Mitch has been sending photos from his wanderings in Greece this week while I watch his cat.
I don’t mean to always be a supergeek botanical nuisance, but there’s been a tall umbellifer cropping up in the background in those haunting scenes of Peloponnesian ruins, in stupendous bloom — I wonder, could it be the Mediterranean’s own giant fennel? Ferula communis ‘Gigantea’ is not the edible fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), but a spectacular monocarpic showboat grown for its ferny leaves and luminous, statuesque presence in bloom.
The timing of his photos is positively freakish because, coincidentally, before seeing these photos, I had planted two in my garden earlier in the week, grown by Annie’s Annuals but picked up at a local nursery, my second attempt with this fennel. This time I gave them all the sun I could find in my very crowded garden.
So having giant fennel on the brain, I asked for more photos, please, perhaps a closeup to help with ID, and he cheerfully complied. I don’t know what else it could be but giant fennel. It’s that same commanding, aureate vision I had in mind when settling in my two 4-inch plants this week.
Of course my little urban garden can’t compete with a setting of Mycenaean stonework . (Don’t quote me on the age of the stonework, but it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)
There definitely seems to be some synergy going on with the fennel and the stones — drainage, alkalinity maybe.
Mitch was very excited about this superbloom of Grecian poppies, and normally I’d be all over the poppies…
But it’s Greece’s giant fennel that has stolen my heart this spring.
A few days before he was scheduled to speak at the Huntington on March 19, Nigel Dunnett took a short side trip to experience Southern California’s superbloom.
The APLD Greater Los Angeles and Pacific Horticulture Society had invited the Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture at the Department of Landscape Architecture of the University of Sheffield to talk about his ecological planting approach, which is gaining widespread recognition through some of his high-profile work in the UK at Olympic Park, the Barbican Centre, and Buckingham Palace.
But the very first thing he mentioned in his talk “Low-Input, High-Impact Landscapes” was our superbloom, which he had just seen earlier in the week, witnessing its compellingly immersive effects first hand. (AGO contributor MB Maher had taken a day as well the week before to find the superbloom, covering about 500 miles, and these are his photos.)
This past winter’s rains delivered a stunningly lavish spring wildflower show in Southern California that whipped up an epic case of #fomo frenzy in a drought-fatigued, wildfire-harassed public. Because of the overenthusiastic response, some fields had to be temporarily closed. It seemed everyone wanted to become part of the landscape, to channel the life force that super-animated our hillsides and meadows.
The superbloom effectively affirmed Prof. Dunnett’s belief that the general public craves an active, dynamic experience as opposed to being passive observers, that they gravitate to large-scale, dramatic gestures from the natural world. And this is the kind of experience he hopes to duplicate in designed settings, which he talked about that day at the Huntington and explores in his book Naturalistic Planting Design; The Essential Guide, to be released in the U.S. this summer.
This sense of being immersed in a landscape is a sought-after effect in his work. He feels that because people do make an emotional connection with landscapes, that effective planting design is like any art form that induces an emotional response. His ecologically based designs aim to “enhance nature” in an effort to stimulate a response similar to the superbloom’s effect on the public, but on an interactional, daily basis.
But as we all know, such effects as hillsides blanketed in wildflowers are fleeting. How to push those emotional buttons year-round is the challenge inherent in each of his designs, informed by decades of observation and trial and error. And though he avoids using the word “sustainable,” fearing it signals a deadly earnest and dull approach to planting, such practices are the backbone of his work. He relies on strongly successional, dynamic plantings, as opposed to the static “municipal” kind that he inherited with the Barbican Centre.
The complex known as the Barbican includes 4,000 units of residential housing (Barbican Estates) and an enormous performing arts center, the largest in Europe, all of it spreading over 40 acres. It was built on a site heavily bombed in WWII in the concrete-heavy brutalist style, opening to the public in 1982. All of the plantings at the Barbican are essentially roof gardens, “with car parks, the arts complex, and recreational facilities beneath.”
The well-traveled MB Maher happened to be in London this week, so off he trotted to show me what the Barbican looks like mid-March.
About a half a dozen years ago a leak occurred at the Barbican, and Dunnett’s technical reputation with green roofs led to a consultation. As his website puts it, “[T]he opportunity arose for completely new plantings to be installed.” This opportunity was not without friction — a year of meetings with tenants and residents was necessary to gain planning approval for this new, naturalistic style.
