Saturday, October 3, 2009

Falling for Fall...well, sort of


The heat waves of the past month have produced a semi-deciduous forest. The leaves pictured here belong to the native bay tree (Umbellularia californica) - also known as 'pepperwood', 'California laurel' and, in Oregon, 'Oregon myrtle', or simply myrtle. This is NOT the leaf found in the store that is sold as a bay leaf (Laurus nobilis). This is yet another late summer drought strategy to reduce the surface area transpiring ever-dimensioning moisture supplies. The lane that leads to my house is littered after a strong wind with needles of the redwoods and the leaves of bay trees. But many needles and leaves remain in this evergreen forest.

We do have leaf fall in my neck of the woods. It’s just a few: the native horse chestnut (Aesculus californica), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), wild currants (Ribes spp.), spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis), and maple (Acer macrophyllum). The colors appear washed out or muddy if there is too much heat. A cool, late summer will make the maples glow yellow against a dark-green evergreen forest. The horse chestnut loses all its shriveled-up brown leaves a month or two before the chance of rain as a drought-protective “strategy”. The only bright and clear colors come from the poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) snaking up a Douglas fir or Coast oak, with the most vibrant reds and oranges of any other native plant around my house.

Back in the ‘70s I was experimenting with friends on wild, native, and lesser-known edibles. We skinned the bay fruit, slit the seed’s skin, extracted the nut and proceeded to cook it in a pan until almost a coffee substitute. Tasted “interesting”. It seemed to be only a last-ditch survival food. Little did we know that some lists and books consider the California bay tree to be a toxic plant. This includes the leaves that we so naively used as a free substitute in a sauce for spaghetti – long before it was called “pasta”.

Except for this uncontrollable twitch, I seem fine. So it probably didn’t effect me.


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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Carnival of Trees




Some horticulturists exhibit superior technical skill. Others possess monumental drive. A very few manifest pure art. Axel Erlandson, a 20th-century visionary who sculpted trees into never-before-seen shapes, combined all of these traits. This retired surveyor and nurseryman literally bent nature to his will, creating a body of work unrivaled in the history of horticulture. Over a 20-year period, Erlandson grafted, shaped and pruned 70 trees on a quarter-acre lot in Scott's Valley, California, into the most amazing shapes. In time, this fantastic collection came to be known simply as "The Tree Circus." Legacy or lunacy? Serious horticulture or pure theater? It's all in the eye of the beholder.

It's hard to describe what Erlandson actually did with trees. Although he used grafting on occasion, his Fellinisque forms also required careful bending, shaping and tying to armatures. He used pleaching (plaiting or interlacing limbs, usually to form arbors) to join together many parts of each living sculpture into a single fabulously-patterned tree. The word topiary applies to clipped and shaped foliage, but here the foliage grows mostly above the main "composition" of limb and trunk. His techniques defy neat classification.

In his early 40s, he began a hobby sculpting living trees. In 1946, due to the promise of developing a roadside attraction and a more hospitable climate along the coast, he and his wife Leona moved 75 miles west. Erlandson barerooted and transplanted nine "living sculptures", the fruits of 20 years' work in Turlock, to new land in Scotts Valley.

The collection was dubbed the "Tree Circus" by Erlandson's daughter Wilma after listening to the comments of guests. Her father devoted himself full-time to his trees, and never put off a visitor He draped sheets to isolate each tree for photographs.

How Erlandson trained the trees is mostly based upon the recollections of a few contemporaries and horticultural deduction, as he jealously guarded his "trade secrets." In Scotts Valley he started many specimens behind a privacy fence, and each grafted or pleached union was wrapped in cloth bandages, not only to protect the healing wound from the sun but to conceal his technique.

Erlandson died virtually broke. From 1947 through 1963 only about 1500 visitors came through in a good year." Though he tried to sell the place in the last few years, he never trained anyone in his methods. A year later, he put up a sign inviting visitors to "See the World's Strangest Trees Here."

Hearing that a developer planned to clear the trees, nurseryman Michael Bonfante purchased them in 1985, and 30 of the healthiest specimens were boxed up and transported to Bonfante's Tree Haven Nursery. Now a horticultural “Amusement Park” near Gilroy, CA. (Some of the 28 which survived the move are pictured here.) Bonfante has replanted these rarest of trees in an amusement park slated for a neighboring parcel, hopefully the final home for the last living "performers" in Axel Erlandson's Tree Circus.


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Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Spread of Lavender










These are photographs of the Cloisters in New City and the outside the present-day Abbey of Senanque, Near Gordes, Provence. Tucked away in the background of the Cloister’s gardens is a lavender plant. This authentic reconstruction of an Abbey, including the food and medicinal gardens. This lavender is often referred to as “English” lavender. It is associated with England with the large industry that once carpeted England’s agricultural lands.

This species of lavender (more accurately Lavandula angustifolia.) never originated in England. It’s true “modern” –see below- origins are from far away in the upper altitudes of the southern Alps in France. In the “regionale” of Provance.

As mentioned in my book The Lavender Garden, on a special sale on my web site, “In spite of over 2500 years of recorded use, the origins of lavender are shrouded in mystery. Some varieties of the plant are thought to have first been domesticated in Arabia. It may then have traveled with Greek traders of around 600 BC to what are now the Hy√®res Islands on the southern coast of France, from whence it spread to the areas now known as France, Italy, and Spain.” (All a matter of great discussion. Let me know what you think is the early history, origins of lavender.)

The botanical name comes from the Latin word for "to wash". The Romans used it to disinfect their baths. Some think it is most likely the Romans brought it with them when they conquered England. The medicinal gardens of various Monasteries and Abbies incorporated “English” lavender into their plantings. The common names of various species named after countries, especially English and French, are at least ambiguous – if not flat wrong. Knowing the Latin name is the only way to be 100% sure you have the correct variety. The medicinal lavender is only Lavandula angustifolia, not the inferior lavandines such as “Grosso”pictured on the left. It is really Lavandula X intermedia “Grosso”.

Some of the medicinal uses of Lavandula angustifolia by the monks include: anti-spasmolytic, antiseptic, carminative powers, restlessness, insomnia, nervous stomach irritations, Roehmheld's syndrome, meteorism, nervous intestinal discomfort, and lack of appetite

The Cloisters in NYC are a testament to empire-building and religious-herbal gardens for the spread of this favored herb.

(NOTE: If you go to the Cloisters, be prepared for a huge surprise. The buildings are surrounded by many busy streets on two sides. The photos never prepare one for the intense din surrounding this former holy place.)


Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert