the siren call of cycads

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a local Long Beach front garden, zone 10, south-facing exposure

I recently chanced upon a house and garden that I used to drive by a lot more frequently.
Habits change, errands take one in a different direction, and in that unobserved period a cycad suddenly seems to have become enormous.
And cycads, as a rule, don’t do anything suddenly.

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The most frequently seen cycad, Cycas revoluta, known by the misnomer “Sago Palm,” is probably the only cycad I can safely ID.
I think this is a Sago Palm, though I could easily be mistaken. I’ve never seen one this big.

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That little garden reminded me of the photos I’d yet to post of the cycad garden at Lotusland for you cycad lovers.
I admire cycads, though I haven’t yet come to love them. I really should make up my mind, because it requires an investment of years, decades, to grow them to these sizes.
I know I certainly wouldn’t refuse a good-sized, robin’s egg blue Encephalartos horridus for a tall container. (Like I’d ever expect to find that gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree.)

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Sorry, but I can’t help with IDs of these ancient plants. I know they are very slow growing, so size equates with value, and it’s a huge big deal when they cone.
Ceratozamia, cycas, dioon, encephalartos, lepitozamia, macrozamia — I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
I do know they are one of the most endangered plants in the world.

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Of course, the best way to learn about a plant is to go to the experts.
And it just so happens that The Cycad Society is holding a “Cycad Day” on October 24, 2015.
Maybe you needed a compelling reason to finally make that trip to West Palm Beach, Florida. If so, now you have one. You’re welcome.

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A Southern California source for these plants is The Palm and Cycad Exchange in Fallbrook, California.

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Lotusland’s Rare Plant Auction would be another source.

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I imagine they turn up at the Huntington’s plant sales too.

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Lush and deep green in leaf, some are tolerant of conditions dry enough to suit our native oaks, which don’t appreciate excess summer irrigation.

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Cycads are members of that small, select group of plants dating to the Mesozoic period called gymnosperms (“naked seed”), whose exposed seed are borne in cones.
Angiosperms, relative newcomers but now 80 percent of plants today, generally develop their seeds via flowers.
Credit cycads’ good looks for making people wild enough about them to devote whole gardens to them in climates that can accommodate their needs.
They hail from tropical and subtropical places, like South and Central America.

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That improbable palminess via stiff geometric leaves on a stout trunk, plus their rarity and unique evolutionary status, are part of what turns ordinary people into devotees.

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Where to See Cycads.”


CSSA road trip June 2015

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Enormous Quiver Tree, Aloidendron dichotoma, and cycads in a Fallbrook, California private garden

It’s so true that passion bestows courage on the meek. A passion for plants put me on a bus one early Wednesday last June, a bus filled with cactus and succulent writers, explorers, and growers. The professional, the erudite, the specialists…and me. And they were all the best of friends, boisterously catching up on gossipy news. Queuing up behind name tags I knew from books and articles, it was all I could do to stifle a strong urge to flee. We were boarding a field trip bus leaving Pitzer College in Claremont, California, site of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America’s week-long Biennial Convention. The convention was comprised of all-day lectures, plant sales, dinners, and each day had its own price tag, including very affordable accommodations to stay the entire week in dormitories at the college. The portion I absolutely did not want to miss was this one day of touring private gardens. Other field trip choices were the Huntington and Lotusland, but it was the rare access to private gardens that had me resolutely putting one nervous foot in front of the other down that seemingly endless bus aisle until I found an open seat at the back of the bus. Not long after, a charming cylindropuntia expert, Vonn Watkins, took the empty seat next to mine and regaled me with stories the entire trip, including an account of a recent donation to the Huntington of a priceless cycad collection (probably Loran Whitelock’s, see here) and how Debra Lee Baldwin was booed in Tucson when she dissed cholla during a lecture there. (Debra tells that story here.) Plant people are the nicest people. We had a fabulous time.

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Our itinerary was a mystery. First stop was just a few minutes away from the college, the Claremont garden of Rico Leon. Unfortunately, I neglected to take photos, but standout plants for me included Aloe secundiflora, just building up another bloom truss. Rico says it blooms three times a year for him. A young tree aloe, Aloidendron pillansii, with its curious hammerhead-like leaves, also had me pestering Rico for an ID. This tree aloe is also known as the Giant Quiver Tree or the Bastard Quiver Tree, to distinguish it from the real-deal Quiver Tree, Aloidendron dichotoma. It was a fairly quick stop before we headed back onto the bus to visit what I assumed would be another local garden. Instead the bus left Claremont and the San Gabriel Mountain foothills and headed 40 miles south, in heavy commuter traffic, to Orange Coast College. I thought heading to Orange County was a pretty bold move, considering the traffic, but that wasn’t to be as far south as we’d go that day.
After a tour of the horticultural department and lunch at the college, we headed south again, this time to San Diego, where we toured two private gardens.
Every stop on the tour was shrouded in secrecy, and the last leg to San Diego of approximately 70 miles was a slog through heavy traffic.
We didn’t get back to Claremont until 8 p.m.

