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Water, Native Plants, and Southern California's Long History of Unsustainable Gardening

Palm trees
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"Lost L.A.: Descanso Gardens" explores the history of one of Southern California's most beloved public gardens. From its pre-colonial origins as an oak woodland to its contemporary role as a living museum, the film examines how the Descanso Gardens reflects the social, political, and cultural evolution of Los Angeles.

Ask an Angeleno to name a plant that is as instantly synonymous with the Southland as the saguaro is with Arizona and the answer will be “palm.” Yet most of the palms dusting the Southland sky are species not native to the U.S. None has its origins in Los Angeles County. The same exotic rule pertains to most of the region’s iconic plants, be they bougainvillea, jacaranda, or bird of paradise. Nowhere else in the country have imported flora so overpowered the native. (Imagine if bamboo and not dogwood were the iconic plant of Virginia.)

Yet, California is different and Southern California is very different. Of the many factors that allowed our garden culture to un-moor itself from evolution, the most fundamental is water. We had it. When it ran low, we imported more. Only now that water has become scarcer and people more common are the plants we grow finally changing.

"Hell, we're giving away the land," went the 1880s quip of foothill property magnate Lucky Baldwin. "We're selling the climate." This 1891 Los Angeles Times pitch for Pasadena shows just how shamelessly: "The hills and lowlands are carpeted with living green, the air is redolent with mingled odors of roses and orange blossoms and sweet songs of birds are heard everywhere. Nature is decked in the garb of summer the year round."

Lest anyone wonder how all that living green stayed hydrated, the article added, "The town has an abundant supply of pure mountain water."

The Jawbone Canyon Siphon, part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct
The Jawbone Canyon Siphon, part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
A 1929 brochure of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, courtesy of the Oviatt Library, Cal State Northridge
A 1929 brochure of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, courtesy of the Oviatt Library, Cal State Northridge.

That, it turned out, was nowhere near adequate. Soon Southern Californians were prospecting. From 1908 through the 1970s, hundreds of miles of aqueduct were constructed to keep us in lawn and roses, first from the Eastern Sierra, then from the Colorado River near Hoover Dam and finally from the San Francisco Bay Delta. By the time that Ronald Reagan ended his governorship, gardens in Riverside were watered with snowmelt that originated near the Oregon border.

Street plantings carry telltale clues as to whether they were pre- or post-hydraulic era. Craftsman-era quarters built between 1890 and roughly 1915 tend to be dominated by crazy tall mixes of tough Mexican fan palms and the similar but shorter and slightly thicker-stemmed California desert palm, Washingtonia filifera. Back in the day, seedlings were cheap, easy to plant, and hardy once in the ground. Close behind the palm as plants favored by assemblers of Sears houses are eucalyptuses, whose seeds were being sold by the bag after plans for a timber industry involving them evaporated.

Soon, in ever-developing LA, you were what you planted. By its opening in 1928, the now bygone California Botanic Garden in Mandeville Canyon was showcasing magnolias as standard bearers of the sheer choice open to those lucky enough to buy adjoining parcels. These are lovely trees, native to the American southeast, where they receive routine summer rain. In Southern California, they shaded grassy boulevards of Pasadena from foothill heat by virtue of constant lawn sprinkler infiltration.

Palm trees on Figueroa Street south of 16th Street circa 1890. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Palm trees on Figueroa Street south of 16th Street circa 1890. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Planting a magnolia tree at Mandeville Canyon's California Botanic Gardens
Sen. William Gibbs McAdoo plants a magnolia tree at Mandeville Canyon's California Botanic Garden in 1928. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

By contrast, a native coastal live oak, which is semi-dormant during dry season, should need deep watering once a month in urban settings. They do not, however, thrive in lawns, where sprinklers rot their roots.

