famous and ill-fated explorer, reached Australia, called New Holland, on the shores of the South Pacific. The eager naturalists on Cook's initial voyage were set ashore at Botany Bay, as it was at once called because of the astounding wealth of unknown plant life. The botanists, out of their heads with the extraordinary paradise where tropical birds flashed and sang from bough to bough, discovered strange trees that exuded a gum, and the original name, gum tree, has remained, especially where these trees are native. (The botanical name refers to the secret flower contained under the cap.)
We now know that in Australia the eucalypti are the dominant forest trees, comprising 75 percent of the sylvan community. The early visitors had merely touched the rim of their supremacy. When those first amazed travelers looked up and up, far up to the blossoming top, there was no name; there was only a kind of majesty they had never seen before.
For so long we have taken the eucalyptus for granted. A closer look is like a look at ourselves. Did you suspect, guileless plant-watcher, that underneath your tight habits of thought there might be an elastic resilience ready to spring up when the lid falls off?
The palm, whose main habit of growth is undeviating symmetry, strikes some people as a tree that is not a tree, but green sculpture. Palms do not, as maples and oaks, whisper to the condition of man. On the other hand, a palm is a lyrical tree, yet its grace and poise are centered where it stands, and at almost any stage of its development it may look completed. It does not have a place beneath its wholeness for unfinished human lives. When some people say they love palm trees they do not mean it; they mean they love pillars, arches and columns with roots. They mean that, since they cannot afford a fountain in their front yard, they will have a palm instead.
The rest of us like palms because they are palms, and because more than any other tree they have provided our environment with the shape of tropical foliage and exotic shadows falling on hot concrete; and the concrete, the city streets, the sprinkler-gemmed lawns, the shopping centers become tropical landscape because of tropical palms.
There are two kinds of palms which you will at once distinguish, feather-leaved and fan-leaved. Palms have come to us from regions of the globe far separated -- Australia, Africa, South America, China, Mexico, and, well, California. That last one, which did not have far to go, is a hard-working native son (or daughter), a public-citizen tree, I would call it, planted by thousands along streets and avenues, always with an urbanizing effect. This palm is not of the kind to look like a fountain. It is sturdy and does not suggest the refined decorative arts of antiquity. But it is our own. It originated in the freedom of our lower deserts and the springs of oases, where it rose, not in straight lines of engineered planting, as we see it everywhere, but in groves and fine clumps. We all know the school of desert palm painters. This palm of the Colorado oases is the model. It is Washingtonia filifera. It grows to more than eighty feet, higher than an aspiring amateur painter can reach. There is another, close of kin, W. gracilis (or robusta) from farther south in Baja California. They are both freely used in street planting. W. gracilis, from forty to one hundred feet tall, appears less heavy. Both are important in the landscape, both have been generously planted as street trees and both have been ruthlessly cut down for street widening. In spite of being common, they are magnificent. They are roofless temples.
Palms in general, in their balance and integrity, are easy to associate with architecture. Many years ago, concerning some prominent and dull buildings on one of the University of California campuses, it was wittily remarked that the trees drew back from the buildings in horror. The trees were not palms. Palms may be counted on, because of their dignity and formality, to enhance and relieve even a dull building. Perhaps that has too often been the mission of our palms -- they have, in colonnades or green arches and long rows of tropical romance, given to boulevards and buildings a proportion these structures could otherwise not have shown.
Count it a fortunate day, palm-stroller, if in park or private planting you come upon the fan palm Erythea edulis, or Guadalupe palms, from the island of that name 150 miles off the west coast of Baja California. Erythea grows to twenty-five or thirty feet. How can I describe it for you except by extolling its leaves of stalwart green, which look always as though refreshed by moist winds off southern waters? The related E. armata is the blue palm, its leaves not so exuberant but of a lovely silver blue. Hope to find it in bloom, for you will be astounded by the long stems that arch out and down from the crown of foliage perhaps fifteen feet or more to the earth, bearing the heavy clusters of small bloom. This palm comes from Baja California, from the seclusion of wild canyons.
