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San Diego landscape: brutal eucalyptus and ridiculous palms

In the land of shared guilt

The Cabrillo Freeway (163) that runs through Balboa Park was one of the first of two landscaped freeways in the state (the other was the Pasadena Freeway).
  • The Cabrillo Freeway (163) that runs through Balboa Park was one of the first of two landscaped freeways in the state (the other was the Pasadena Freeway).

The first ones were planted in California in 1856, according to the Sunset Western Garden Book. The word eucalyptus comes from the Greek eu, good, and kalypto, to cover — as in a lid. This refers to the septals and petals in each tree, which fuse into a cap that falls off when the flower opens. Good-cover aptly describes what eucalyptus have been used for in the West. They grow everywhere, even if no one told them to. They were brought here for railroad ties, and failing that, they flourished. Over 50 species are listed in the Sunset book, and Elizabeth MacPhail's book on Kate Sessions (Pioneer Horticulturist) gives the mother of San Diego horticulture credit for popularizing a dozen different species. Local eucalyptus trees range from great beauties to filthy beasts. Any way you look at it, there's way too many of them.

We are a community that lacks what Tom Ham, senior landscape architect for Caltrans, calls an "intelligent force" that can direct our landscaping.

We are a community that lacks what Tom Ham, senior landscape architect for Caltrans, calls an "intelligent force" that can direct our landscaping.

A couple of years back I knew a big old cladocalyx (sugar gum) patriarch in Old Town State Park that once gave up a limb large enough to wipe out a group of European tourists. The tree dropped its load in the early morning, scaring nobody but the feral cats and gray bunnies that take over the place while we sleep. Less than six months after the limb dropped, a horde of tree-trimmers were out there armed with chainsaws and snorkel lifts; like a bunch of gas-powered beavers on stilts, they chopped the crap out of the tree.

Coburn mentioned that he had a meeting, but as he warmed to the discussion of the psychological powers of plants, the meeting disappeared.

Coburn mentioned that he had a meeting, but as he warmed to the discussion of the psychological powers of plants, the meeting disappeared.

Eucalyptus is frigging everywhere in malevolent glory; our climate is a steroid tonic for most species. Landscape architects from down under are astounded by the size and scope of their brethren here; as exotics in California, the trees do stuff they'd never dare back home. Species of Eucs that would be in scrubby little mallees in Australia become hulking brutes here.

Until recently, there were no predators to weaken the Australian transplants. But the eucalyptus longhorn beetle got a visa in 1984 and began boring away. The beetle became so successful that citizens of Rancho Santa Fe hired entomologists to bring in a hired killer from Australia (a wasp) to lessen the destruction. (Unfortunately, it's not working.)

People love eucalyptus trees; they're the most widely planted non-native trees in California and Arizona. Here in San Diego, they form the top of the floral canopy, infecting the skyline, barely leaving room for the occasional tall palm or fellow Aussies like melaleuca (they're like giant bottlebrush trees). Blue gums (E. globulus) will do 100 feet; Manna gums (E. viminalis ) will clear 100 feet; cladocalyx are in the 100-foot range. I like the damn things, but I think there's room in this city for botanical diversity.

Other species of tree are represented throughout the county: liquidambar, jacarandas, magnolias, pines, cedars, ficus, peppers, corals, ashes, alders, olives, pittosporums, poplars, willows, boxes, and that hideous in-betweener, the cypress/juniper, which sprouts like a giant green phallus. Almost anything will grow in San Diego, and therefore almost everything does. But we have our favorites. The popular ones are that way because they make swell fences and require little attention.

If there's a single plant that'll send me over the edge, it's oleander. No good reason for a Nerium oleander in every third yard in San Diego, but look around and you'll find one. They're one of the dominant flowering plants visible as you drive the canyons. Come down the grade on I-15 from Escondido to North County Fair, and they form a flowering wall between the northbound and southbound lanes. Drive down San Diego Avenue or walk through the state park, and you'll see them turned into flowering trees. There's an impressive group along the eastern shoulder of 805 north, from Balboa up to 52. People like them so much that horticulturists developed a dwarf version.

If you're looking for cheap botanical thrills, oleanders have many desirable qualities. They're tolerant of almost anything -- heat, drought, bugs, bad soil, bad care, savage pruning (Caltrans must beat the oleanders on I-15 into submission with a mutant lawnmower), fire, earthquake, pestilence.... They're cheap, and they have flowers that come in white, red, pink, and shades in between. Oh yeah, they're poisonous, too. I remember when my father warned me about oleander toxicity with a story about a little girl who died after she ate the pretty pink flowers. He told me with disdain in his voice, like, "Don't be stupid and eat shit that you know nothing about." He'd found out I liked to eat the berries off the Catalina cherry bush, and he feared I'd go for oleanders next.

We've become so habituated to certain plants that we can't see them anymore. Palms are like that; they don't stand out because they've been stereotyped by regularity. We crop them, cut their gray frond skirts off so we can see their naked trunks. Unlike the Victorians, who were known for covering piano legs with fabric because it was considered risqué to leave legs (inanimate or not) uncovered, we like to expose the trunks of our Mexican fan palms. Some would say it's because vermin live in the fronds, but I'd bet it has more to do with the South Pacific and our desire to be around coconut palms. Coconut palms don't grow well here -- too cold in winter -- so we turn Washingtonia robusta into a fruitless equivalent.

The San Diego Historical Society houses a set of photographs that occupy the back wall of their research archives. The series marks the beginning of the palm era, giving a visual lesson in downtown's landscape history. I spent an afternoon trying to figure out when a specific palm, a Canary Island palm ( Phoenix canariensis), was planted and by whom. The photos, blown up to several feet, show a view of downtown looking across Beech and Ash streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues. The first picture is from 1873, then one in 1888, 1904, 1929, 1972, and one from 1990. According to the photos, the palm was planted sometime between 1888 and 1904 at what is now 620 A Street. And it's still there, only now, instead of standing proudly alone in front of the ginger cottage, it's surrounded by surly office buildings.

I assume the Canary palm was willfully planted, but many of the more common California fan palms are volunteers. One of those rare native trees, California fan palms will also grow anywhere. A crack in the sidewalk is a favorite spot for propagation. They're in the center dividers along our freeways, growing at the base of the J-wall. I've seen them growing on top of bushes; I've seen them grow out of the sewer. People know they're palms, so they leave them to struggle on, no matter how ridiculous the scenario. My neighbors have a nice one growing out of the center of their lawn. Unplanned and uncared for, the palm continues to grow, gracing an otherwise indifferent sod landscape.

If you talk to people who love plants, who live plants, they tend to be stuck in their own gardens; the only reason they look outside is to promote their own views. We are a community that lacks what Tom Ham, senior landscape architect for Caltrans, calls an "intelligent force" that can direct our landscaping. If it doesn't grow without the help of thought, then it wasn't meant to be. In Texas, Ham says, people have the same attitude. "If God didn't put it there, then it wasn't meant to grow."

Ham grew up with a foot in two cultures; his dad's from Texas, mom's from the Philippines. He's sort of a jungle cowboy: he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt when I met him, and a pair of cowboy boots stood by his office door. (The boots were a gift from a maintenance worker who found them on a pedestrian overpass next to a pair of pants and a load of shit. The tagger they belonged to left in a hurry, and now the boots, which happened to be Ham's size, have a new owner.)

In his travels as a Caltrans employee, Tom's seen places that are worse than San Diego. In Gonzales County, Texas, for example, landscaping along the highway consists of a three-plant palette. Spaced 50 feet apart, planted by prison labor along the center median, endless miles of pampas grass, olive trees, and bottlebrush "delineate" the highway. An alternate arrangement, Ham and I agreed, might be olive trees in a row.

Ham said the Cabrillo Freeway that runs through Balboa Park was one of the first of two landscaped freeways in the state (the other was the Pasadena Freeway). This was back in 1948--49, when we were freer with our water spending. Parklike settings cost a lot of water; every canyon in San Diego can't be landscaped like the inland route downtown. Still, the road to Horton's Addition is a nice botanical accompaniment to San Diego's autoculture.

The sycamores planted in the grassy center median shade the road with their stature; near the Laurel Street Bridge, they're the dominant tree. You'll find a palm or two, some oaks, some shrubs mixed in. The Eucs are up on the sides, along with the pickleweed, the thick-fingered ice plant that's such a fixture on any highway landscaped before the droughts of the 1970s and '80s. That's when architects like Ham changed the way they did business.

Ground covers like pickleweed are heavy along the sides of these freeways. Pickleweed gained favor for its erosion-control benefits and its ability to bounce back when drivers sought alternate routes. Unfortunately, it no longer fits into Caltrans' low-water-use reality. Now you'll find Acacia redolens, lantana, prostate salvia, and shredded tree bark -- or the dry, brown grasses that take over when bulldozed hillsides are left fallow.

Drive the streets behind Mira Mesa High School, and the failure of planned landscaping is apparent. It goes back to the days when these houses were built, when giant tracts of homes were landscaped en masse. I mentioned this to Bruce Asakawa, who has a Western Gardening show Saturday mornings on KSDO. He reminded me that you don't have to go as far north as Mira Mesa; just look at Kearny Mesa or Clairemont.

Asakawa figured the cheapo development had its place in the postwar growth spurt that so affected San Diego. He hinted that today's buzz word is "sustainable landscaping," which, like the term "xeriscaping," naturalizes landscaping by using less water. What's natural for San Diego these days is sustaining sprawling growth. What we've actually sustained is the destruction of chaparral mesa after chaparral mesa. The day after we talked, I listened to Asakawa give good-natured advice to people with pet rhododendrons and azaleas. I turned the show off after an ad for Round-Up came on.

In 1974, the Marston family sponsored an advisory blueprint, written by landscape architects Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard, entitled "Temporary Paradise? A Look at the Special Landscape of the San Diego Region." Sent September 15, 1974, to then-director of the San Diego City Planning Department, James Goff, it detailed the lack of foresight driving city development and suggested remedies. Warning that Mira Mesa's growth was "too fast," they cautioned that the "people are unprotected from the sun. The plants struggle with drought and poor soil. The public spaces are barren; the resulting landscape is hot, arid, empty, and monotonous."

Wide streets and empty yards, dingy lawns, cypress and oleander if you're lucky, even the big Eucs dislike the lots in Mira Mesa. Blaming the people who live there is ridiculous. Inland development has bred problems that overwhelm our drought-challenged environment.

The emerging technologies for keeping plants alive with less water -- and getting plants that don't require as much water -- make all the difference. New buildings are landscaped with rock rose, acacias, salvia, sycamore trees, coreopsis, native irises, verbena, and tons of mulch. Drip systems that sense the moisture content of the soil, matched with small lawns, equals reduced water usage and better foliage. All this takes money, thought, and community leadership. But for many San Diegans, it's easier to get out the trailer, mount up the jet-skis, and get the hell out of Dodge. As Asakawa says, "People don't want to be tied to their yards."

Lynch and Appleyard knew that growth was unstoppable; they hoped to provide some overarching intelligence to mollify the land rape. They lamented the destruction of Mission Valley, a living example of the failure of 1950s thinking, and suggested that the city erect a historic monument to the event. The reduction of Mission Valley into "a chaos of highways, parking lots, and scattered commercial buildings" attacked the landscape of the city and bashed its economy.

Mission Valley also happens to be palm tree central. Hotels like the Hanalei, the Handlery, Holiday Inn, the Regency, Quality Inn, the Town and Country, and businesses along I-8 decorate with dozens of palms, mostly the Mexican fan palm, which lends a subtropical character to the region between I-5 and 163.

Ham told me that when he took a horticultural test for his degree, his teacher brought the class down to Old Town State Park because of the great diversity of palms. Canary Island palms majestically frame the buildings along San Diego Avenue, marking the Spanish-styled church at Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue like a sphinx guarding the entrance to a tomb. Watercolor painters match wits with the image; trees compete with the church for reverence and grace. Sadly, Ham reports, the trees have an incurable fungus, and many in the area are beginning to show signs of disease.

"The Palm Lady of La Jolla," Teresa Yianilos, claims that landscape architect Joe Yamada was the mastermind behind some of the most vicious palm-bashing this city has ever seen. Walter Anderson, Jr., who runs the landmark Anderson Nursery on Pacific Coast Highway, said he remembers a photograph in the San Diego Union , circa 1970, of Teresa standing on Harbor Drive between a bulldozer and a palm. According to Mrs. Yianilos, the era of the "northern climate advocate" began with the ascendancy (and, she says, monopoly) of the landscape architect firm Wimmer and Yamada. Harvard trained, Yamada was once awarded a prize for his design of Lindbergh field. In Yianilos's words, his school of design favored "no horticultural basis."

