Taking a Walk on the Wild Side in Palos Verdes

Each of the Los Angeles County Arboretums has its own style, and South Coast on the Palos Verdes Peninsula is the most rugged and uncivilized of the gardens. Walking its back reaches through pines and eucalyptuses in the warm sun seems like a hike in wilderness, which is pretty surprising seeing as it is planted on top of that most sure sign of civilization--a trash heap, or what future generations of archeologists will call a "midden."

South Coast has had its share of problems: Tram rides around the garden had to be discontinued because the ground kept sinking and left the roads looking like something you would pay money to ride at Magic Mountain; plants grow, then die when their roots hit the 100-degree-plus temperatures in the soil created by decomposing garbage; methane gas burbles out of holes here and there. It's a bit like a man-made Yellowstone. Proposition 13 almost dealt it a death blow, cutting the staff to fewer than half a dozen, but then the volunteers stepped in.

More than at any other garden, the volunteers--the South Coast Botanic Garden Foundation--keep the place going, and one suspects that they are organized and gung-ho because they must be to deal with this botanic garden that is always on the move.

Everywhere you go you see them at work, in the offices and on the grounds, but especially in the area set aside for the Propagation Workshop. Here new recruits are taught how to propagate plants, from seeds, cuttings, air layering and any other method that works. Knowing how to propagate plants is one of the fine arts of gardening, and doing it is just about the only way to learn, but here there is another purpose.

The plants they raise and grow to size are all sold at the Fiesta de Flores, the annual plant sale and extravaganza today and Sunday. Proceeds from the sale keep the garden going.

Only about 30% of the plants at the sale are grown at the botanic garden, but that is because this is a really big sale. It fills the huge lecture hall, flows out into the shade garden and spills into the nearby meadow. Plants are arranged by category and type, such as perennials, fuchsias, roses, begonias, orchids, exotics, bromeliads and pelargoniums. Large signs help you find your favorite area quickly.

Some things I spotted on a preview tour should give you an idea of the variety available. On a table marked "impatiens" were those pretty variegated impatiens with the cream and green foliage that first appeared at the Sherman Foundation Garden in Corona del Mar, when someone walked in off the street and presented them with a plant.

On the perennials table I found alstroemerias, which are very rare at nurseries but have become one of the most common, though still pricey, flowers at florists. Their long, sturdy stems make them one of the best cut flowers. Nearby was a table full of flowers, many in full bloom, that will be hard to resist--"English Cottage Garden Flowers" is how they were categorized. I don't know what table they are going to put the clerodendrums on, but South Coast has found a very unusual deep magenta form of this striking subtropical vine that grows to a very manageable six feet or so.

They also have the bleeding heart glorybower, another clerodendrum, which has striking red and white flowers. Both of these can be grown in a container, I am told.

I also spotted most of the colorful flowering trees that the arboretum in Arcadia has introduced, and this is the perfect time to plant these subtropicals, including the thorny-trunked floss silk tree, the various golden-flowered cassias, and the trumpet-flowered tabebuias. There were also a number of cans of plumerias, presumably waiting to go to the exotics table. On a tour of the propagating and growing area, led by Dale Wilkins, I also noticed a pretty ivy geranium with the spotted pink-and-white petals, which was one of the best plants I ever grew in a hanging basket, and a lot of epiphyllums--the orchid cactus--coming into full flower.

Bob Howard, co-chairman of the event, also showed me the volunteers' individual gardens, which are just outside the plant sale area. These plots are tended entirely by the volunteers and there were some pretty sights here, including a whole bed of Penstemon gloxinioides in full flower and a bed that mixed all sorts of purple and violet flowers, including foxgloves, delphiniums, cosmos and pansies, though this bed was just about to go over the hill.

The herb garden also looks nice right now, especially a planting to put in your notebook of green and gray santolina, yellow yarrow, feverfew, iris and angelica, which would make the beginnings of a handsome drought-tolerant landscape.

(The sweet aroma that dominates these gardens, by the way, is star jasmine, in full flower on a bank nearby.)

The South Coast Botanic Garden is at 26300 Crenshaw Blvd. on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (take Crenshaw off the San Diego Freeway and follow it south to the hills). The sale hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday; general admission is $3; seniors and students with ID, $1.50; children 5-12 pay 75 cents; children 4 and younger, free.

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