The parade of “garden tolerant” (meaning water tolerant) tropical specimens had begun. Jacarandas popularized by San Diego nurserywoman Kate Sessions were catching eyes in street plantings in Alhambra. Ultimately, no one did more to push the vision of Southern California’s lawns and grassy medians aflutter with brightly hued tropical flowering trees than a foothill dermatologist named Samuel Ayres, Jr.

As the foothill estates of the region’s founding moguls steadily became the three public gardens we now know as Descanso, the Huntington, and the Arboretum, Ayres made it the mission of the Arboretum to colorize Southern California with the kinds of brightly flowering plants he had admired on a trip to Hawaii. To Ayres and his garden club campaigns we owe either thanks or blame for the region’s pink silk floss trees, gold medallion tree. The dermatologist who disarmed patients by likening the colors of their festering sores to blossom colors was even responsible for San Vicente Boulevard’s parade of red-flowering coral trees to the Pacific.

Some garden vogues were as unlikely as Solvang but somehow just as real. By 1985, the LA Times was describing La Canada Flintridge as the “camellia capital of the world,” a title owing largely to a passion for the plant by a resident and newspaper owner named Manchester Boddy and a very good local camellia nursery called Nuccio’s. Boddy’s camellia and rose collections, whose plants numbered in the thousands, were so legendary that, according to the New York Times, the day his estate opened to the public as Descanso Gardens in 1952, three thousand people showed up.

Camellias beneath oak trees at Descanso Gardens
Camellias beneath oak trees at Descanso Gardens. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

It’s said that when the grounds were being designed for what is now the 104-year-old Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, English-born seedsman Theodore Payne urged that its garden be planted with natives. He might as well have advocated planting weeds. The museum, opened in 1913, opted for a rose garden.

Concern ran high enough about the pace of development and loss of the state’s native flora that in 1926 an heiress named Susanna Bixby Bryant gave over 200 acres in Orange County’s Santa Ana Canyon for a kind of botanical Noah’s Ark project. Samples of plants from across the California flora were to grow there. After her death in 1946, the collection was moved to Claremont and became what is now the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

The Southland’s only dedicated native plant collection finally came into its own in 2002 when the Colorado River entered what is now a persistent drought. By 2008, all three of So Cal’s sources of imported water were hideously, dangerously dry. The only way that Southern California could live within its water budget was to radically cut down outdoor irrigation. Rancho, along with the non-profit nursery and education center of the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, became a temple of the waterwise.

Meanwhile, conventional public gardens whose gorgeous water-hungry trees often relied on sprinklers have scrambled to modernize. Visit Descanso today and the camellia capital of the world has a new drought-tolerant demonstration garden. Over at the arboretum, the hippest new course on offer is rainwater harvesting.

It’s so hot and dry that water companies are paying customers to use less of what they sell. Even Southern California’s tough signature palms are dying. Look no further than Rosedale Cemetery’s once legendary stand of Craftsman-era palms overlooking Pico Union to see their haggard swan song back lit across a western sky.

What will come next? Theodore Payne may still be chuckling in his grave. In 2013, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum marked its centenary by opening a lavish native garden. Time will tell which of native plants we ignored the last century can cope with a harsher new climate that we’ve created in this one. It’s possible that our cities may soon become too hot and harsh for even many natives to thrive. The next step may be a turn to desert plants.

Only one thing is sure. The new generation of landscape plants for Southern California cities will have to be salt tolerant. Scarcity means that what irrigation they get outside of seasonal rain is likely to be either gray water or “purple pipe,” meaning partially treated sewage. In other words, anything still grows, as long as it can stand amplified heat and the discharge from a washing machine.

The California Native Plant Garden at Descanso Gardens
The California Native Plant Garden at Descanso Gardens. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

Correction: This article originally stated: "The long-term plan is to move the camellias out from under the native oaks, whose roots are rotting from too much irrigation." According to a spokesperson for Descanso Gardens, "the Descanso camellia collection is designated a historic resource and will not be moved. Our current plan is to relocate irrigation lines to better balance the distinct needs of the camellias and oaks, and to be thoughtful when selecting locations for new camellia plantings."

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