Soil depths range from just 3 inches at the periphery to 3 feet near building support columns, and for such extreme conditions the model of a steppe ecosystem was the driving inspiration. (From the website: “In nature, steppes or steppe grasslands occur in dry regions with continental climates (hot dry summers, cold winters). Plants are adapted to these harsh conditions. The plantings at The Barbican are not attempting to copy any naturally-occurring steppe grasslands, but are a designed version, using perennials and grasses from steppe regions or dry grasslands and meadows.”)
In keeping with steppe plantings, fertility is kept low, always starting with weed-free soil. Planting is dense to suppress weeds — nine to twelve plants per square meter. Only clump formers are selected; no rhizomatous or stoloniferous plants allowed. Some moderate self-sowing is allowed, e.g. Euphorbia wulfenii. The matrix grass is Sesleria nitida. Wave after wave of complex plantings rise up among the matrix plants throughout the year in a never-ending symphonic display: “I plant in layers so that one set of plants grows up and through the preceding set of plants, leading to that continuous succession.”
Prof. Dunnett’s plantings at the Barbican have achieved a 70% reduction in water use, with a 40% reduction in maintenance. He has carefully tracked the public’s reaction to the radically new plantings, visiting the centre incognito throughout the year to observe impressions. The residents are almost completely enthusiastic and have developed solid volunteer support crews, but there is an old gentleman who lambasts Prof. Dunnett at every opportunity for changing out the old plantings. Change is hard.
Of course during the talk many of us wondered how these principles would apply to large-scale plantings in Los Angeles, and after a break that was the first question asked. Prof. Dunnett feels the basic principles of dynamic landscapes can be universally applied, with the dense planting of meadows opening up to accommodate “desert” spacing, that the method of naturalistic drifts and clumps with repeated “outliers” could be adapted for native sages, encelia, succulents. Perhaps piercing a matrix of sesleria, lomandra and/or muhly grasses we could have plant communities consisting of Aloe striata for winter/spring with Euphorbia rigida or mauritanica, hesperaloe for summer with Phlomis lanata, calamints, eriogonum, smallish cistus, kangaroo paws, agapanthus, tulbaghia — it is a fascinating puzzle with lots of possibilities. Tom Stuart-Smith is working on developing similar mediterranean-adapted plant communities in Spain. The idea of mixed plantings is fundamental to Prof. Dunnett’s vision, since monocultures are prone to gaps and disease. Experience has shown naturalistic plantings generally have a 10-year life cycle, with refreshing and simple edits needed after five years or so.
To learn about his P3 rule and the complex horticultural methods underpinning his designs, go to his excellent website, where you’ll also find seasonal photos illustrating the achievement of “continuous and successive waves of colour over long periods of time, through orchestrating a series of dramatic colour washes over the entire site, from spring through to late autumn, and then to finish off the year with a textural array of seeds heads, plant structures and foliage.”
When his book arrives this summer, Naturalistic Planting Design; The Essential Guide, it will be required reading on how to build dynamism into designed landscapes, so we can all feel that superbloom rush — without the long drive.
Formal, informal, echiums never hit a false note. They’re some of the wildest, spikiest blues around. Sometimes shading into violet, with other species spiking in white, red. Many are island species that love coastal California.
These are big plants, bigger than my small garden can handle. A couple Echium wildpretii is all I have room for at the moment. The above photo of E. wildpetii from 2018 shows that even without flowering they’re impressive plants.
For stunning leaves, flowers, for full hot sun…echium.