There is one well-known feather palm from Brazil that has a fine crown of leaves and takes up so little room on the ground that it can be grown in a narrow parkway without crowding, and there you will find it in great numbers, a civilizing presence where apartment houses face continual traffic. It used to be called Cocos plumosa, but it is no coconut. Perhaps its name as now given, Arecastrum romanzoianum, sounds silkier and so better suggests the softly drooping and richly plumed leaves. Another feather palm, and one so common that its character has unjustly suffered from overuse, is the Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis, from the Canary Islands. It does not bear dates worth eating, or canaries either. It is a handsome plant, shapely and given to a kind of stout grace. It will be seen occupying all of a small front yard and serving as a planter for red geraniums, which thrive in the earth held by the bases of the trimmed petioles. Or as a road tree leading to older houses. Or you may see it fifty feet high, looking lofty and hazardous in front of some turn-of-the-century courthouse. In addition to hand-planted specialties on its trunk, including occasional tropical epiphyllums, the palm may hold small nut or olive seedlings planted by blue jays and mockingbirds. Or it can serve as a good outdoor cupboard. Where is the trowel, where is the dog's ball? Right there. It has a charming relative from Africa, Phoenix reclinata, or Senegal date palm, with fruit again not edible, but in contrast to the more common no-date date palm, it is dainty and choice, edible or not. Its leaf blades are no more than one foot long, and curve at the tips as though made by a craftsman from ancient Byzantium. It is sometimes planted in clumps, as at the Los Angeles Arboretum or at the Pasadena City Hall, a sight to please the Queen of Niger.
A prize that will make your day a special one is the feather palm from Paraguay known as Loroma amethystina or Seaforthia elegans. It has other names, too, but all that you need to know is that its flowers do not emerge from the crown of dark, regular leaf-blades, but from far down the trunk. They are delicate and lavender, and the ripe fruit is red. Altogether, you see, this palm is as desirable as a rare object behind glass. But here it stands, free and available, and even an avenue of it cannot reduce its preciousness.
Plant writers are fond of reminding us that one of the oldest known records of imported plants is that carved on the temple wall in Karnak. Peering hard at the photograph of the limestone carving, one is not able to say whether it contains a palm tree. Three and a half millennia later, not in the silence of the desert but only a little withdrawn from the sounds and turmoil of traffic, we have our honored spoils of plant life, and among them, the one whose identity and beauty is clear as though carved on a temple wall, is the palm.
The acacia-watcher should go to the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia, where the largest collection of acacias in the world, outside of Australia, is located, and in performance from the middle of February until the end of April. Perhaps the visitor will find the right word for the flowering acacia -- delicate but not frail; abundant but not heavy; light but not thin; fabulous but not secret; pendant but not weak; bright but not dense; heartbreaking but not mawkish; and finally there is only one word that will do -- acacia.
The uses of this tree are reported from ancient times. It was reputed of service in the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark of the Tabernacle. The Egyptians used it for coffins for their pharaohs because it lasted, and they called it "incorruptible." Gum arabic and tannin come from acacia, and the wood of some species is used in fine cabinet work. The sweet acacia, farnesiana, is much grown in southern France for perfume. Farnesiana is one of a few species native to our own country. This large genus of shrubs and trees comes from the semitropics and the warm, temperate regions of the earth. Like a cloud of floating gold it seems to have blown softly around the globe, settling wherever climates were mild and soils were sandy and hospitable to its eight hundred species. Most of them dropped onto Australia, where acacia is the national flower. In California it has had a popular but at times unpromising career, because some members of the tribe do not survive the occasional bad freezes, and moreover it is short-lived or, that is to say, it might with luck live as long as the man who planted it, if he doesn't live too long. In spite of the nurseryman's reservations about acacia, it is one of the most loved of all the flowering plants imported into the state. Yet relatively few species of all that are known in the trade are actually planted in gardens, because the flowering of the best known, such as baileyana, has provided such rapturous satisfaction that adventurous shopping for acacias is not what it should be.
In Australia, the acacia's status is much celebrated. There it bears the utilitarian name of wattle. The early settlers had used the slender stems and branches of pliable species to weave their dwellings in the ancient manner, and a plant first known as mimosa became wattle.
