- Author: Patricia Rodriguez
Observation, Not Advice
My earliest memories of being plant aware are the ‘60s with my grandfather in Van Nuys. During summer I'd visit and, coming from Ventura's ocean air, I baked. While trailing grandpa as he puttered in the backyard, I first noticed different plants grew in different climates. The plants grandpa tended were different from the bright pansies, snapdragons and other annuals mom planted in our yard. They helped brighten Ventura's predictable “June Gloom” that inevitably lingered until after Independence Day and kept temperatures in the mid-60s. Grandpa's plants were duller, darker greens and, to my nine-year-old mind, very prickly!
The Van Nuys yard was covered in St. Augustine Grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum Kuntze). The low, flat blades sharped from mowing and then seared in the 100-degree sun were like branding irons on my bare feet. Why would anyone want this stuff in place of the cool, soft grass we had at home? Turns out that St. Augustine Grass is native to warm places like Hawaii and North and South Africa. It can take the heat. And because of its density, it requires little weeding which was a big plus back in the days of manicured lawns.
Yet most striking was grandpa's succulent garden. While mom planted spindly plants with delicate stems and leaves, grandpa had a large, mounded garden with dangerous-looking plants.
In the very center was a 6-foot-tall Quiabentia. Its large, fleshy leaves were pointed, but the barbed spine was menacing. I imagined it an old, gnarled woman trying to reach out and grab me with boney fingers. Rimming the planter, like the hem of the lady's skirt, were Mammillaria zeilmanniana. Their rings of dark pink flowers created pretty patterns which hid closely-knit spines. There were also several small agave (Agave colorata) whose blue-green leaves looked like sharp-toothed rosettes on her skirt's fabric. And there were many Echeveria (Crassulaceae) that added color to the old woman's skirt and looked safest to touch. Still, each leaf had a tiny point of its own.
The rest of the mound was accented with stones and small boulders of varying color and size that were too hot to touch in mid-day sun. My grandfather had not chosen exotic cacti, but there was enough color, texture and variation to inspire a young, over-heated imagination. I saw that withered lady in my mind and knew enough to stay out of reach.
Returning home, our backyard garden had a temporary feel to it. Although beautiful, when I touched the delicate annuals I sensed their lack of permanence. I missed the solid and stoic rigidity of my grandfather's succulent garden. I even missed the old lady.