Why this Southern California botanical garden is different from most
If you walk briskly, you can walk the winding path through Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden in a very short time. Yet the fact that the garden is small makes each plant all the more valuable to see. Unlike most botanical gardens, where one day is never enough to appreciate all there is to see, it’s different here. You can take a long look at each specimen on display and not feel like you might be missing out if you dwell more than a few moments on a particular plant.
The following are descriptions of some of the beauties to be found at the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden (MBBG) whose plant collection is made up almost entirely of natives of California, with a few exceptions. The garden is located in Polliwog Park at 1237 North Peck Avenue. It is open from 6 am to 8 pm seven days a week. Admission is free. Volunteer working days are Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and walk-in volunteers over the age of 16 are always welcome.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) is a wonderful plant if you have children because of its punching bag shaped fruits. When the fruit is ripe, the seeds inside will click audibly. The bladder pod is a relative of the caper plant and, like this Mediterranean plant, has flower buds which, before opening, can be plucked and pickled, and then used to spice up salads and meat dishes. Bladderpod has something else in common with the caper tree and that is its fresh appearance despite inhospitable growing conditions. Planted on the coast where the surrounding plants are whipped and left limp from the sea winds, the swim bladder shows no signs of stress. This quality reminds me of the hardy caper tree (Capparis spinosa), which grows in Israel near the Dead Sea, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. Capers even got stuck in Masada, the legendary mountain fortress where a band of Jewish fanatics resisted the siege of the Roman army for several months, ultimately committing suicide so as not to be taken to Rome as slaves.
At the bottom of MBBG there is a stunning Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica). This species of legume is one of our most resilient native plants, although its characteristics are delicate. It can grow in poorly drained soil and is cold-hardy up to 25 degrees. It will drop its leaves due to the extreme cold and winter drought, but it will bounce back. The flowers look like feather duster, and the leaflets of the ferns are only ¼ inch long. Baja fairy duster is a hardy cultivator reaching six feet tall and wide. It can serve as a natural barrier thanks to the thorns at the base of its leaves. With water every now and then, it will flower most of the year although it can survive in the absence of water once it is well established in the garden.
Not far from the fairy feather duster, Catalina silverlace (Eriophyllum nevinii ‘Canyon Silver’) has a classic dusty sucker appearance with deeply lobed silvery gray foliage. It can grow in sun or shade and also tolerates poorly drained soils. Catalina silverlace features an abundance of yellow daisy-like flowers in spring and summer. When the flowers fade, the effect is dazzling as they take on a dark brown hue that contrasts impressively with the whitish foliage.
If you are looking for a selection for the edges of your pond or even to sit in the shallow end of it, I would recommend the Lavender Blue Rush (Juncus patens ‘Occidental Blue’). His astral appearance will mesmerize you. A most adaptable selection, this rush can also grow in dry shade and is hardy up to 15 degrees. The name of the genus Juncus comes from the Latin verb iungere, which means “to join” and refers to the use of its shoots for ropes and ties.
When it comes to edibles native to California, nothing beats the golden currant (Ribes aurem). The flowers have a scent between vanilla and clove and can be used as a garnish. Its half-inch berries are sweet and can be amber, red, or black in color. Fruits also ripen over several months, unlike other berry crops which ripen all at once. The quality of the fruits is always good, even that from spontaneous seedlings. It gets full sun on the coast but prefers some afternoon shade as you move inland and you can even grow it under oak trees.
While driving to the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden, I saw a horticultural wonder along the way that made me stop the car. It was a planter filled with artichoke agave (Agave parryi var. Truncata) in a high-visibility corner of a business park. There was a time when these corners were religiously planted with annual flowers that were changed several times a year. It was a large expense that was wiped out thanks to agave and other dreaded desert dwellers. As for artichoke agaves, their appeal lies not only in their sculptural symmetry but in the fact that they never need to be watered. Not only is water saved, but the expense of installing and maintaining a sprinkler system is also avoided.
Native to the southwest, the artichoke agave lives 15 to 25 years before sending out a 20-foot-tall flower stalk that signals its impending death. However, the puppies of the dying plant will have established themselves by then and the next generation of artichoke agaves will be more than ready to continue.
Tip of the week: Not so long ago, across from the 3rd hole of Studio City Golf Course on Whitsett Avenue, I saw a plant that looked vaguely familiar to me. I peeled off a leaf and chewed it. Indeed, it was a salty, a relative of the salines that I had encountered in the Negev desert in Israel. Studio City’s salty grows next to the concrete canal that flows where the Los Angeles River flowed. After investigation, I learned that this species of salty (Atriplex lentiformis) has a large habitat that stretches from the seashore to the banks of the river, so the plant in question must be a descendant of the saline that grew in this area when the river was still flowing – until the 51 mile concrete canal that took its place was completed in 1960. You can sample a salty leaf, greenish gray in color, at the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden where a large specimen grows. The plant, which can reach heights of ten feet or more, thrives in extremely alkaline soil thanks to the ability of its stubborn roots to extract salt from the soil and send it to specialized storage bladders in its leaves, the keeping healthy cells away that could be killed were the salt to enter them. The leaves, young shoots, flowers and fruits are edible.
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