Yesterday I removed the diseased carcass of Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue’ which lived its brief but spectacular life – until this rainy winter – under the acacia tree in the far southeast corner. You’d think having to battle for resources with tree roots would provide ample enough drainage — or so I mistakenly thought. But, truthfully, the thick debris littered by the acacia made an agave residing under its canopy an extremely poor choice, and I wasn’t terribly sorry to have to remove it. Miscanthus transmorrisonensis has already settled into the vacancy. Thin grass blades will fare much better under the debris onslaught, and I’m very excited to watch how this grass develops over summer (vacancies don’t last long here). John Greenlee says it’s the best miscanthus for the west, which makes one think miscanthus are somehow problematic here, yet I’ve always had consistent success with them. If anything, it’s their rush to gigantism girth-wise that’s problematic. It is considered evergreen in this zone 10 which may be why it’s considered the best. I’ll just have to grow it to find out. I’ve never amended or mounded the garden soil for the fast drainage that some agaves and other succulents crave, and this winter the heavy clay chickens came home to roost. Agave parrasana ‘Fireball’ has been dug up, diseased leaves sheared off, and is rehabbing in a container. Agave schidigera ‘Shira ito no Ohi’ could not be salvaged and has been sacrificially cored, a method of cleaning out the center like preparing an artichoke that supposedly induces offsetting. Potted agaves fared well, as did many others in the ground.
I grew three pots of Lotus berthelotti over the winter, and the first day that hit over 80 degrees I moved them into the ground as small-scale ground covers. Winter dreams slam up against warm-weather realities real fast. I can keep up with watering shallow containers twice a day for only so long.
Just as I hoped, the lotus cascaded 3 feet down tall wrought iron plant stands that I had fabricated for the popup shop last year but ultimately deemed were a little too rustic for sale. (I found some deeper pots for the stands and filled them experimentally with low-growing Arctotis ‘Ruby Creeper.’)
Calendula were grown from seed in fall for just a couple pots, with Linaria ‘Licilia Peach’ added recently.
A plant I’ve long wanted to trial but always lacked a sunny open patch, Silene uniflora ‘Druett’s Variegated’ is finally getting a trial in a pot with the indestructible silvery shrub ozothamnus.
My mystery aloe is in bloom. It dips and swoops, unlike the rigid upright blooms of Aloe x principis, so I’m still unsure as to its identity. I’m pretty sure it’s a ferox hybrid of some sort. Whatever it is, I like it, so provenance is not that important.
My new crush, Berzelia lanuginosa, appropriately goes by the common name Buttonbush. Fond of moist seeps in its natural habitat in the Western Cape of South Africa, I’ll keep it in a container near the garden hose.
(More from MB Maher, far-flung AGO correspondent. Winter storms, family stuff, a host of things kept me from attending Natural Discourse‘s Digital Nature 2019 at the LA Arboretum this past February. So I’ve been pumping Mitch, who has worked with Shirley Watts on her botanical garden-specific installations since the inception of ND back in 2012, for info harder than usual. And of course I have to share. I don’t know how else to prepare you except to assure you he writes like he talks, references to Plato’s Cave included. Following is the unabridged, unedited froth of his tech-wonkish impressions from Digital Nature 2019. )
I won’t have time to write much – just got on the scene with Shirley mid-installation. As I arrive, a peacock throws his tail into my face – he was seated above in a branch with his plumage running an aquamarine river down to head-height & then whammo mouth full of feathers. I capture above image of his walk of shame as he realizes his mistake, squawks, & pulls his tail out of reach. This place is lousy with fornicating peacocks. Wish you could be here!
Immediately meet Benj whom I know from the Folly Bowl standing on a 15 foot ladder offering his services gratis to install and calibrate (4 projectors interlaced!) Brigitte Zieger’s side-scrolling forest video piece…
…imagining a bucolic but vacant landscape, a world without us, where the only traces of a long-dead civilization are our tattered protest signs. Calls for economic policy action, regime change, human rights for humans that don’t exist anymore – all that’s left of us are our slogans – including but not limited to a sign from the era of George W. Bush reading Fuck the Troops, which understandably the Arboretum was not interested in having on County property, wading into the morass of vintage obscenities and the relevance thereto – Brigitte will remain in Paris for the exhibition & there is some debate about letting her know by email that Benji has rotoscoped / sanitized the crawl of her infinite canvas. You’ll remember Brigitte from her video piece at LACMA show years ago when a sassy belle epoch gunslinger stepped out of her pastoral wallpaper & shot at museum goers. (I include that film still for you below.)
Brigitte could be the star of the show, just by virtue of square footage – in the end, I’m a sucker for 200 linear feet of travertine projection surface. I spend the most amount of time with this piece, equally because of its difficulty to document as its pure enjoyment factor – the slow crawl of the engraved images rolls like the paper scroll of a visual player-piano.