Harbor Drive, Yianilos's big bugaboo, isn't well regarded by many plant experts in San Diego. Besides Yianilos, Ham and Anderson both felt the ball was dropped when that area was landscaped. When visitors get off a plane from back East, the last thing they want to see is more stinking pines. Subtropical plants may not be any more "native," but they grow gloriously here, speaking a language closer to our southwest clime. For Yianilos, subtropicals are sacred totems honoring a link to our Kate Sessions-influenced past. "You can't have a botanical garden with just melaleuca and pine trees," she said.

We only have one "accredited" botanical garden in San Diego, our world-famous San Diego Zoo. When visitors come here, they're treated to 80 years of botanical affection. The roots of that green bonanza go back to the San Diego--Panama Exposition of 1915. Kate Sessions played a major role in this undertaking, as did Ernie Chew, who is also credited for doing much to improve the garden's splendor.

In the years before the 1915 Exposition, members of the San Diego Floral Association lobbied hard to get the citizens of San Diego to plant and beautify the city. They asked in November of 1913 why the "average lawmaker will spend thousands of dollars for salaries and expenditures for which we have nothing to show the following year, but he begrudges the few cents tax levy for park purposes."

The San Diego Floral Society's 1913 newsletter featured an interview with Sessions on the "tardiness of the residents of San Diego in preparing for the coming of Exposition visitors." Sessions noted that the 1912 "tree law" was accomplished, but no active work yet begun. "Street tree planting in San Diego is a more expensive piece of work than in many other places where the soil conditions are better. In consequence, the best work will progress slowly." The article ends by suggesting how the city could be quickly beautified and which plants should be used. "Lippia, geraniums, Phlox drummondii, pink and white oxalis, sweet allyssum, ice plant, Shasta daisy, gazena, petunias, heliotrope, English ivy, trailing lavender lantana and dwarf lantanas of separate shades, green and variegated vinca, roses, dahlias, penstemons, verbenas, pale blue morning glory, California poppy, shirley poppy, Baby Blue eyes, marigolds, dwarf zinnias, nasturtiums, statice, mignonette, portulacca, scarlet flax, gaillardias..." — these shrubs and flowers were the quick fix for the years before the Exposition.

We've lost Kate Sessions's sense of mission and style. We've lost the sense of community that allowed the editors of California Garden to suggest their readers "work in our gardens...with something of the elevation of mind that we should take into our churches.

"Straight commercialism is killing the inner garden spirit," the January 1914 editorial begins. "We of this period have commercialized everything and are paying the penalty....We don't know it, but we miss the heart of the garden; we are looking for the inner gate, but we pretend to think it is age they lack and go out and contract for an acre of cement walk, as something real solid to tie to."

Charles Coburn inhabits Sessions's old haunts at the San Diego Zoo. He started working there as a gardener in 1971. Now he's the senior horticulturist. His philosophy degree (one of many degrees) lends a thoughtful air to his assessments of San Diego's public gardens.

Coburn and his cadre of plant managers inhabit a small cinderblock building near the rear service entrance to the zoo. Next door is the orchid house, open the third Friday of each month. A meerkat exhibit fronts the road outside. Inside, the place is drunk with polyglot plantings of bromeliads, ferns, cactus, aloe, and some boring impatiens. The most interesting plant in the courtyard between the orchid house and the horticultural center is a manioc tree with hand-like leaves.

We sat in his office, a jungle of epidendrum orchids visible out the window. The poor man's orchid, they were donated to the zoo by some benefactor who'd encouraged the plants to grow over six feet tall. Their tiny red flowers formed a trail; they seemed to be marching up the wall of the building like a colony of ants. Coburn mentioned that he had a meeting, but as he warmed to the discussion of the psychological powers of plants, the meeting disappeared. The phone, however, rang incessantly.

"Planted spaces are extremely valuable to people," Coburn said, speaking with evangelical authority. "People are unconscious of plants, but they benefit from them in a big way."

