California - Stop Dreaming, Start Packing

John & family fulfil a long-held dream of visiting this palm paradise, on the USA West Coast.
John Woodhead, 2 Canton Close, Whitby, North Yorkshire, YO21 1LD, UK.
Chamaerops No.31 Summer 1998

Hot Spot: Washingtonia filifera, Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California

I have been very fortunate in the past to take family holidays in “palmy” areas such as Spain, Greece and France in the Mediterranean area and the Canary Islands. For some years it had been our desire, for a number of a reasons, to visit the West Coast of the U.S.A., in particular Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Members may recall Don Tollefson’s article “California Dreaming” in Issue 23 -Summer ’96 which gave an insight into four Californian gardens in that locality.
After reading his article and subsequently booking our “Fly/Drive” holiday I made contact with Ralph Velez and Pauleen Sullivan to arrange a convenient time to visit their “yards”.

In October we left Heathrow for Los Angeles and I had arranged to meet with Ralph on 11th October and Pauleen on 13th October. After having a brief word before leaving with our Editor, Martin, he suggested that I endeavour to visit Huntington Botanic Gardens in L.A. which has an outstanding collection of palms.
After an extremely boring flight (as they all are) and settling into the motel, I set off for Pasadena/San Marino the following day whilst other members of our party when to Disneyland!

With camcorder at the ready, and after paying the princely sum of $5, I explored “Huntington”. Martin was right, the collection of palms was outstanding and they were located in an excellent setting, not too close together but just right.

I spent about four hours in the garden but time was running out and I had to visit Ralph Velez some fifty miles south in Westminster (no there isn’t a Big Ben there!). An hour later, I reached Westminster and from some distance away it was clearly evident which resident in the neighbourhood was a palm fanatic. Ralph’s plot has literally taken over, that is the highway verges and other gardens in his cul-de-sac. There is barely a square foot on his patch that has not been planted with a palm. The tallest, as you would expect, are the Washingtonia’s closely followed now by many other varieties. The highway verge adjacent contains many interesting varieties but the poorest specimen, I thought, was unfortunately a Trachy, Trachycarpus martianus, which Ralph said had been in the ground many years but had grown very slowly indeed with a trunk height now no more than four feet (perhaps it’s too hot?).

I spent about three hours at Ralph’s place and he was extremely interesting for all that time and his wife provided welcome refreshments, I was fully charged on palms on Saturday 11th October!

After spending a day in San Diego we set off on the 13th for Ventura, North of Los Angeles to visit Pauleen’s ‘yard’. It was quite easy to locate, just off the main Interstate and the day was beautiful. Again, it was indeed obvious from a distance where the palm fanatic lived.

What Pauleen has done, considering she is wheelchair bound, can only be described as incredible. Her yard is planted out with an outstanding collection of palms (far too many to attempt to list) with a little more space than Ralph’s to inspect at closer quarters. You may recall Don Tollefson mentioning her greenhouse/pool slider, in which is her exercise pool kept at a temperature of 92 deg. F. In here is a number of more tender specimens with Chamaedorea sullivaniorum having pride of place which Don Hodel named after Pauleen and her late husband.

An interesting talking point, and one which I believe Martin Gibbons is still sceptical about, was the suckering specimen of Trachycarpus fortunei (Surculosa), an outstanding plant with indeed at least five separate trunks. Is it suckering or are the seeds falling and germinating to give that impression? Well, I didn’t argue the point with Pauleen. Again, Pauleen was extremely knowledgeable and after spending two to three hours on site I was again recharged on palms.

The following day it was time to leave the L.A. area for Las Vegas, Nevada, an incredible city which you either love or hate. Only one palmy statement to make which was that the central reservation on the “strip” was excellent with Phoenix canariensis dominating, underplanted with Butia capitata and Trachycarpus fortunei. The lighting at night showed off these palms to their very best.

The last three days of our holiday were spent in San Francisco, a city clearly not abundant in palms, although a visit to Golden Gate Park had been recommended.
On the penultimate day of the holiday, after visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, I made for the Park, an excellent oasis of greenery in what I thought was a quite plain and repetitive city environment.

The park is massive and has many trees, a number of which are palms, i.e. Phoenix sp, Jubaea chilensis, Trachycarpus and an inspiring grove of Dicksonia tree ferns opposite the Conservatory of Flowers (closed due to broken glass). For a little more variety a visit to the parks “Strybring Arboretum” Botanic Garden revealed a display of plants from all over the world with several uncommon palms, cycads and tree ferns.

In all, this holiday provided me with a rare opportunity to see how Californians “do it” and I returned awe inspired but in reality faced with sweeping up leaves from deciduous trees and viewing my palms that look, in truth, totally out of place in my cold Northern windswept garden (Oh, to win the lottery!!).

On each garden visit I had used my camcorder and have produced a collection of views from Huntington, Ralph and Pauleen’s places and Golden Gate Park, albeit fairly amateurish but I think quite comprehensive vistas. If any members would like a copy, bearing in mind what I just said, I would be happy to distribute VHS (PAL) format copies for £8.00, including post & packing. I have also videoed Tenerife Botanic Garden and Kew and would be happy, if requested, to include these on the tapes also. Members on the continent should sent an extra £1.00 to cover the additional cost of postage.


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