David Janesko & Adam Donnelly are building plywood camera obscuras aimed into the desert plantings to remind us of the grace & pagan wonder of optics — allegory of the human eye — the first way you’ve ever perceived anything, through the crapshoot of the fovea — & I feel for them, I really do — this is my bread & butter – never stray far from plato’s cave, et cetera – but these are dioramas for optics nerds — & I’m not sure general audiences can be awestruck by something so understated — we still overlook the sorcery of coin-operated telescopes on the roof deck of the Empire State. A fully fledged scene should be playing out in front of these lenses — drama enough to turn the camera obscura into rich cinema or a cosmic peepshow — instead a static hazy projection of a euphorbia — which, I’ll be honest, I looked at for quite some time.
I meet David on a gravel path near his obscuras when the place is still empty, a few minutes of quiet before they let the crowds in, & he’s with his own digital camera shooting thru some kind of toilet paper tube with a prism fixed to the end of it & a diopter lens hot- glued behind it – he disassembles it for me there on the path with the practice of a solider cleaning a rifle — the prism separates red, green, & yellow & the diopter stacks the separations back together for the sensor. With the cardboard lens taken apart, I can see straight down the barrel to his CMOS sensor & I exclaim like a pedantic photographer, Oh my gosh your sensor will get dusty! Mad-scientist image-makers care not for such things, & I’m grateful he didn’t laugh in my face any more than necessary. He reviewed a few images for me on the back of his camera to show the effects of the prism & it took my breath away — oversaturated high-contrast multiple-exposure images in the family of Wim Wenders’ dream sequences from Until The End of The World. Finger-like branches & cacti multiplied in candy-colored funhouse mirrors. I immediately bought some prisms.
Andy Rappaport of Minnesota Street fame is installing a trifold screen in the fountain, visible from street, which looks great against the backdrop of the foothills, ostensibly about climate change & rising sea levels although I have not seen the wall text (there is no wall text yet) and video friends (Jason) have immediately requested an audience with Shirley on the possibility of screening their own films in said fountain against said backdrop of foothills and natural splendor.
We are all racing the weather. I hear Chris Kallmyer ask Shirley as he sets up a quantity of tube amps, electric lanterns, LED light bars, “What’s our rain plan?“ and Shirley just laughs the tired laugh of somebody who hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in five to seven business days. It looks like we’ll lose Saturday night to forecasted storm which is a blow / tragedy / best case scenario given our February wintertime scene. Some clouds with a weak constitution began to fizz moisture an hour ago and I felt the desire to throw myself over one of the hundred-thousand-dollar projectors but was told by a technician that they can actually tolerate a lot more moisture than we were seeing.
As usual, my mission is to pull apart magic hour like saltwater taffy & spread the good light across 10 acres of exhibits — which invariably doesn’t work. I regret not balancing ambient twilight with projections on more than a few video installations — the trickiest shit, of course, being Shirley’s own video piece out in the parking lot. She somehow tracked down a 75,000 lumen projector to compete with passing auto traffic, built a family of oil derricks from 2x4s, rigged them with projection screens, & ran imagery of carefree palm trees against blue sky, California wild fires, chaparral looking prescient, embers looking vindictive, et cetera. The effect is striking (video doesn’t lend itself to shaped frames very well very often) but I never figured out how to document it properly.
Mia Feuer has taken over the greenhouses with a family of hippopotafemasaurs she’s cast from curvaceous studio models into hydrocarbon goddesses of uncertain origin but bacchanalian stature (see above recumbent allure). Shirley brought Mia to speak years ago – do you remember? – about her work in the tar sands inserting birch trees back into the mud slurry upside down – encouraging ravens to live in the inverted root systems of the bitumen flats, if memory serves. Her family name means fire.
Given her vast and incomprehensible workload there in the greenhouses as the hours tick down to opening night, I often excuse myself from her company with a bow of my head and a sincere wish of, “Godspeed,” and Mia immediately corrects me each time without looking up from her work to say, “Goddesspeed.” Just visible, embedded in the S-curved tail of the front-facing Odalisque is the nozzle and hose of a gasoline pump.
