- Author: Betsy Lunde
As a lot of my fellow Master Gardeners know, I work for the California Department of Parks and Recreation in Benicia. One of my parks is the Fischer-Hanlon House which is attached to the Benicia Historic Capitol Park. This House has an approximate 1/2 acre garden and contains many old and unusual plants. Some were planted by the Fischer family who lived in the house starting in 1856, others by their descendents. When State Parks was given the house by the surviving members of the Hanlon family (the grand-daughters of Mr. Fischer), the state workers removed over five 1-ton truck loads of plant material (mostly living) in order to clear the garden for public viewing. In doing so, the garden lost its over-grown Victorian look and acquired a somewhat "modern" interpretation of a Victorian garden. Some of the plants and trees have survived to this day and provide gardeners, such as myself, with additional problems relating to their ages.
The first plant is the Wisteria floribunda or Chinese Wisteria. This plant
originally had a span of 20 feet on a wooden pergola which has since buckled under the weight of this huge vine. With a trunk circumfrence of over 4 feet, it stretched an additional 10 feet to strangle a petite double-flowered salmon flowering Nerium oleander as well as shooting out another 15 feet into a Schinus molle (pepperwood tree) and up 40 feet to then comeback down again to hold the tree tight, rather like ribbons wound around a maypole. Currently, with the death of the pepperwood and its needed trimming, this wisteria holds tight to the re-enforced pergola, threatening to bring the old wooden structure down to the ground.
The problem with the wisteria: how to continue restraining this massive vine to
the crumbling scaffolding while figuring out how to raise it and slip another, strudier structure under the vine and then allow it to rehang itself again has been a prickly one. This is a problem five years in the works as NO one wants to identify the person who killed the 150 plus year old vine.
A second problem of the garden is how to keep a Ficus (fig tree) from completely
collapsing to the ground. This fig, dating back at least 60 years is actually the remaining branch of the original fig. Over the years, it has taking the guise of a hortizontal tree -- propped up by 4X4s in numerous places and continuing to have up to 2 crops of delicious figs per year! A little odd this year, but due to the weather it gave 3 successive crops of figs which are continuing to ripen. Needless to say, this tree is a popular stop on the garden tour! The daughter trees that have been developing over the last 3 years have come into their own in terms of providing figs for visitors and will continue the legancy of the Fisher House figs.
Another situation for garden are the huge oleanders (Nerium oleander) which have grown up to over 14 feet. Those would include a pink single-flowering which when in bloom smells like talcum powder which last year split in half (the falling half hit the house and merely slid down the side, gently brushing 1st and 2nd story windows) and deep pinks and whites along the fence -- overgrown, but contributing greatly to the colors and textures of the garden.
Roses abound in the garden, but none such as Rosa 'Belle Portugaise' (Belle of
Portugal). This gorgous rose has elegant, pointed buds which open wide and hang down in a combo of light salmon, pink, a peachy and creamy color. Our bush is over fifty-plus years old with a coating of rather shaggy bark on the older stem parts. This rose hadn't put out a new lateral shoot in 15 years, but tried twice this past year. Unfortunately for the bush, visitors have broken off both. I'm hoping that it will try again. Since it grows on a thin arbor attached to the house, the poor thing sometimes is pruned off the roof and other times pruned off the arbor. It really has no idea of which direction to grow!
Other plants include Opuntia cacti-- huge 14 foot specimens which bloom in
bright yellows during the late summer and early fall; the Arbutus unedo (Strawberry tree) which was touted during the '60s as the perfect parking strip tree. Too bad, the "touters" didn't see this specimen at 5 feet around and 20 feet tall with its dropping fruits which splatter upon falling and creating slippery, slimy spots on brick pathways.
Unfortunately, I have little hope for the continuation of this historic garden.
As most folks are aware, the State plans to close this park OR have a
nonprofit run it. Looking around at the various old plants (and some of the
newer replacements as well), the trained eye can see the misshaping of the
specimens by "gardeners" who have not studied the various plants' growths before
clipping, heading or even topping these plants. I hope that in the future, people will volunteer or be hired who understand plant growth and behavior after I leave. Could one of those people be YOU?
To volunteer at this historic site, please call 707-648-1911 and ask for Sandy