If there’s anything that visitors to southern California can marvel at, it’s our access to nature.
Whether it’s our urban parks or our easily accessible mountain ranges, we don’t have to go far to experience all the wonder that Mother Nature has managed to concoct with scant water supply and other deceivingly limited resources.
Yes, we’ve got our waterfalls, our sand dunes, and our geological obscurities (not the least of which are our seismic faults). But there’s nothing so fascinating as some of the living things that manage to sprout up out of our dry earth and not only survive but thrive here in SoCal – even if they were snatched from far-off lands and brought in from very different climates.
Here are some of the most fascinating examples of southern California flora that have garnered national acclaim and sometimes even international repute for their size, their age, and even their smell.
1. The World’s Largest Flowering Plant, Sierra Madre
Our state flower may be the California poppy – and it is tremendous when you get to see the hillsides of the Antelope Valley carpeted with them in the spring wildflower season – but it’s certainly not the only flower that can inspire a sense of wonder in Southern Californians.
In Sierra Madre, you can find the largest flowering plant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records – a wistaria (a.k.a. wisteria) plant that grew so fast and so much that it devoured its owners' house in the 1930s. Nicknamed “The Vine,” this wistaria is of the Chinese lavender variety, originally purchased for 75 cents and planted in 1894. Since that time, the house has been rebuilt – and its current owners have somehow managed to keep it under control enough to keep living there and open it up for public tours, which have been conducted since 1918. It hasn't encompassed the entire property -- yet – but the canopy over the backyard is very thick, obscuring the underside in darkness.
Its oldest section forms a wall-like structure of intertwined branches by the back of the house, where the blossoms are a bit feebler. Newer offshoots have grown out of the original plant, their crawling vines traveling across the property and taking root elsewhere. At over 250 tons, covering more than one acre — with branches that grow to 500 feet and grow as quickly as one inch per hour — this thing is a behemoth unlike any other. The Vine has encroached on the neighbors' houses as well, but no one seems to mind. It's a horticultural marvel that feels a bit dastardly, a little bit evil, not quite of this earth, but its current owners have managed to prune and trim it to keep it under control — for now. You can see it during the annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival, which takes place every spring.
2. The World’s Stinkiest Plant, San Marino and Encinitas
To experience some of the natural wonders in southern California, you’ve got to get the timing just right – because they’re as fleeting as they are wondrous. Such is the case with Amorphophallus titanium -- the so-called “Corpse Flower,” a rotten-smelling flower that only blooms (and stinks) for a few hours. That means you may have to get up early in the morning, wait all day for the time to come, or make plans to make a drive to see and smell it on the turn of a dime. After all, this plant has got its own biological clock – and it’s just as likely to open up its petals at midnight as it is in midday.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter one of these pungent and somewhat nauseating plants in person, you may find it somewhat indescribable, as it lacks the meaty, fatty, gamey quality of a dead animal. It’s enough, however, to lure insects that usually lay their eggs in carcasses to come and pollinate. Anytime it blooms – an event that lasts for only 12 to 24 hours -- or bears fruit, it’s a special occasion. This carrion flower is native only to Indonesia, but as an oddity it’s highly prized by private collectors as well as botanic gardens and horticulturalists that are keen on cultivating it. The San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas recently witnessed their corpse flower bloom, so it’s unlikely to happen again anytime soon. Some corpse flowers wait a decade to bloom again. I’d keep my eye on the corpse flower at The Huntington, however, as it’s been a couple of years already since it was last pollinated and it’s due.
3. One of the Oldest Living Organisms On Earth, Lucerne Valley
Creosote (Creosote Larrea tridentate a.k.a. “greasewood”) is a pretty common find in the Mojave Desert, but the king of them all – with an average diameter of 45 feet, though it can stretch as wide as 67 feet – is the so-called “King Clone,” found off Old Woman Springs Road in Lucerne Valley, along Bessemer Mine Road. Using radiocarbon dating, and basing an estimate on the known growth rates of creosote, its age has been estimated at more than 11,700 years old, making it one of the oldest organisms on the planet.
But interestingly, the King Clone isn’t just one creosote bush, but a series of creosote rings that are all offshoots (or “clones”) of the same living thing. You can trace it back to the end of the last Ice Age, as it was one of the first organisms to colonize the area, once the last glacier retreated. And it’s been a permanent resident of the Mojave ever since. To pay your respects to the king, visit the King Clone Ecological Reserve, which is maintained by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Note that it’s off a dirt road in a wilderness area with no facilities, so bring plenty of water and consider driving something with four-wheel drive.
4. The World’s Oldest Trees, Inyo County
In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the Pinus longaeva have to withstand a lot of perils: wind, weather, and a climate dry enough for dry kindling to spontaneously burst into flames. And yet some of these trees still last thousands of years, thriving in the harshest of conditions, growing in the driest of soil (that's more limestone than it is dirt). In certain parts of this forest, you'd think you were walking through a grove of dead trees, but au contraire! Some of those dead branches -- their bark falling off and the wood underneath becoming twisted -- are attached to trees that are very much alive, and growing, and reproducing, and thriving in the harshest of conditions.
Their secret to longevity seems to be in the sap, which is often sucked out by a variety of woodpeckers. Any wounds they create in the surface of the tree while feeding off of the sap are immediately filled in by the sap, which seals the wound off from infection so it can grow back, leaving nary a scar. Although they can live for thousands of years, some trees must eventually die – and even dead, the wood is sturdy and fearsome. This dead wood looks as though it drifted ashore right out of the ocean – but, in actuality, this area was once submerged under a prehistoric sea and it was the ocean that drifted away from where the wood would eventually grow. Now, groves of ancient trees 4000+ years old still flourish. The most famous of them all is the Methuselah, long thought to also be the oldest at 4,850 years old until another still older tree, unnamed and its location undisclosed, was discovered to be 5,065 years old. All of these trees in this ancient pine forest in the White Mountains of Inyo County are protected and can't be legally chopped down – but given their value and historic significance, they’re still considered vulnerable. That’s why you probably won’t find the exact oldest trees during your visit, but you’ll have the best luck in the “Forest of Ancients,” also known as the Methuselah Grove.
5. Giant Trees With Groundbreaking Girth, Santa Barbara and beyond
The world’s tallest tree may be a redwood named Hyperion in Northern California, but in SoCal we’ve got our own arboreal giants: the Moreton Bay fig tree (Ficus macrophylla).
With its aggressive system of buttress roots, it can strangle out any competition to clear the space it needs to grow to its tremendous size – which is ripe not only for climbing but also for shade-seeking and fruit-collecting. California is home to some of the largest Moreton Bay fig trees you’ll find -- including the tallest in North America, located in Balboa Park near the San Diego Natural History Museum, and the widest in North America, planted in 1876 and found at the corner of Montecito and Chapala Streets in Santa Barbara.
Other beastly examples, whose circumferences can measure more than 100 feet around, include an 80-foot tall one by the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, one planted in 1876 by the Glen Tavern Inn in Santa Paula, a monumental, 99-foot one in Big Tree Park in Glendora, and one at Beverly Gardens Park in Beverly Hills. Just try to wrap your arms around the trucks of these trees – but watch out for the fig wasps that might be swarming around.