One night as she inserts hundreds of giant framing nails into florists’ foam to gild the spiked tail of the huntress, (each nail squeaking into the foam with high-pitched and excruciating echo-location pings), I offer her my memories of Liza Lou who once beaded 100,000 blades of emerald green grass in a suburban backyard diorama. When asked about her particular brand of madness / the unnecessary labor of beading the lawn, Liza responded, “The dignity is in the doing.” And Mia likes this very much. She tells a story about witches being pierced with nails to prove they weren’t witches and how much pleasure she takes in adding each nail to the huntress she’s built so that this foam woman could fight back like a comic book character, if called upon, and launch a storm of nails at an aggressor – or enjoy the metallic jostle as her armored tail slides behind her.
A sibling of cerberus & hydra, the chimera is depicted often with a lion’s body, a snake’s tail, & a goat bursting out of its back – if you came upon one in antiquity with only a toga & a broadsword to defend yourself it was pretty much game over – and that’s pretty close to the feeling you get standing next to these creatures. The specificity of the hands and feet is so unnerving – at one point during the opening, I meet a woman regarding the Artemis figure with a look of the sublime on her face & while I’m photographing her, by way of explanation she says, These are my hands. She points to fingers pulling an arrow from a quiver and says, I was in the studio over christmas and Mia needed a few extra castings. The rest of this isn’t me [she gestures toward the hippo], but still it’s so strange to so clearly recognize my hands on someone else.
A single gasoline jerrycan is the central but low-key link to the fossil fuels that power, you know, literally the petrochemical foams she built the hippoladies with, but also our built world, our demise, et cetera. “Solar Mothers,” is rife with apocalyptic suggestions, even tropes, & it’s no mistake that the jerrycan is both shiny and chrome. Listening closely, some of the hippofems can be heard to say, Witness me!
John Carpenter set up in the meadow on a 10×10 scrim, strangely less interactive than his 2017 piece & lamented to me that he had missed out on the travertine wall this time around. The moment for Carpenter’s piece came around closing time on opening night when the barmaid at the cash bar had started to get a little freer with her whiskey pours & a woman in a broad-brimmed Spanish hat began impromptu to dance flamenco between the projector and the screen so that her agile silhouette appeared in Carpenter’s undulating algorithms seamlessly — as if he had written a part for Spanish dance all along! I raced into position with my camera, but the lady finished her dance as I tightened my focus & stepped out from behind the screen self-consciously. Her boyfriend & a few others applauded and then the night was over. More soon, m
This is what’s on my radar this spring. I’m also going to include these dates in “Dates to Remember” under the masthead for ease of reference and will be updating throughout the spring and summer. Let me know if there’s an event that shouldn’t be missed and I’ll be sure to include it.
March 15, 2019, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., landscape designer and ceramicist Dustin Gimbel will speak on “Sculpture and Modernism” at the Sherman Library and Gardens (if you missed Dustin’s talk during Modernism Week, now’s your chance to catch up with him locally — and he’s bringing a selection of his ceramics for sale after the talk.) 2647 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, CA 92625
On the recent Palm Springs Modernism Week self-guided garden tour, it was impossible to confine one’s attention to houses solely on the tour, so I’m including some other swivel-headed discoveries. No, I didn’t find #thatpinkdoor, but there were plenty of other sights to ogle. I haven’t been in such a landscape design-rich environment since the Venice Home & Garden tours (RIP). All of which brings renewed zeal to do something about my own front garden, which wasn’t designed so much as barricaded by fencing and hedging to keep pets and children safe on a very busy street. Definitely time for an upgrade. And I found lots of inspiring examples, Palms Springs style, for creating a more street- friendly privacy, using low walls, see-through gates and entry courtyards. In other words, sharing the garden with the neighborhood. Easing up a bit on the foreboding and forbidding. For someone who equates garden with sanctuary, that’s a lesson I need to absorb for my own front garden’s makeover.
Mitch sent me a short note and some photos documenting his recent wintry visit to the High Line, which I present here unedited, the better to showcase the antic epistolary style that always cracks me up. Some quick backstory: When I read about the abandoned railway line years before its reincarnation as the High Line, I urged Mitch to check it out for me when in NYC, and he dutifully sourced a friend of a friend whose bathroom window opened onto the defunct elevated railway that was being unobtrusively recolonized with bird-and-wind-seeded plantings. This is the bathroom window that he is concerned about identifying these many years later. Otherwise, I think it’s fairly self-explanatory.
