One of my life’s ambitions has always been to drive across country. This past June I received a phone call from my nephew, Donovan, asking me to accompany him back home from his school, California Polytechnic State University. For those of you who don’t know Cal Poly, it is located in San Luis Obispo County which is equidistant between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Donovan just finished his second year studying landscape architecture and to say that curriculum is challenging is an understatement. An institution whose educational accentuation is “Learn By Doing” has thrust it to an elite status, particularly in his field. His appreciation and appetite for plant material is as aggressive and veracious as my own.
After landing in one of tiniest airports ever, San Luis Obispo, I was treated to an In-N-Out double burger experience (animal style), had a quick tour of his university and visited the Leaning Pine Arboretum located on his campus. Display gardens which included Mediterranean, Californian, New Zealand, South African and Chilean plantings were humbling and proved, yet again, that no one can ever know it all. Majestic Canary Island Date Palm’s (Phoenix canariensis) were not only present in the arboretum but also lined the street outside Cal Poly’s football stadium. This tree encapsulated my predisposed vision of what California landscape would be like. Boy was I wrong! While palm trees may be what most of us conjure up to be as the postcard experience, California in fact has plant hardiness zones from 5b-10b (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map). That means they are colder than we are in parts of New Jersey and share Mediterranean climates as well. That’s a lot of plant diversity in one state.
Our trek took us from San Luis Obispo south to Los Angeles and finally heading east on the southern route. Along the way we passed Coastal Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) whose dominance in the landscape is noteworthy for its adaptability throughout widespread terrain. Native to the California Floristic Province, a biodiversity hotspot sharing a Mediterranean climate, this evergreen oak was gorgeous in all its forms found rolling across hillsides. One town in particular, Los Olivos, had quintessential examples of Coastal Live Oak and just weeks later was in the news as it was home to Michael Jackson and his Neverland Ranch. We found Serpentine rock; olive-green rock outcrops dotted along embankments which I was told by Donovan is toxic to many plants. High levels of nickel, chromium and cobalt prohibit many plants from growing. Chalk lettuce (Dudleya pulverulenta) however, is not one of those plants. Pushing forward posthaste, we found ourselves marveling at Joshua trees in the Mohave Desert. Not referencing the 1987 Irish rock band U2’s album, but rather the botanical wonder Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Known to grow at elevations of 2-6,000 feet, Joshua trees grow naturally in the Mohave Desert and are part of the Agavaceae family, a family which includes some 550-600 species, including agave, yucca and Joshua trees. Able to reach heights of 15-40 feet, Yucca brevifolia allegedly can only be pollinated by the Yucca moth. Neither the moth nor the tree are said to be able to live without one another. It is said that the tree got its name from Mormon pioneers who crossed the Mohave Desert in the 19th century. Their credence was the tree’s outline resembled the prophet Joshua holding his hands up in prayer. Others suggest it was a sign the prophet was waving them on. Growing at a blistering pace, by desert standards, of 3 inches a year for the first ten years and only 1.5 inches a year thereafter, you can begin to appreciate the tenacity of this beautiful tree. The trunk is made up of thousands of small fibers and lacks the annual, traditional “tree rings” we all remembering counting as kids. Joshua trees can live for hundreds of years with some specimens said to make a thousand.
Pushing through the micro climates of California we made our way to the Grand Canyon by sunset. An awesome experience to see shades of red, yellow and orange reflect off the canyon walls, we pressed on to Flagstaff, Arizona by day’s end. A brief visit to Meteor Crater outside Flagstaff, Arizona, the next day, provided us a glimpse of two of the most gorgeous Bristlecone Pines (Pinus aristata) you will ever see. We learned about petrified wood, which is nature’s way of making concrete. Buried wood through the ages has had water seep into decaying cavities with mineral matter until the outlined structure becomes solid stone. Adobe style architecture was framed with shining examples of Parry’s agave (Agave parryi) and the central plains states showed a preponderance of Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) that in reality was seen all across our southern route.
Ashville, North Carolina proved to be the highlight of the trip, however. For years I have heard and read about the famous Biltmore Estate. America’s largest home, a mere 175,000 square feet, is embedded within the picturesque mountains of North Carolina on some 8,000 acres. George Washington Vanderbilt II built the chateauesque style manor and welcomed his guests for the first time in 1895. While the sheer architecture and scope of this project is jaw dropping, for a self professed plant geek like me, it was the gardens that left me speechless. The ambition and fiscal ability to build such a property is one thing, but to have the foresight to surround yourself with some of the greatest minds of your time to ensure that future generations can appreciate your work is mind boggling. One such mind was the “father of American landscape architecture” Frederick Law Olmsted. Famous for another famous landscape, New York’s Central Park, Olmsted’s vision at the Biltmore Estate was not to satisfy the itch of that time, but rather allow Biltmore’s gardens the opportunity to grow and come to fruition some 100 years later. The Rampe Douce, French for a double staircase, the terrace, Italian Garden, Walled Garden, Conservatory and Bass Pond and Lagoon were all favorites. However, memories that I will never forget include swinging from a Japanese Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus), monkeying around in a grove of bamboo, standing inside an oriental spruce (Picea orientalis) admiring the bark of a tree standing some 100 feet and finally, appreciating a Red Vein Maple (Acer rufinerve) a tree I had never heard of. Yes, Olmsted is king!
From emerald green vineyards, turquoise blue ocean and amber fields of grain that San Luis Obispo afforded us at the onset of our trip, to the Adobe style architecture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, through the central plains states and finally to the east coast, there is a rich diversity of plant material afforded to all of us in our country. Passing through a modern marvel of interior landscape architecture on our trip, the Gaylord Opryland Hotel was impressive. However, you can’t dismiss the efforts of planning and allowing the natural beauty of what was there to grow. Our country is filled with botanical wonderment and awe inspiring landscapes. As my years pass I will no doubt remember the idea of the Prophet Joshua welcoming us to the Mohave Desert, but I’m sure to remember the ideals of George Vanderbilt II and Frederick Law Olmsted which I interpreted as honor your past, build thoughtfully for today and protect for the future.