Acacias offer interest, and confusion as well, in their foliage. The acacia as you will first recognize it has ferny bipinnate leaves, but some species normally reduce their leaves to leaf stalks or petioles known as phyllodia, which look like simple leaves. It is an amusing contradiction, although nature is not concerned with amusing us and does not care whether or not we get the idea. The big blackwood acacia, A. melnnoxylon,will give you a perfect demonstration and will even, here and there, put out a twig of bipinnate foliage as proof. In any case, let me tell you a little story about these capricious leaf stalks. I do not find the details mentioned in the literature, but I know it is true. For many years I lived under a huge black acacia. At certain seasons it would hum. Ignorantly, I supposed it was the bees humming among the flowers, which in this species are not showy. But a bee would not need to be shown. It was I who needed to be shown, and finally discovered the facts for myself, by spying on the bees. On every stem (petiole) of every leaf (phyllodium) there is a tiny valve which operates like a spigot to release a droplet of sweet syrup. The bees are not alone in awareness of this bit of free cordial. Botanists know about it, but they keep quiet. Now the secret is out. I tasted it myself, and it is delicious.
Acacia baileyana blooms early here, and perhaps one reason for its popularity is that, even in Southern California, it may be ahead of the season and therefore bring both promise and revelation at once. One hates to think what the event would be were acacias blue or pink. It is that pure, heavenly, prayerful gold that gives the shock of bliss but never of satiety. You may be seeing a taller species, A. decurrens, similar to baileyana, but with feather foliage and leaves that are sensitive to the touch. There are two varieties in fragrant yellow with silvery leaves in February and March. The type is dark green with pale flowers, and it blooms in April. You will find them in an old street in an old suburb. At least that is where I have lived and that is where I saw them.
Acacia flowers are of two different arrangements, one the little ball, the other a spike, in both cases fluffy, with many minute flowers crowded together, so small and so numerous that they cannot be studied with the naked eye. Seeds of acacia were first imported to San Francisco in the middle of the last century, and by 1858 various species were being enthusiastically grown for their beautiful early flowers. Immigrant and exotic, it is no stranger today to us inhabitants. Its alterations of our local world have been continual and of one bright substance. With every fresh onslaught of bloom we are captured but never astonished. We had known all the time that it was there, ready with its insignificant buds unseen overhead until they burst against the warm blue sky. Then we stare with inexpressible delight. No matter how common it becomes we will never take the acacia for a common tree. In the light gold of refinement of its flowering we have a total experience. With its weightless mass of glimmering bloom it wipes us out.
And that is what brings us to what the seventeenth-century poet, Andrew Marvell, wrote about a garden: "Annihilating all that's made/ To a green thought in a green shade." This is a favorite quotation about plants. I think it has not yet been used to express a feeling about the pepper tree. Andrew Marvell can never have seen a pepper tree, yet he created one, a tree of mystical containment that has stood erect for three hundred years in two lines of metaphysical poetry. As you stand with him under this tropical tree you see that only a poet of strict freedom could design its verdant loveliness. Utterness is what the poet hoped, and accomplished.
In Mexico the pepper tree Schinus molle has been called "the tree of Peru," and the Spanish conquerors sent seeds of it to Europe by way of Mexico. But there seems to be no evidence that the Franciscan padres brought it directly to California, in spite of the fact that in a hot, arid country its spreading shade was needed around the missions. There is one story, often repeated, concerning its introduction. It seems that a sailor wandered to the Mission San Luis Rey in the 1820s. After the customary hospitality and exchange of news, he left behind a gift of seeds, which were forgotten by the others for some time, until at last they got them in the ground. Eventually there were some strange woody plants, not recognized but set out in a row in front of the mission. As they grew into trees they were used as hitching posts and were in other ways not well treated, and they suffered in the vicissitudes that soon fell on the missions. Fifty years ago there remained only one of these trees. The pepper is dioecious, staminate or pistilate on separate trees. The rosy berries quickly grow into mature specimens, but the one tree at San Luis Rey was staminate, hence no mother of fruit. That is the story of the sailor and his gift. Whatever the facts, there are now hosts of pepper trees giving shade in a country of dust and drought. There are so many of them in California that they are known, even in manuals of Pacific Coast trees, as California pepper trees. Their range of hardiness brings them, a little dangerously, as far north as the Napa Valley. They take the place of willows for people who find the same elegiac tenderness in their pendulous, sheltering charm. An ancient tree will have a black trunk heavily embossed, a gnarled, carved pedestal for the finespun foliage it supports. Garden trees, park trees, city and country trees, avenues and arches -- the pepper trees of distant Peru have transformed our landscape. But do not think to take the hard, pretty berries in their enticing clusters to your table as good seasoning. They are hot, but not the pepper of commerce. Birds dote on them for the thin pulp. They regurgitate the seeds, neatly. I have known the sound of them like hail pattering down while a flock of cedar waxwings sat overhead, well-fed, getting rid of the hard berries.
In the late 1890s the Challey brothers -- a name well known in the eastern San Gabriel Valley -- planted nine miles of pepper trees leading down from Upland to Ontario. About one-half of these trees still exist on Euclid Avenue. In all of Southern California there is no greater evidence of the means of transforming a landscape, nor greater respect paid to a community. As the trees grow more elderly, more fragile, the statement made by the Challey brothers still stands. In the West we have perceived in this tree, perhaps more than in any other, the inner and spiritual form of peace and serenity, and to our peril we elude that reticence which seems to pursue us and surely troubles us as traffic and increase devour the land and the once-dignified rural towns. In the noise and speed there remain two quiet extremes, the rise of sap in the old wood and the elated spirit now impoverished and barely glimpsed. Would it be impertinent, after so many years, to ask whether some concern beyond public service moved the brothers to plant nine miles of supernal grace? O God, nine miles! Was it pride? Was it joy? Was it, alas, pity and prophetic anger?
Be with us all, men and trees alike, Andrew Marvell.
Toward the end of Homer's Odyssey the hero describes for Penelope the bed he had made for them so long ago from an olive tree growing in the palace courtyard. It is a dramatic passage. "There is one particular feature in the bed's construction," says Odysseus. "I myself, no other man, made it. There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column....I began with this and built my bed until it was finished, and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory. Then I lashed it with thongs of oxhide dyed bright purple," These words carry down to us the importance in antiquity of the olive tree as symbol, and its use, in domestic craft and life and marriage.
The olive is very old in the civilizations of warm-temperate lands. It was prehistoric in Asia Minor and spread to the Mediterranean world, associated with myth and man in horticulture, religion and other ceremonies. Its oil was called "the oil of joy." Every school child knows -- or used to, when Biblical stories were still taught -- what Noah and the dove and the rest of us owe to the olive tree. For a modern child, the chief connection is pickles and celery. Never mind, friend; when the olive tree first came to Alta California, it came in serious company. Along with the pomegranate, the fig and the vine, the Franciscans brought it from the older mission gardens of Baja California, in 1769 or soon after. In slowness of growth, in legend of life, in grace and dignity, it remains a tree of legend. Because of its beauty in age and its long association with the missions, a kind of reverence attaches to the olive tree. Its spreading, silver and slightly drooping branches give to the landscape an image of Biblical countries and desert ages. It is one of the few trees that subdividers do not hack down. Does its sanctity abash them? Not likely. It has sales value. It has sales value either where it stands in an old grove or when carefully dug and boxed for a landscape architect. It had sales value for Odysseus. His unique and truthful account of the creating of their bed finally convinced the doubting Penelope that it was her husband, and not a wandering, sea-dabbling sailor of many ports, who had come to her. So he won her and her white arms once more. Not until that touching finale occurred could the story end. It is a long, bloody, anxious story. Lacking the olive tree it would have gone on forever.
The pomegranate, coming from a great distance, from Persia and south Asia, became widely naturalized and well settled in the Mediterranean world; and had gone across the inland sea with the Moors and picked up its Spanishness long before it came to the mission gardens with the padres. By then it brought to them memories of their homeland along with its cup of scarlet gems. There is fossil evidence that the pomegranate existed millions of years ago, and there is aesthetic evidence that it has had continual fascination for artists and decorators of Asia and Egypt and the Hebrew cultures. It was a symbol of fertility and love, and being a natural jewel box itself full of ruby genius it has inspired endless royal bijoux and priestly and magisterial emblems. The Greeks held that it originated in the blood of Dionysus, and in fact it was associated with blood sacrifice, while to the Christians it later became a symbol of the oneness of the universe, a wholeness of diversity within unity. A wealth of human values from a fruit that gives next to nothing in honest food. Yet we never could have expected as much art and imagination from a potato. Nor as much trouble, either, remembering Persephone, who, captive to the lord of the dark underworld, cried out aloud at the sight of a pomegranate from the world of light, and promptly swallowed six seeds. There, in her divine, nostalgic gizzard, was the beginning of foul weather and poor seasons. You can see that in order to be at ease among plants you must recall the classics, tender or cursed, of your childhood.