MB Maher: “There’s construction on the High Line where it moves through the Standard Hotel, so scaffolding and caution tape are in evidence, but still the skyway is full of people bundled tight speaking every language.”
“And the plantings are SO dead — no effort was made by anyone to even partially ameliorate the deafening thud of winter — not an evergreen in sight — brittle sad rumors of prairie grasses, scraggly thistles — it’s a sad scene. And yet the magic remains. The novelty of walking at hip-height to a skyscraper, the persistence of the natural world bursting through railroad ties, the reliability of youthful birch. All here!”
“I concerned my photographic inquiries with finding the apartment where I first clambered onto the High Line in 2004, when it was in fact a freight line, and I became anxious with all the new construction in Chelsea that the apartment had ceased to exist. His name was Aidan, he had an excellent sweater selection, and he seemed partway between non-plussed and ambivalent about our desire to use his bathroom window to scramble out onto the derelict rails. He hustled about the apartment (in a killer turtleneck) and instructed us to lock up as we left after our urban archeology, he himself was out the door to a Guggenheim fundraiser. The walk along the tracks (without iphone flashlights, or light of any kind) was sublime and too detailed to be related here, but my frustration today in 2019 is in not knowing which bathroom window I had so industriously used all those years ago.”
“Was it this piece of red masonry, all bricked over to prevent future ingress?”
“Was it this run-down apartment building with such a crazy gap to jump? Was the bathroom window a casualty of meat-packing gentrification? No answers.“
That old dilapidated railway is certainly laying down new tracks in imaginations across the country: “There is a movement in cities across the world to reclaim underutilized infrastructure and reimagine it as public space.” The High Line Network
I’m going to leave you this Friday with a few images from the self-guided Modern Garden Tour put on by Modernism Week in Palm Springs this past Wednesday. Leaving Long Beach at 7:30 a.m., I arrived just before 10 a.m. to attend landscape architect Steve Martino’s talk, (which was excellent, providing a fascinating nuts-and-bolts deconstruction of his Barragan-influenced “I like walls” design aesthetic and how he gets around fence height restrictions/building codes by calling the privacy barriers “sheds,” which can legally be taller than fences. Privacy is paramount.) After the talk I grabbed a quick coffee and ham croissant before walking up and down Palm Canyon Drive to take in the sights on this chilly-ish day (high 50s), returning to the MW headquarters, the Camp, for tickets a half hour before the tour. (Somewhat confusingly, the tour had been listed as sold out, and I had expected to just attend Mr. Martino’s talk and check out some other sights, but tickets were still available on Wednesday — don’t ask me why. Next time I’ll be sure to book weeks in advance.) The tour started at 1 p.m., covered eight gardens, and by the time all my gawking and looky-looing of stunning houses not on the tour was factored in, I didn’t start the two-hour drive home until 4:30. No time to visit Sunnylands or the Moorten Botanical Garden on this trip. The necklace of mountains encircling the town sparkled with lightly dusted snow and atmospheric swirls of mist along their peaks, with rich browns and velvet greens outlining their corrugated spines. A majestic backdrop for the tour. I don’t get Palms Springs in high summer but I do emphatically understand its appeal in winter.
From the tour booklet: “The modern gardens of Palm Springs can be defined by a variety of components: desert elements, low water requirements, artful placement of materials in relation to the architecture and unique features used in this climate such as boulders, rock top-dressings, fire pits and pools. These gardens include excellent examples of low-water use desert plants and other materials, designed to create delightful outdoor spaces that take advantage of Palm Springs’ relationship to living both indoors and outdoors, along with its mountain vistas and jaw-dropping views.”
A couple of small, visibility-obscuring sandstorms just before entering the city established the desert’s bonafides. What an amazing place.
Next time you’re visiting Joshua Tree National Park, take a moment from reveling in the restorative, otherworldly sights of the desert to give thanks to Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, “hailed as the first desert conservationist and called the Woman of the Joshua Trees and the Apostle of the Cacti. She even has a cactus named after her: Mammillaria hamiltonhoytea.”