Coburn thinks his best accomplishment to date has been making people more plant-aware. By displaying the unusual, the flowering, the scented, the power of combining plants and textures and colors, he has inspired the visiting public with possibilities for their own gardens. I admit that Tiger River, with its low-flow misters and lush jungle plantings, turned my head. I put a bunch of two-gallon-an-hour misters in my back yard, and under the spray I threw in a bunch of cymbidium orchids, bromeliads, hyacinths, epidendrums, fuchsias -- whammo: tropical paradise. I can run the things for hours without running up my water bill, and the overspray has done wonders for the banana trees, guavas, papyrus, honeysuckle, bamboo, a kapok tree, even some of the drought-tolerants like blue hibiscus and salvia.

Coburn's goal is to build an Asian contemplation garden that reflects the diversity of Southern California's cultures. To bridge the gaps, he's going to get local talent to help interpret the space. He wants to avoid plant identification tags, the Latin codes demanded by floral exhibits. Coburn knows of no other zoo that has tried to create such a garden, and he hopes future visitors will leave with something sustaining. Still, he's aware that a gulf exists between plant-aware people and the unenlightened multitudes. "People say, 'Well, so what?' In terms of plants, if you can relate to their health and their well-being -- economic and medicinal -- that's of some consequence, some interest."

For example, few people consider how they're going to landscape their homes when they buy; a yard is rarely the main factor determining a purchase. The vicious cycle -- uniform plant palette, copycat landscaping, economic reduction of nursery selection, uniform plant palette -- reigns over the good intentions of many a San Diego landscape architect.

"I can look at a car, its engine, and I just don't see it; I don't resonate to that. Whereas I can look at a landscape and I can feel it, I can see it, I can see how it's going to be, I can visualize it."

Not everyone has the talent to see how a planted space will grow. But Coburn knows that his talent, while unusual, is not impossible to teach.

"It's like a lot of things," says Coburn. "You have to start somewhere. Starting with the professionals is a viable way. Trying to help people understand how beautiful things could be, how much more pleasant in terms of shade cover, natural cooling, and flowers and scents...."

A click-on point happens when people realize they like gardening, and they go ape-shit planting their new friends. But the average guy sees super gardeners with their super gardens, and he throws his hands in the air.

"People have a fear of trying something new, a fear of failure, a fear of killing valuable plants, which is really unfortunate," says Coburn. "The attitude to be encouraged is, try to be responsible -- don't just kill them off, but try it and learn, and by and large, it'll pay off."

Coburn runs a topiary business where he sells expensive, sculpted plants. His clients, knowing what that leafy giraffe costs, become wary of touching their living statues. Plants need to be touched, fiddled with -- you've got to physically relate to them. They are, after all, alive.

I conquered my own brown thumb fears the hard way: by doing in lots of plants. A couple of years ago, I killed some kangaroo paws, bought from the Wild Animal Park no less, and the memory has prevented me from trying the fuzzy-headed flowers again. A glorious red salvia covers their grave now. But if you plant ten plants and four die, the other six will pay you back for the losses. The plants you kill are avenged by the ones that live.

My own jungle is attacking me now. Why I thought it would be a good idea to plant a coral tree escapes me. It's probably Tom Ham's fault: the first coral trees I saw in San Diego were planted by Caltrans on the western end of I-8, near I-5. Coral trees have a short lifespan in this climate. If you hack them back, they don't bloom too well. Keeping corals is like driving with the brakes on. They grow so big and so fast that they literally grow to death, splitting in half as their own weight breaks them. But don't worry if they die -- to make a new coral tree, all you have to do is cut off a good limb and shove it into some wet soil.

I think the druids have been guiding me, leading me deeper into their secret society of green-thumbed soothsayers, planting seeds in my unconscious. I had forgotten that I used to work in a building that belonged to Kate Sessions's nephew. About four years ago, Milton Sessions walked into the building at 2645 San Diego Avenue. He must have been 88 years old then. He explained how the rooms had been laid out for the flower shop, how he'd brought the architect back from Spain to design it authentically. I thought he was pulling my leg, but I listened politely. I even opened up the office to let him have a peek. Like his aunt's beloved black acacias, which line Rosecrans Boulevard in front of the Naval Training Center, that afternoon Milton Sessions was a dark old tree, standing unnoticed.

It doesn't surprise me that the trees have started speaking to me. Those eucalyptus, beaver-hacked and limb-dropping, contribute to my life with their convoluted beauty, their ivory trunks etched with graffiti cuts of recognition. I feel better knowing the ancient Eucs stand. Trees are our best hopes made real.

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