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The photos on this post are from the last stop of the day, at a private garden in Fallbrook that I was later told holds the U.S.’s second largest collection of blue cycads.
(Cycads are among the most endangered plants in the world. The most commonly seen is the sago palm, Cycas revoluta.)
Whether due to the long drive, the heat, the suspense, or all three, we stumbled out of the bus somewhat shell-shocked into this remarkable garden thick with cycads and huge stands of cactus planted in the 1960s. I overheard a lot of sotto voce whispering, “Whose garden is this, anyway?” Not a lot of information was given about the owner, who was introduced to us briefly at the beginning of the tour, first name only, and then we were let loose to roam the paths at will.

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I did bump into the owner later in the tour and found him very friendly.
I’m not sure when he acquired the garden, but he did say that the mature plantings were the work of the original owner in the 1960s, and he has continued to add to them.
With such rare cycads in the collection, details are understandably kept sketchy, but at least it was open to tour on a warm day in June.

traditional with a twist

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Here’s another house nearby that warrants a second look and always brings a smile.

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It’s the traditional front lawn setup with a bit of a twist. All the supporting plants are exclusively dry garden plants, some rare like the cycads.

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Every plant in the landscape is a “specimen,” like the dasylirion, cycads, potted ponytail palms.
There’s definitely a collector at work here, but a restrained collector with a conservative streak.
That’s my Sherlockian take, anyway, to explain leaving the lawn in place.
(And I mean conservative in temperament, not in a political sense.)
The front porch is given that bristly moustache from horsetail reeds grown in an unseen container.

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Potted tree aloe, palm, and more cycads. I have no idea which cycads they are.
I haven’t been bitten by that bug yet, thankfully, since cycad collecting can be an expensive habit.
And/or a habit that requires great patience while these Jurassic-era plants slowly make size.

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Foundation planting on the wild side.
Overcast skies courtesy of our “June gloom,” one of my favorite times of year.
I feel cheated when June doesn’t gloom up but instead marches straight into bright and sunny.

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I love this bungalow, but sorting and choosing these photos, with the pea-green color of the house, green roof, and the lawn, is making me a bit queasy.

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This house in the same neighborhood makes an interesting exercise in compare-and-contrast.
Do you prefer the green lawn or the buff-colored decomposed granite with dry garden plants?

museum Sunday

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Frida Kahlo in the Sun by Leo Matiz


In what now seems like the dim past, the family photo album was a holy book, kept on prominent display in the sitting room, perhaps atop the piano draped in a fringe shawl. You have only this weekend this Sunday left to view Frida Kahlo’s family snapshots, including childhood photos of her taken by her photographer father Guillermo Kahlo, but also photos of her many famous friends like Tino Modotti and Leon Trotsky. Of course, Diego Rivera is here too. Some of the photos bear her lipstick smudge, which reveals the totemic power these images had for her. This intimate exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art/MOLAA ends June 8 (today!), so now’s your last chance. I finally walked over Friday night after vowing to see it since it opened in March. This is the first exhibition of these personal photos which had previously been inaccessible due to restrictions placed on Frida’s estate. Enjoy the agave garden after the exhibit.

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Frida’s garden Casa Azul, photo found here

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LACMA opens its new exhibit “Expressionism in Germany and France; From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.”
Seeing Robert Irwin’s ancient palm and cycad garden after the exhibit was even more bracing than usual.

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Lepidozamia peroffskyana, an Australian palm-like cycad.

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Macrozamia moorei, another Australian palm-like cycad


Robert Irwin describing his choice of palms and cycads: “The site itself is very unique—the La Brea Tar Pits, this primordial ooze that is coughing up bones of saber-toothed cats and mammoths. So you take that as a place to begin, and marry that with this primordial kind of tree. Certain types of palm, cycads, like the ones in front of BCAM, are actually the first plants on earth, as far as anybody knows.” Irwin also noted the status of the palm as an icon of Southern California, making it a logical place to create what he calls “an important collection of these primordial plants.” – The LACMA Blog