What can we learn from the Southern California Botanical Gardens?

Visitors listen to an instructor-led tour during Twilight Tours of the Botanical Gardens at UC Riverside Botanical Gardens, Friday, July 14, 2017. (Eric Reed/For The Press Enterprise/SCNG)

This is my love letter to botanical gardens, which are not only beautiful places to walk around and enjoy the scenery, but also a refuge and sanctuary for families, and places that teach us how to turn our plots of land into our dreams.

There are many botanical gardens in Southern California – the Los Angeles Arboretum, Theodore Paine Gardens in Claremont, and the Grand Lady Ever at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino. But my first heaven was the UC Riverside Botanical Garden, located on the eastern edge of campus in Riverside.

Started in 1963, it contains 40 acres of themed landscaping, such as Lilac Lane, which is lined with varieties that can withstand California summers; The Cactus Garden, which includes hundreds of cacti, including a massive Boojum tree; and the rose garden, with formal rows of roses, and a pretty shaded pergola covered with climbing roses.

In 1986, two years before I started teaching at UCLA, I taught my niece Hola to walk the gentle paths of the camellia and azalea gardens. I found the Botanic Gardens by chance, on my way home from the library, where I used to go on the weekends to read and imagine I would be a writer.

I was teaching English as a Second Language at the time, and my husband was working nights in a juvenile correctional facility. I was wandering around the botanical garden with my notebook, working on my first novel. Then, when my brother needed help with his year-old daughter, I kept her for some weekends and took her with me.

I realized that the parks were safer than some of the local parks, where they were frightened by rowdy people and loose dogs. But more than that, the beauty of the paths through the rose garden and cactus garden was perfect for me to hold her, read the beautiful names of flowers and plants out loud, and then set her down to take her first steps.

My daughter Gila, born in 1989, took her first steps in the same camellia gardens. Delphine, born in 1991, ate her first solid foods (cheese, crackers and a small slice of apple!) on a blanket near azalea plants, under plum and quince trees in bloom in March. Rosette, born in 1995, had lunch with me after I taught on campus. She and I sat in the cactus garden — her favorite because of the lizards and birds and the sun — eating peanut butter sandwiches and Doritos, watching water droplets collect on the spines of barrel cactus, opuntia and ocotillo.

My daughters and I love selling botanical garden plants. They’re so popular, you have to arrive early, and bring your red Radio Flyer wagon, like we did, so Rosette can ride along with the purchases. The ⅓-acre plot in Riverside, where we live in a one-story house on a former orange orchard farm, was planned and planted with cuttings and plants purchased from the UCR Botanical Garden and Huntington.

In the spacious parking lot where the original 1920s carob trees finally fell and were removed, I planted UCLA Mexican petunias. Known as invasive in other states, these rides are sure to take over a plot of land, but for decades they have provided endless entertainment for children. The purple flowers resemble silky trumpets, last only a day or two, and then long, torpedo-like seed pods form.

Activated by moisture, they will explode with a loud pop, throwing little round buttons everywhere. For 30 years, my daughters, their friends, and now future generations of young children have enjoyed this: Sit on my sidewalk, gather the seed pods in the palm of your hand, spit on them a few times, and turn your face away when they explode. Opens! Or pile them up on concrete and spray them with a hose, and they’ll sound like little fireworks…

Of course, this means I have to pull out my little Mexican petunias all year long – but it’s worth a laugh.

Riverside author Susan Straight. (Photo contributed by Felicia Carrasco)

My garden also contains Peruvian lilies, perennials that most people know from florists as alstroemeria, which spread from bulbs. I bought those flowers many years before they were readily available, because of the gardens at UCLA, along with abutilones, with flowers that look like little ballerinas. The two original abutilones grew into hedges and eventually died, but volunteer plants took over, and the garden has been without those flowers since 1995.

For years we have been going to the UCR Botanical Gardens simply because these places serve as beautiful entertainment, are better than a zoo sometimes, are easily accessible to kids, and are always educational.

At the Los Angeles Arboretum, where Conmey proposed to Delphine’s future husband, we love the peacocks and ponds; The Huntington area is so popular in our family that it is the first place we receive visitors, for the grandeur of the Chinese garden, the Japanese tea rooms, the Australian landscape and the bamboo forest.

But what we love about the UCR Botanical Garden is the way it has become home to us—and more than the plants, it’s the way we learn about the local landscape and the landscapes presented.

The turtle pond, nestled within a valley of native alder and chaparral trees, was Dolphin’s first obsession, and she never tired of seeing the reptiles sunning themselves on the rocks, and the way cattails grow at the edges. In the cactus garden, cactus flowers bloom with dangling orange tubes, and cacti send their silvery blue spears into the sky. I taught my daughters what I knew as a child, which was that we sewed with a fork, which was attached to many strands of fiber in an aloe leaf.

Their favorite edge was the wild edge of the Botanic Garden, where we would sit in a bamboo tunnel to contemplate the world, take the trail past the Australian Garden’s massive fig and eucalyptus trees, and then head up four miles into parts of the garden left to native shrubs, sage and sycamore.

We’ve found mountain lion tracks in the mud, seen the ghosts of coyotes slithering around a rock, and always there are hawks and hummingbirds and the sound of the Santa Ana breeze through the trees.

My mother, who was born in Switzerland, had never been to the park until we took her in when the girls were little. She was a self-taught Swiss gardener who loved succulents and roses. We spent many days in the rose garden, and my mother, when she retired, became a volunteer in the gardens, especially loving the weekend rose pruning show, when we all helped her teach people how to prepare roses for winter.

My garden now has 70 roses, including climbing roses and English roses, because my mother taught me how to grow amazing varieties and has taught hundreds of new gardeners the same at every plant show or sale. She spent years growing new Abutilon and alstroemeria plants, iris bulbs and tulips, along the same paths that taught my daughters how every flower opens to beauty, every road leads to a new world.

This is what the Botanical Garden offers the community, and how plants, trees and people emulate generations of love for the natural world.

Susan Street’s latest novel, Mecca, is set in Orange County, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and the Coachella desert.

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