To have the genuine pomegranate experience you must, like Persephone, eat one too, in private if you cannot face it any other way. The simplest procedure is to press the fruit with your thumbs, enjoying the hidden sounds of wet rubies crushed within, then make a hole and suck out the sweet and tangy liquid. Do not be ashamed of ecstacy. It does not last. If you prefer, break the fruit in several pieces and ravish the contents. And when you have had your pomegranate, you can see by looking at yourself that pomegranates have left a mark on the landscape.
It is said that the pomegranate still grows wild in Persia. It must be the small ivory or rosy fruit, while ours is the monster improved variety called Wonderful, enameled and very red. The brilliant flower is a fluted affair that sits in a coral calyx, and the fruit carries forward with that style that has moved men and gods to poetry and art for many ages. Today, we have lovingly planted so many pomegranates, north and south in California, that the only gods remaining, even the crazed gods of speed and population, stop continually to regard a perfect fruit.
Come, friend, we must hurry. Another alien tree that has changed our environment is Jacaranda ovalifolia from Brazil, with mimosa-like foliage and flowers that show it is of the bignonia family, related to our American catalpa, but of a blissful lilac color. In June and July we see its tall, lacy fling lifted in a cloud of unbelievable tethered bloom overhead, and when the flowers fall, the ground becomes as ethereal as the sky. Of course there are people who refer to the fallen flowers as dirty. Who are such people who object to this pretty litter that can be raked up as useful compost, without offense? No tree yet ever dropped a beer can.
The orange tree, any of several species of the genus Citrus, came slowly eastward from its early provenance in south China and India, and by the Middle Ages it had reached the Mediterranean. This beautiful and utilitarian tree eventually came to California in seeds brought by the Franciscans from Mexico. At Mission San Gabriel, Father Superior Salvidea established a fine grove that became known as "the beginning of the great citrus industry of California." Charles Frances Saunders in Trees and Shrubs of California Gardens gave an account of the early career of the orange in this environment. In 1841 the far-ranging Kentucky trapper and explorer William Wolfskill secured one hundred of the mission trees and started a successful grove in what is now the roaring heart of Los Angeles, where the arcade station of the Southern Pacific stands. He improved his stock and increased his grove to eighty acres, and finally in 1877 he shipped to St. Louis the first carload of oranges to leave the state. In the meanwhile, word was received in Washington's Department of Agriculture of a phenomenal sport growing in Bahia, Brazil, a seedless orange with the suggestion of an infant fruit imbedded in the skin. Young, budded trees were imported and grown in Washington, and from that stock the popular navel orange was sent to Southern California in 1873.
Thirty years ago the San Gabriel Valley, from Pasadena eastward to San Dimas, was still the site of 14,000 acres of profitable and solicitously groomed citrus groves -- a famous agricultural industry; a good example of mutual benefit to men and trees -- and miles of fragrance giving orderly green to a dry landscape, making of Los Angeles County one of the chief agricultural areas in the United States. And in the end, the soil, being level, offered no problems to subdividers. And in the end I myself saw the trees pushed over into piles and burned. And in the end there is no longer reason to dwell on the white, sparkling flowers and the bright, sweet fruit, no reason at all except outrage.
The two types of banana most often seen, Musa ensete from Abyssinia and M. paradisiaca var. sapientum from India, add emphatically to the effects of tropical landscape. Wherever you see these plants, you know that gardeners have tried to make a scene of genuine exotic enchantment, putting it together as carefully, for suspense and drama, as a Rousseau jungle, and only with regret leaving out the leopard or the black panther. If the scene is shattered by a Santa Ana windstorm and the long, broad leaves shredded to tatters, never mind; they recover their magnificent blades in a few weeks, and the tropics of tranquility are restored, along with the tranquility of the gardener. The Franciscans, not for decorative luxury of landscape, but for plain food, tried to grow the variety from India, but had no success. Rarely does anyone else, so we do not ask of the banana plant that it should feed us, but only that, as archetype of Eden, it stay healthy and stylish.
