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Looking for the Natives: A Treasure hunt in Los Angeles

by Ann Semaan Beisch
photographs by Ann Semaan Beisch

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 87, January 2017

In this article, Ann Semaan Beisch takes a look at how the attitude that native Californian plants are unworthy as subjects for botanic gardens has been changing in response to the long period of drought gripping the state. She finds that at last their value is being acknowledged.

Ann writes: By looking at the different histories of a few of our local renowned gardens, and the very recent re-emergence of native plants in those gardens, not only will one experience a California landscape, but one will better understand the six-year drought that has plagued us so dramatically.
… a severe water shortage requiring water rationing, a turnaround in public landscape design to include water conservation, native and drought-tolerant plants and public awareness that our gardens and their maintenance must change, the disregarded California native is slowly coming back into favour, vivid, showy and racy in its exuberance.  Finding these plants is a challenge worth meeting.

One of her examples is the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens.

Ann writes: In another part of the story of the extermination of native plants by gardeners there is the Huntington. In 1903 Henry Huntington, a successful railroad industrialist, developer and urban transportation visionary, purchased the 600-acre San Marino Ranch. He proceeded to develop on about half of a 207-acre parcel the stately and magnificent gardens that would become the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. Huntington’s head gardener and kindred spirit, William Hetrich, writes in his 1949 memoirs, The Huntington Botanical Gardens, 1905-1949: Personal Recollections, that the first order of business in implementing his employer’s large vision for the land and large budget to carry it out was to study the lie of the land, clear the grounds in preparation for roads, pathways and fences, develop a grand-scale nursery for the massive planting of flora from around the world, and install commercial groves of fruit trees. Within this evolving landscape and commercial farming development, the only native plants that were preserved were the California Engelmann oak, Quercus engelmannii and coast live oaks, Q. agrifolia. ……To sum up, The Huntington has more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in just over a dozen special gardens and collections on its formal, manicured and magnificent grounds and in each case, until 2013, native plants were not really included, let alone showcased.

In the completed 2015 renovation of the Huntington, natives have been welcomed back and even celebrated as they are among the newly planted drought-tolerant species of the formal entrance garden on the stately campus. The design philosophy employed in the development of this whole location and garden by the San Francisco landscape architectural firm of Cheryl Barton (O/CB) captures the essence of the future California garden. The O/CB Design for Huntington Education and Visitor Center states, “Employ the entire site including the parking lot to showcase the future of California built landscapes that can be inviting and visually lush as well as water-responsible”. In an especially vibrant and stylised layout one finds Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis, to name a few, amazing in their welcome. 

The "formal" native planting in the new, 2015, development at The Huntington

Another view of the "formal" native planting

Natives in pots at Huntington

Less formal native planting

Another view of the less formal native planting

A Californian native, Our Lord’s Candle, Hesperoyucca whipplei

A Californian native, Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
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