The Dry Garden: What to do with exotic plants at Arboretum

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Los Angeles was sold to the world as the place where anything grew. As if to prove it, more than 10,000 exotic plants were tested last century on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Arcadia. “The original notion was that it would be a big, big trial ground to see what could flourish in L.A.,” explained Richard Schulhof.

According to the Arboretum’s recently appointed chief executive officer, this makes the arboretum’s collection a living history. So many of the plants tested flourished that roughly half a century later, eucalyptus, palms and bamboo compete with cedars for space in the skyscape. Not that you have to drive to the foothill community next to Santa Anita race track to witness this style of festooning eclecticism. It came to grip all of Southern California.


Six months into his job, one of the challenges facing Schulhof is what to do with the great big collection of exotica. The biggest crisis facing the arboretum may just be that the taste for thirsty imported plants that built the place is bringing down the region. So much of Southern California’s urban water supply goes toward garden irrigation that utilities have started paying customers to abandon exotic planting schemes for native and drought-tolerant ones.

On paper, he’s the perfect man to turn this monument to the past into a model for the future. A native Angeleno, he studied landscape architecture at UC Berkeley and went on to become the executive director at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. That job was followed by the deputy directorship of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. One might question the sanity of someone who left Boston for Arcadia had they not grown up accustomed to the winter night scent of orange blossoms.

“I didn’t come back here because I needed a job,” he said. “I came because I think L.A. should have a great arboretum.”

Since returning six months ago, Schulhof has been canvassing for ideas, listening to the county and charitable foundation that jointly run the place, to staff, volunteers, visitors and many stripes of horticulturist. He wants to bring out a friend from Harvard who loves weeds. And he’s still busy taking comments, he said during a recent tour. However, there is one area, he said, “where I want to grab a shovel and make the change happen.” This is a poorly trafficked “piece of turf where we are about to create a meadow.”

Water conservation is high on his list, but the solution to the vast grounds planted with thirsty stock goes beyond the kind of desert plantings that are steadily expanding around the cafeteria and visitors’ center. The irrigation infrastructure of the place dates back 50 years. The arboretum needs to be re-plumbed.

Schulhof is proud of the arboretum’s history of investigating plants that withstand smog and retard fire, and hopes to continue that kind of often uncelebrated but profoundly beneficial research. Other plans include expanding the permaculture program and eventually building a Korean Garden. Think about it, and the second idea starts sounding better by the second. The ancient garden style of one of L.A.’s dominant immigrant cultures is all but unknown in Southern California.

Part of an arboretum CEO’s job is to sound positive, and Schulhof is almost disturbingly upbeat. You want to sedate him. Yet even weighting his comments for boosterism, one optimistic impression from this baby boomer’s six months of listening rings true. “For all the commitment we had when I came out of Berkeley,” he said, “the plant palette shifted, but still gardens kind of looked the same. But these decades later, the young designers working here seem much more hands-on and much more intent on solving problems. And the gardens they are making seem very, very different.”

He’s excited by it and wants to support it. With luck and good leadership, half a century from now, a newly appointed arboretum CEO may well be leading a tour explaining how, back in the day, Arcadia display gardens, classes and school outreach led Los Angeles out of a water crisis.

-- Emily Green

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