A fascinating group of plants, both private and in parks, are the plants of the succulent families. Familiar by sight and name are the agaves and various cacti, such as opuntias, those green pads hinged together. There are countless others, at least ten thousand species known to exist, of many genera. They are plants of the Americas, and any that have wandered from the Western hemisphere are thought to be out of their habitat and out of their minds. I hope that you join me in a naive glow of patriotic and hemispheric pride. The plant you may see frequently -- unless banned because of its armor -- is the Agave americana, a big, sculptured rosette of sharp spears set squarely on the ground. Agaves are silvery, green or white. There are "371 specific uses," we are told, to which A. americana is put in Mexico, including the intoxicating beverages pulque and tequila, along with that dear little margarita so beloved now on all sides of the border. At the time of its flowering the plant practically turns into a tree, rearing its powerful scape up and up from twenty to forty feet, then breaks into spreading branches of yellowish bloom. The rosette will collapse, to be replaced by a crowd of young plants or "pups." The plant-watcher is, without fail, to visit the Huntington Cactus Gardens in San Marino -- known as the supreme collection of succulents in the world -- and walk from one bristly, strictly designed, eerily fortified marvel to the next, large and small. It is a rare chance to see a concentration of plants whose relatives have truly altered a landscape.
It is possible to be startled by a flower. Such a flower is the strelitzia from South Africa, so positive and commanding a plant, including its banana foliage, that it must be recognized as an influence in the landscape. The one most often seen is Strelitzia reginae, much employed by florists in tremendous decorations at public receptions. Whichever governor or senator it may be who is passing through town, there is something about a strelitzia that supports either a Democrat or a Republican and reserves for itself the impartial honor. Meeting it informally in a garden you will see that its eccentric, flaring arrangement of inflorescence suggests the head of a fierce, exotic bird. Stand still. It will give a squawk and strut straight at you. It is a flower of the masculine gender in strong blue and orange and white. Whoever gave it the name "bird of paradise," his angels must have been military birds.
One of the most lovable of all our imported shrubs is Nandina domestica from China and Japan. It bears the popular, and wrong, name of "heavenly bamboo." It is not remotely related to bamboo, although one must concede that there is on the stem a visible ring that may suggest the node of the bamboo culm. Nandina, without help from the giant grasses, maintains its own distinct charm. It grows to six feet or more, often less, the stems closely crowded at the base and spreading gracefully at the top like a bouquet, with compound leaves, white and gold flowers and red berries. Taste and elegance, those are the marks of nandina. Robert Fortune, an early plant collector, observed its enthusiastic use by Oriental peoples as he saw it on altars and sold on the street at the Chinese New Years celebration, while the Japanese of the old school laid a leaf across a gift "to sweep the devils away." Tell your bad dreams to nandina, since this plant takes care of nightmares. No landscape can get too much nandina. Happily, ours has a great deal.
We have just spoken in passing of the bamboo. Not many years ago there was a bamboo cult on the West Coast, what might be called an arcane horticulture. The admirers of bamboo went to great lengths to get as many species and varieties as possible. Its ancient importance in the Orient gave it fascination for impressionable American collectors, who were also haunted by its frequently enigmatic character and the difficulties of identification. It had, as well, a demoralizing influence. I once planted an uncommon variety outside a garden wall for the effect it would make, and it was quickly stolen by another haunted collector. Bamboo is an education, a religion, a mystery, and there is no room here to discuss it. You will recognize it by its wands of green foliage, which swing in the lightest breeze. Take your time. You are looking at a spirit.
We have come a long stroll to see what exotic plants and trees have done to change the environment. We have found some, but by no means all, of the evidence. To be changed ourselves, if only a little, by what we see and enjoy, this is the personal ethic of seeing and enjoying.
And now good-bye, my patient plant-watcher. Let there be no hint of sentimentality to make of farewell a poor, honeyed word. We have been looking at great things, and they are honest. They are threatened. They survive where all is against them. Are they not the renewable images of life itself?