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A Trip to the Tropics

Who knew that a palm trunk could be thorny, or that a ficus leaf could be as long and wide as a surfboard? Douglas Himmelfarb, an Easterner who headed west to escape cold winters, has spent years pursuing such wonders.

The 1 1/2-acre garden around a Monterey Colonial house in Bel-Air that he shares with Ruth and Ella Hirshfield, two octogenarian sisters who grew up there, shows the breadth and height of his enthusiasms. In addition to at least 200 different palms and bushels of gardenias, magnolias, begonias and bromeliads, he has a plant that you can write on (the autograph tree), one with sticky sepals that can trap birds (the bird catcher) and a Chinese banana plant with giant golden flowers.

It’s hard to know where to look and how to take in all the strange, splashy, scented leaves and blooms as you follow Himmelfarb up and down stone steps and paths that cut through vines and dip past waterfalls on the hillside lot. He is forever plucking buds for you to sniff, cinnamon sticks to taste and handfuls of hard green coffee beans to marvel over. “Coffee is a gardenia relative,” he says, the kind of fact he loves because it illustrates the connected web of growing things. Here is a plant that landscape designers don’t use much, he says, lifting the brightly striped frond of a cordyline. “And you can buy it at Home Depot!”

The 53-year-old Himmelfarb always has been fascinated by the tropics. The scent of a prom date’s corsage sparked a lifelong crush on gardenias, which were an early theme of the garden he started in 1988 for his “second family,” the Hirshfield sisters, both impassioned plant lovers he met, serendipitously, at a flea market.

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“We’re very interested and enthusiastic about all Douglas’ plant collections, and we enjoy walking around among them so much,” says Ruth Hirshfield. “It was always lovely here, but it’s much more varied and colorful now with plants from all over the world.”

Their steep hillside property was ideal for the layered jungle-like landscape Himmelfarb had in mind. California live oaks and rustling palms shade an understory stuffed with philodendrons, anthuriums and strappy crinums. Microclimates abound: It can be warm, cool, humid or dry depending on the foliage and exposure.

Gardenias, from tree-sized to button-flowered dwarfs, thrive in the dappled light. “I do work at this,” he says, pointing out the speckled African gardenia that took three years to flower, and an African tree type that he babied for 10 years before it began to seed.

Because of rules restricting plant imports, it’s not always easy to replace a specimen that dies. Over the years, though, Himmelfarb has met nurserymen who import properly certified plants for him and keep an eye out for the trio’s favorites.

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“Our noses precede us in this respect. Fragrance is first, then color and texture,” Himmelfarb says. The scents of plumerias, fruity magnolias and honeyed jasmines all waft through casement windows from the garden. The main hues are green and red-hot, like those of the rustling cordylines, or Hawaiian ti plants, that surround the swimming pool.

As for texture, few plants can compete with the blooms of bromeliads, which splay from tree trunks, hang off slopes and explode out of pots. There is nothing neat about the way they flower, and nothing predictable. “If you buy one when it’s not in bloom, it’s hard to tell what will burst out of its center,” Himmelfarb says.

Unlike many Bel-Air gardeners, he isn’t bothered by spent flowers or leggy stems. “You don’t wear heels and a lace hat to my parties,” he says. “But if you’ve got a hula skirt, you’re in.”

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Resource Guide:

GARDENS, Pages 22-25: Douglas Himmelfarb’s favorite plant sources include Home Depot stores; Bird Rock Tropicals, Encinitas, (760) 436-3088 (for bromeliads); Bloomin’ Good Flowering Tree Nursery, Homestead, Fla., (305) 248-0818 (also for gardenias); Logee’s Greenhouses, Danielson, Conn., (888) 330-8038, www.logees.com (for an array of tropical and subtropical plants).


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