While the damage done to Joshua Tree by the government shutdown was a demoralizing setback, initiated by cynics who know the price of everything but the value of nothing (thanks, Mr. Wilde!), Minerva’s story is a rare, selfless example of unwavering dedication to preservation of our fragile lands by whatever means and resources you can muster. In her case, the soft power approach was ultimately every bit as effective as John Muir’s, if much less amenable to legend making. I’d never heard of her before reading the article.
Here’s another good read. Last April I linked to an article about the black market for stolen dudleyas, and there’s been another article on the same problem published in the New Yorker this month (“Smugglers Descend On California.”) Much of the information was a retread of the article from last year, but the New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear contacted some experts familiar with the subject of succulents, Debra Lee Baldwin and Kelly Griffin, and the comments by these two storied plants people were so surprisingly fresh and revealing that I’ve quoted them at length below, augmented by some of my photos from local succulent plantings. I don’t have many photos of dudleyas to share because, as Debra Lee Baldwin explains below, they are not the easiest of succulents to domesticate. Which is especially why ripping them from their cliffside habitats is a very bad idea.
Author Dana Goodyear writes: “Debra Lee Baldwin, a garden photojournalist based in San Diego who for decades was a scout for Sunset magazine, bears some responsibility for the mainstream popularity of succulents. ‘I probably launched the whole movement,’ she told me. In the early days, she said, ‘I had to do what I call drive-by shootings. I would go down streets in high-end neighborhoods with my camera and shoot succulents out the window. They were so hard to find.'”
“No longer. Baldwin’s book, ‘Designing with Succulents,’ from 2007, was the top-selling garden book on Amazon for nineteen weeks; the second edition came out last year. ‘What attracted the gardening public to succulents in the first place was largely the Echeverias, because they looked like roses, floral and symmetrical, and they’re not spiny or treacherous,’ she said…Dudleya are the wild cousins of the Echeveria. ‘These are very beautiful plants when they’re in full, plump, post-rain glory,’ Baldwin said. ‘They look like a lotus, and some are this incredible white-silver, from the powdery coating on their leaves — the ‘farina’ or pulverulence — that is a protective mechanism for the sun. You really shouldn’t touch ’em, ’cause you’ll leave a fingerprint that never goes away. It’s like touching a butterfly.’
“They are picky about their habitat, accustomed to hanging from cliffs, and spending much of the year parched. In the summer, she said, when Dudleya look peaked, ‘Nurturing garden types think, Ooh, needs water.’ Don’t, unless you want a rotten plant; Dudleya drink only in winter. In nature, the mother plants use gravity to send their long stems downslope. As the stems wither, they remain attached to the mother, like umbilical cords, while the daughter plants nestle in rock niches far enough away not to compete with the mother for nutrients. ‘Just try to replicate that in your garden!‘ Baldwin said. ‘Dudleya can live in these very challenging conditions, and they want these challenging conditions. If you want to grow a Dudleya in a pot, you have to turn a pot on its side. When they start to look crappy, I look the other way. It’s sort of like a wild animal. You can tame it, you can have it in your home and enjoy it, but it’s never going to be as happy and integrated in your life as a pet.'”
Famous agave hybridizer Kelly (‘Blue Glow’) Griffin feels that commercial propagation can come to the rescue of endangered dudleyas.
Author Dana Goodyear continues: “Another way to fight smuggling is to destroy the market. That is the ambition of Kelly Griffin, a Dudleya specialist who works for Altman Plants, a nursery based in Southern California that is the country’s leading supplier of succulents. (They sell to Home Depot, Costco, and Lowe’s.) ‘I see myself as Johnny Cactuseed,’ Griffin told me. ‘I’m the person that spreads cactus and succulents everywhere.’ Griffin travels the world legally collecting plant material—pollen, seeds, and samples—from which he makes hybrid crosses and tissue-cultured clones, plants that people can enjoy without destroying sensitive habitats. He also stalks the Internet. A few years ago, he noticed rare and, he suspected, ill-gotten agaves being sold for thousands of dollars apiece on eBay. So he cloned thousands of them for nurseries where they sold for five dollars each. ‘I intentionally killed the market,’ he said. ‘Being an activist, you can say, ‘That looks like a collected plant, and you shouldn’t be selling collected plants.’ ”