Carpinteria: Grower Cultivates a Reputation for the Unusual


Most avid gardeners--the kind who will walk a mile for a Michelia champaca--have some "secret source" where they find exciting and unusual plants that they hope no one else has.

One such source is Robert Abe's Chia Nursery in Carpinteria. Several really good gardeners have told me that Chia is where they found some exotic plant I was admiring in their gardens.

Chia is a cutting-edge grower, specializing in unusual, Mediterranean-climate plants. It supplies upscale retail nurseries like Burkard, Hortus, San Gabriel, Roger's Gardens and Marina Del Rey Garden Center.

Chia grows unusual things like a truly amazing Hebe from New Zealand named 'Silver Beads' that has wiry black stems with precisely arranged triangular silver leaves that are only about an eighth of an inch long. It's so striking in a pot that it looks as if it were bought at a gallery, not a nursery.

Unlike most growers, Chia is open to the public. You can shop there on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (but don't expect wholesale prices).

Owner Robert Abe is a third-generation California nurseryman. His grandfather, Tsuruhiko Abe, started a nursery in 1947 in Gardena, where he grew general ornamentals like boxwood, nandina and junipers. His son Lewis soon joined him, and much later Abe Nursery moved to Carpinteria.

Under Robert's father, they grew pittosporums, bamboos and general ornamentals, "though we always grew something that was a little off the wall," said Robert, such as rare cycads.

Naturally, Robert was expected to go into the family business. Even as a kid, he helped out on weekends, and after getting his ornamental horticulture degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1980, he began working at the nursery full time.

When drought hit the Santa Barbara area in the late 1980s, he started rethinking the nursery business and his role in it. Why are so many nurseries growing plants that need so much water, fertilizer and pesticide? Why not grow plants that make sense in our climate? "What a concept!" he thought to himself.

"There was an old friend of the family, August Grimm, who ran a nursery in Santa Barbara back in the '30s, and he kept pointing out plants and saying, 'Now look at this plant. It doesn't need much water, yet it blooms all the time,' and I started thinking, 'Why aren't we growing things like that?' " Abe said.

Unable to nudge the family business in that direction, he struck out on his own, taking over the lease of nearby Daryl's Exotic Plant Nursery. Abe named his new nursery Chia, after the native wildflower with the nutritious seeds, Salvia columbariea.

Abe traveled up and down the state, looking for likely plants and visiting gardens and other growers, like Native Sons and Wintergreen in Northern California. That was 1992, and Abe has been propagating and raising interesting plants ever since.

Although he is always finding something new, he listed some recent favorites:

* Westringia 'Smoky' is a small shrub found by nurseryman Gary Hammer. It has tiny leaves with a misty look that is hard to describe but striking--actually attributable to gray hairs on the backs of leaves that wrap around the edges.

* Cestrum 'newellii' is one of the Mexican cestrums that bloom mostly in winter. The flowers are tube-like, appear inflated and are a shocking purplish red. Leaves are also reddish on this 6-foot (or more) shrub.

* Frankenia thymifolia was growing as a tiny, thyme-like ground cover in a friend's succulent garden. Needless to say, this grayish plant is drought-tolerant.

* Geranium harveyii is a true geranium, not a pelargonium. It stays under a foot tall, and has small gray leaves and orchid flowers. Abe is a fan of the hardy geraniums and grows many. Another favorite is 'Ann Folkard,' with its chartreuse leaves.

* Pelargonium cordifolium is what people call a geranium, but this one is quite unlike many of the others with its big, heart-shaped leaves. It can be used as if it were a small landscape shrub. Nice pinkish flowers, no bugs and drought-tolerant too.

* Juncus 'Oaxaca' is a Mexican rush with unusual, light green leaves that reach 4 feet tall. It's really showy and prefers growing near or in very shallow water.

* Plectranthus forsteri 'Aureus Variegatus' is one of six plectranthus Abe is growing that are great in dry shade, one of the most difficult landscaping situations. This one is handsomely splashed with yellow.

Abe said he wishes he could grow only these kinds of exciting new plants, but 80% of his business is to retail nurseries, which most often want nothing more adventuresome than purple lantana.

Abe will need to move the nursery this winter (he'll probably have some blowout sales in September). He's still looking for a new location where he can continue to sell to home gardeners. He's even thinking of selling directly to gardeners though the mail, so he can concentrate on growing only the neatest stuff.

* Until the move, you can visit Chia from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and make it your secret source: 6380 Via Real (the eastern frontage road alongside the 101, just north of town), Carpinteria. (805) 684-3382.

* Robert Smaus' column is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail

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