God's Dirt

Carlsbad's fields of flowers that drive folks wild

Ranunculus need a mild winter climate and sandy soil.
  • Ranunculus need a mild winter climate and sandy soil.

The people who grow the flowers overlooking the freeway in Carlsbad did something last spring that diverged from San Diego floricultural tradition: they encouraged the public to come onto the growing grounds. An estimated 125,000 people responded between March and early May of 1994, and upon many of them the ranunculus flowers cast an eerie spell. According to one of the women who sold bouquets there, a steady stream of mentally disturbed individuals were drawn to the site. "They would just sit and look and when they left, they seemed a lot calmer."

Edwin Frazee: “We burned the house down when we was kids [in 1924]. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.”

Edwin Frazee: “We burned the house down when we was kids [in 1924]. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.”

Other visitors shed inhibitions. The bouquet-seller, for instance, recalls one teenager who somehow sneaked in when the fields were supposed to be closed. He disregarded the plastic tape set up to protect the rows of plants, “And you could see this head bobbing up and down. He was literally having a field day, running through the blooms.... When people get to the top of the hillside, they just go crazy. They see the view and they think, ‘I have these flowers; they’re all around me, and nobody will tell me I can’t do this.’ ”

Ranunculus blossoms. It’s possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet.

Ranunculus blossoms. It’s possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet.

I was among the ranunculus visitors last spring, and although I stayed on the path and observed all the rules, I could see how the flowers might induce an altered state. There’s something surrealistic about the scale and the stark geometry of the plantings. The scene forces a constant shifting of focus. You look at the ball-shaped ranunculuses close to you, tight masses of ruffled petals borne two feet above the ground on slender stalks and saturated with a color so pure, so absolute, that it shocks your eyes. But your gaze is also drawn outward, across the acres, to where the hues fuse into something a bit more muted but grander.

Out of the 51 acres devoted to the flower last year, workers extracted roughly 10 million of the spidery tubers.

Out of the 51 acres devoted to the flower last year, workers extracted roughly 10 million of the spidery tubers.

Walking amidst those glowing colors feels cinematic, Oz-like. But no cartoonish Munchkins intrude. The sea breeze and the warm sun and the smell of the earth reign here.

The ranunculus growers noted the public’s enthusiastic response last year — more than 30,000 bouquets were sold, and more packages of ranunculus bulbs were purchased than at any other single location in the country. This year the growers are expanding the welcome — setting up two flower stalls instead of one, offering tours. Ranunculus T-shirts will be hawked, along with children’s gardening kits. Agri-tourism appears to be on the brink of rescuing a more than 60-year-old San Diego County institution.

Mike Mellano: "We taped the field and put up signs asking people not to go into the fields. And we put someone out there patrolling."

Mike Mellano: "We taped the field and put up signs asking people not to go into the fields. And we put someone out there patrolling."

Also crucial to the rescue has been a 77-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident named Edwin Frazee. It’s quite possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet. Over the years he’s visited those who have grown the flower overseas — in Australia, in South Africa, in Israel. But for many years he was the only commercial ranunculus bulb grower in North America. Had the crop vanished from San Diego County — as it seemed destined to do two years ago — it would have survived within his heart and his profusion of memories.

John Stickles got to observe how the ground must be soaked, so that the bulbs come out spongy and swollen and pliable. Then they must be dried.

John Stickles got to observe how the ground must be soaked, so that the bulbs come out spongy and swollen and pliable. Then they must be dried.

He can remember when he first saw ranunculus planted — probably the first ever to grow in San Diego County. The year was 1922. Edwin had been born the second child and first son of a farmer named Frank (“He grows lima beans,” Edwin’s birth certificate declared of the father). By the time Edwin was five, Frank Frazee was sharecropping English peas for a horticulturist named Luther Gage, who’d moved down from Montebello to a ten-acre site between Tamarack and Chinquapin avenues (just west of where the I-5 freeway runs today). Besides the peas Frank tended. Gage also planted several varieties of flowers. “They had some little beds of ranunculus, about three by ten feet long,” Edwin Frazee recalls. “Had ’em covered, and you had to go water them by hand. When Luther Gage was gone, my dad went over there each day or twice a day and watered the seed with the little sprinkling can.”

Eric Larson:  “Ranunculuses tend not to work well in arrangements.”

Eric Larson: “Ranunculuses tend not to work well in arrangements.”

Edwin’s family lived on a section of the old Agua Hedionda Ranch in what is now eastern Carlsbad, in a house owned by a distant relative. “I can remember going out to get the cows in the morning to bring them in to milk. I was six years old.” Edwin conjures up those days. “I’d get up just at daylight. Boy, everything looked so different in the early morning, when there’s still dew on the ground. You could see where all the quail laid their eggs and see the little quail hatch and where all the rabbits were and where the roadrunners had put their feet up in the cactus. I knew where every flower was on that ranch out there. Where the sweetest violets were and where the wild onion grew and the chocolate lilies. All my early life was spent out there, studying mother nature.”

Catastrophe interrupted that life one day in 1924; Frazee narrates the tale in an offhanded manner. “We burned the house down when we was kids. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.” His sister was nine, he was seven, and there were two smaller brothers, five and three. “We were fixing some lunch at the old kerosene stove and got the wick turned up too high and caught the paper behind the stove in the fire. There was no water out there; we hauled the water from Carlsbad. And no electricity, just living out there like these Mexicans live.” As the fire raged, the children dragged the family’s possessions — an old sewing machine, a phonograph, the mattresses off the beds, the dresser drawers — out the door, then they began the several-mile walk to the field down near Jefferson and Las Flores where their parents were picking cucumbers that day. “We got there in the afternoon, and we hid in the back of the old Model T Ford. The folks come in about dark, they asked us what we were doing.” By the time the family got back, they discovered that the fire had caught all the items the children has wrestled outside. “Only thing we had left was the clothes on our backs. Nothing to eat,” Edwin recalls.

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