There is a beloved, family-owned nursery in Pasadena that, over the past couple years, has become breathtakingly expensive. My now-20-foot Chinese fringe tree was bought here as a sapling they raised from seed. Many of my agaves were found here, long before succulents were superstars. A dazzling, crinkly, undulating, golden-leaved verbascum was found here and never seen again anywhere else after it died in my garden (Verbascum undulatum? This verbascum is close in color, but without the wavy leaves.) This nursery was in on so many garden secrets years before anyone else, for example, being the first to offer for sale many of the South African bulbs that thrive in our similar winter wet/summer dormant conditions like this veltheimia, almost in full bloom in the Huntington cactus garden.
Now their forbidding prices have the odd effect of making me feel like a millionaire when I window-shop, imagining similar price tags on the plants in my garden. Along with the high prices has come a general disorder. No longer is there any attempt to make tasty displays. I’ve often worried that the business is in decline. Just as plausible is that they’ve turned their back on the home gardener and are focusing their business on big-ticket projects like garden installations and landscaping, because there’s always a hustle and bustle of large deliveries, just not much attention paid anymore to the “retail experience.” I also theorize that they are quite possibly “flipping the bird” to big-box-store prices and those who’ve come to expect them.
I’m more intrigued than ever by this nursery and always stop by when business takes me up to the foothills, like yesterday. Perhaps I’m expecting a miraculous turnaround by this nursery to the old days. I pretty much had the place to myself yesterday, so was surprised to be crowded by one other shopper among the succulent benches. An elderly woman in a jaunty, striped T-shirt and a lovely blue-green scarf. Immediately I thought, That will be me very soon, shuffling through nursery aisles… when her sweet voice interrupted this self-absorbed reverie. She was astonished at the prices. She had been given a $25 gift certificate and thought a nice hanging basket would just do. We looked at a limp hanging geranium. $30. Her happy windfall was meaningless at these Tiffany prices. We chatted a bit further, but the whole situation made me so sad that I beat a cowardly retreat as soon as was politely possible. There had been a delivery of ‘Romagna Purple’ artichokes in 4-inch pots, at a fairly reasonable $6 each. I would grab two and then head over to the Huntington Botanical Gardens a couple miles down the street, see the gardens and the Sam Maloof/Pacific Standard Time exhibit.
Paying for the chokes, I could see my friend still shuffling in the background, checking prices, but after petting the shop dog I made a dash for the car, to get to the Huntington and home again before heavy, late-afternoon traffic.
Halfway to the car, artichoke in either hand, I turned back and ran up to my friend.
Me: See these lovely artichokes? They will have purple heads! Imagine that! Purple with these gorgeous, silvery leaves!
Friend: Oh, will they?!!
Me: Yes! This is what this nursery still does affordably well — unusual vegetables you can’t find anywhere else.
Friend: Can I put three in this pot? (indicating a 10-inch pot)
Me: No! Just one. They’re huge plants Do you like artichokes?
Friend: Yes, I do! Do they have flowers?
Me: Yes, it’s a thistle, on a long stalk. The flower is what we eat. California is one of the few places that can grow them well, so we should! It’s a magnificent thing. Do you have sun on your balcony? I’ll probably put mine in pots too.
Friend: Yes, I have some sun. Will it have lots of flowers?
We went on in that fashion for a little while longer, and she became increasingly excited about this strange beast, a purple artichoke, and bought at least one. Feeling less like a coward, I headed to the Huntington, and discovered it was a Free Thursday, the first Thursday of every month. I had no idea. To participate, reservations have to be made, which I hadn’t done, but the nice man at the parking kiosk handed me a ticket to get in.
One of the most gorgeous days I’ve spent at the HBG. Camera battery expired in the cactus garden, but the magnolias were in full bloom, as were many acacias, scenting the warm air. Of course, the aloes were in spectacular bloom too. Damage from the savage autumn windstorm was evident but cleaned up. The giant Montezuma cypresses near the rose garden were spared, though some limbs had to be cut. I was told the worst damage was to a massive stone pine which had to be removed.
Hybrid Agave ‘Blue Flame’ and Aloe vanbalenii
I’ve never seen the Huntington so crowded. Unfortunately, the Sam Maloof exhibit was closed, as was the Japanese Garden.
Kalanchoe and Aloe dolomitica
What a bargain! (Wish I could tell my friend about Free Thursdays.)