City to replace topiary dolphins

Driving down Coast Highway in Newport Beach, travelers know they have reached Corona del Mar when they pass by a pod of topiary dolphins — or are they manatees?

The iconic plant sculptures have grown past the point of remedy, their sleek shapes no longer as clear as they once were, explained Corona del Mar Business Improvement District Chairman Bernie Svalstad.

Leaf-trimming couldn't save the creatures; no specialty pruner could be found. So the city has stepped up to replace them.

"It's very, very difficult to get them back to the original shape unless you're like an Edward Scissorhands," said Kathy Sommer, a horticulturalist who works with the city on plant healthcare issues.

Sommer lives just blocks from the dolphins and has been chiding the city for years about snouts grown too round and dorsal fins disappearing, she said.

Newport Beach plans to spend just under $8,000 for the replacements, which take more than half a year to grow. Another $5,000 will go toward landscape median improvements.

The concept will remain the same. Abandoning the dolphin form was out of the question, Svalstad says.

A school of 12 in all, the leafy mammals leap toward each other, six diving from either highway median at the intersection with Marguerite.

The dolphins have become a part of the fabric of the Corona del Mar community since their conception roughly 20 years ago.

"It just seemed to be part of that community. The community seemed to be part of the dolphin life," said Don Glasgow, who co-founded the Corona del Mar Business Improvement District. "There was a really good relationship."

The topiaries were the brainchild of Patti McDonald, a real estate agent who often did volunteer work, Glasgow said.

He helped her to bring the concept to life, paying $2,100 for a specialty topiary grower to create the dolphin shapes. The same grower will likely be used to create the new ones, Sommer said.

Many memories now stem from the icons, said Linda Leonhard, president of the Corona del Mar Chamber of Commerce, who receives messages about them often.

Once a car knocked a dolphin over. A city arborist came to investigate whether the plant had died. It ended up growing back, Leonhard said, but a worried resident sent an anonymous donation to pay for a new one in case it did not.

A group of seniors called "the dolphin mothers" decorate the plants for holidays, with the exception of St. Patrick's Days, when an unknown group adorns the creatures with green top hats.

"I think everyone's just kind of adopted them one way or another over the years," Councilman Ed Selich said.

Still, Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, who represents the area, recalled meeting one resident during her campaign who offered to vote for her if she got rid of the plants.

"So not everybody loves them, but I think most people do," she said with a chuckle.

The aged topiaries will swim onward — likely to new homes through an auction or a sale — when the younger pod arrives this fall.

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