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Disney’s Jungle : How They Built It 40 Years Ago and How You Can Build One Now in Your Own Back Yard

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Almost 40 years ago, landscape architect Bill Evans began what he now calls “the best darn jungle this side of Costa Rica.” He is, of course, exaggerating, but the lush vegetation that envelops the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland has become as interesting as the ride itself, if you can see past the rhinos and headhunters.

“We tore out the last plastic plants about five years ago, so everything you see is alive and growing,” said Evans, who retired as the director of landscape design at Walt Disney Imagineering in 1975 but has been serving as a consultant ever since.

“Stare up at that canopy,” he said proudly, pointing at a mix of giant bamboo, ficus and palms towering 70 feet overhead. “It’s beginning to look like the real thing.”

Any gardener planning his own personal jungle could learn a few things here.

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Jungle plants have fascinated Southern Californians since the first Angelenos discovered they could grow some of the tougher ones in our mild coastal climate. Palms, big-leaved things like philodendron and giant bird-of-paradise, ficus trees with their buttressed roots, thick groves of bamboo and other tropicals and subtropicals have gone in and out of fashion several times since. At Disneyland they’ve lasted long enough to mature into the genuine thing.

Some say jungle plants are due back in popularity, and despite the recent drought, there has been more interest in big-leaved exotics like bananas and gingers in the last few years.

Although weather like what we’ve had this summer is what most people think of when they picture a jungle, most of the jungle plants we grow really don’t need that much humidity or water.

Many of the plants are actually quite drought tolerant despite their jungle looks. Some, such as bananas, giant bird-of-paradise, ficus and philodendrons, get along with very little irrigation. Note how many grow in gardens around town that have been all but abandoned.

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The Disneyland jungle is watered every night, from high above, with sprinklers hidden in the tops of the trees. There are a lot of plants packed into a very little space, which is why they are watered so frequently, though they are now on a water budget, according to Karen Hedges, who directs garden maintenance at Disneyland.

Evans readily admits to a long romance with jungle plants (though trees of all kinds are his first love). His father, an avid gardener and later a nurseryman, was the first to bring many into California, including the first hybrid bougainvillea, the coral trees that line San Vicente in Santa Monica (all of them came from three cuttings started by Evans), even hibiscus.

Bill Evans learned the ropes in the 1930s at his father’s pioneering nursery, Evans and Reeves, on Barrington in West Los Angeles. One of the more dramatic philodendrons bears the family name, Philodendron ‘Evansii.’

Trying to drum up business for the nursery’s rare and exotic plants, Bill and his brother Jack turned to landscaping so they could specify unusual plants on the plans. One of their clients was Walt Disney, who was building a home in the Holmby Hills in the early 1950s.

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Disney called the brothers again in 1954 to landscape Disneyland--his answer to The Pike in Long Beach (now-demolished) and other somewhat tawdry amusement parks.

“Walt wanted the landscape to set Disneyland apart from other parks,” Evans said, and they literally did so with a 20-foot landscaped berm that surrounds the park and cuts off the outside world.

The 2 1/2-acre Jungle Cruise was to be one of the highlights of the park and its lushest section. But it takes time for a jungle to grow, so at first they made do with some of the orange trees from the old grove, carefully picking off the oranges so no one would be the wiser, and covering them with fast-growing, tropical vines.

Large specimen-sized trees were not common then as they are today, so when the park opened on July 17, 1955, some of the tallest trees were actually huge limbs cut from an old pepper tree--which surprisingly took root and lived for several years.

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Other big trees were salvaged. The Santa Ana Freeway was pushing its way through old Orange County neighborhoods and the Evans brothers dug up all the big trees they could from in front of it, including some dramatic queen palms. The large ficus trees that shade the entrance to the Jungle Cruise are some of these redeemed trees.

Bill said they would have been happy with a canopy of foliage 30 feet tall, but with plenty of water and fertilizer and a kind climate, the plants grew quickly and today the jungle has a canopy of foliage at least 70 feet tall, as tall as the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House (an artificial rubber tree with manzanita branches and plastic leaves).

Cold is a consideration, and hidden in the center of one of the two islands (named Manhattan and Catalina) is a huge gas heater with propellers. It rises out of the ground and warms the jungle on chilly nights, though it is seldom used (it did pop up the night of the big freeze two years ago).

Advice for jungle builders:

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Which plants in particular give the ride its jungle look? And which will work in a back-yard jungle? Evans has his favorites and says that none of them is particularly rare or hard-to-find today, though at least one was brand new in ’54, when the jungle was first planted. Some, however, are quite big, so they may not fit in a would-be jungle maker’s back yard.

For those with very little room, almost all of these jungle plants are also good container plants. They are hardy enough to cold to grow even in the inland valleys, a few even in the high desert.

His favorites are the tupidanthus, a plant that is often confused with a schefflera, though it is a tougher, denser shrub (“with guts,” said Evans), perfect for jungle making. Evans introduced it to California, growing a thousand seedlings after he failed to interest other nurserymen. Today it is a common indoor and outdoor plant. One of the original plants makes a huge clump in Tomorrowland, and they are scattered throughout the Jungle Cruise .

Real jungles have several layers of plants--the tall canopy of trees, often filled with epiphytic orchids and bromeliads, then lower layers of palms and smaller trees, often covered in vines, and finally an under-story of shrubs and shade-tolerant plants. It is from this under-story that many of our common house plants originate because they can get by with so little light.

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For really big leaves in the under-story, Evans likes the cold hardy Philodendron selloum , with its three-foot leaves; elephant ears, and ensetes, which are bananas with the biggest of all leaves, some measuring 20 feet long by 4 feet wide.

Against these big leaves, Evans likes to contrast tall, narrow things like papyrus or bamboo, or the trunks of palms.

Palms are an important part of the canopy overhead, particularly the queen palm, though the prettiest are the Phoenix reclinata growing by the water’s edge on one bank.

“They look just like they do along the Zambezi River,” said Evans, who has visited quite a few real jungles. Bamboos are also a part of the canopy. The tallest is the giant Formosan bamboo, Bambusa oldhamii , now 60 or so feet tall. Bambusa beecheyana only gets to about 40 feet but it has tropical-looking leaves.

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Coral trees are another part of the Jungle Cruise canopy, but not recommended in back-yard jungles because they get so big. But the real jungle trees are the various exotic figs, the Ficus species.

Ficus retusa , another Evans introduction and now a common street tree, grows with its roots right in the water, just like in the tropics.

F. macrophylla is everywhere and many of these are making what are called aerial roots, a real jungle sight. These are roots that sprout from the branches and grow down to the ground. Most ficus will make them, given time and enough humidity.

F. macrophylla is much too big for gardens but Evans suggests a number of others, such as the big-leaved Ficus lyrata , F. nekbudu , F. roxburghii , or the plain old rubber plant, F. elastica .

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Thanks to these plants, what Evans calls his “reasonable facsimile” is, indeed, the best jungle in California, if not quite the Americas.


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