when life gives you nettles

Weeds beneath Santa Cru Island buckwheat

We had pretty good rain­fall in Decem­ber, and early Jan­u­ary had some nice wet stretches. Seedlings are pop­ping up everywhere.

After a long dry Mediter­ranean sum­mer it’s easy to get lulled into not check­ing the gar­den fre­quently for weeds. But once the rains begin things start to sprout. Every gar­dener prob­a­bly has a few a few patches like this where things got a lit­tle out of control.

Scarlet pimpernel seedlings en masse

And then there’s this pot full of tiny scar­let pim­per­nel seedlings, so thick and ver­dant it almost looks intentional.

A big patch of Burning Nettle, Urtica urens

A big patch of Burn­ing Net­tle, Urtica urens

One of the more unpleas­ant weed­ing jobs was this patch of Burn­ing Net­tle, Urtica urens. There are a cou­ple of native Cal­i­for­nia Sting­ing Net­tles, sub­species of U. dioica, but the one in my gar­den is an intro­duced weed of “moist dis­turbed places,” accord­ing to some ref­er­ences. This spot in the gar­den where it comes up every year is def­i­nitely dis­turbed, but it’s only moist when it’s watered by the rains.

When life gives you nettles...

When life gives you nettles…

This one’s edi­ble, as is the Cal­i­for­nia native. And if you’re will­ing to gear up in the kitchen with thick latex gloves, you can cook with it. Try to catch the plants when they’re young, even ear­lier than the ones in this shop­ping bag if you can get them. As you pull and pre­pare them pay spe­cial atten­tion to unpro­tected fore­arms. Save “Feel the burn” for your next trip to the weight room.

Nettle pasta, anyone?

Net­tle pasta, anyone?

This, my concoction–fairly unsea­soned so as to serve as an intro­duc­tion to fairly pure net­tle flavor–wasn’t exactly one for the recipe blogs. It was like eat­ing the color green from a tube of paints made from pure chloro­phyll. Actu­ally, before I cooked with it, I was wor­ry­ing a lit­tle bit because so many of the dis­cus­sions of net­tle start with a long essay on its nutri­tional ben­e­fits. Okay, it’s good for you, but how does it taste?

But later John made up another pasta that was pretty tasty, and then fol­lowed it up with a richly-flavored vari­ant of the many net­tle soup recipes that are out on the web. Net­tle has been redeemed. Good for you–but also delicious!

january anza-borrego desert garden

As far as inter­pre­ta­tive visitor’s cen­ters go Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has a pretty awe­some one. The area has a rich mix of nat­ural and cul­tural resources and his­to­ries, and the cen­ter does a good job of intro­duc­ing you to some of the high­lights. It’s also staffed by knowl­edge­able staff and vol­un­teers happy to get you started with what to see and do.

ABDSP Visitor center stair leading up to green roof

The build­ing itself is pretty cool in that it has a green roof–if you can call desert plants with white sand in between “green.” It’s painfully hot (and cold) much of the year, so it helps mod­er­ate the tem­per­a­tures inside the visitor’s center.

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof with Agave deserti

ABDSP Visitor centor green roof vent

Up top they’ve done a pretty good job of dis­guis­ing the fact that there’s a work­ing build­ing under­foot. A few vents tip you off that this might not be a nor­mal desert floor…

Imme­di­ately out­side the center’s doors there’s an impres­sive desert gar­den that’ll get you up to speed on the main plants you’ll find in the area. And it’s a chance to see one of the locally rare spec­i­mens of torote, the ele­phant tree. Among the more com­mon and more charis­matic species:

Beavertail cactus Opuntia basilaris var basilaris

Beaver­tail cac­tus (Is this plant’s name an oxy­moron, at least in the sense that you’d never see a beaver any­where near cac­tus habitat?)

Barrel cactus at ABDSP Ferrocactus cylindricus

Bar­rel cactus…

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP

Ocotillo in January at ABDSP closeup


January greasewood Larrea tridentata at ABDSP

Cre­osote bush.

Psorothamnus schottii leaf textures Indigo bush at ABDSP

Indigo bush, too early for it to be bloom­ing, but a won­der­ful vaporous texture.

Jnauary bloomers at ABDSP visitor center

Some things were already (or still) bloom­ing. This is a nice lit­tle tableaux of brit­tle­bush, Encelia fari­nosa with desert agave, Agave deserti in foreground.

Vegetation textues at ABDSP

And this busy tan­gle fea­tures red blooms on chu­parosa, Jus­ti­cia cal­i­for­nica. When you encounter it later in the sea­son the plant is leaf­less, but there was water enough that you could find leaves on many of its branches.

Calliandra eriophylla at ABDSP

The last thing I saw bloom­ing with any umph was this fairy duster, Cal­lian­dra erio­phylla. It’s flow­ers are smaller, maybe a cou­ple inches across, than those of the Baja fairy duster, C. cal­i­for­nica, that is sold more fre­quently. Yes, Cal­i­for­nia does have a plant that could eas­ily be mis­taken for a bot­tle­brush from down under.

Pup fish habitat

A pond fea­ture pro­vided habi­tat for the über-rare desert pup fish. There were plenty in the water, but I guess the crit­ters con­sider pho­tog­ra­phers preda­tors and scur­ried off. Justin Bieber behaves the same way.

New plants at ABDSP visitor center

A few gal­lon cans lets you know that this, like any other gar­den, is a work in progress.

Plant grouping at ABDSP Visitor Center

And a final shot, a nice group­ing of some of the plants above, arranged to please the eye, though the plants might con­sider them­selves a lit­tle too close for com­fort. But given a lit­tle extra water and groom­ing, you can get away with it.

When “in the neigh­bor­hood,” be sure to check out the cen­ter and the garden.

there be dragons

Mt Laguna snowIt had snowed in the local moun­tains late last month. By the time I got up there you could still find big patches of snow on the ground.

Snow over the desert

At the crest of the Laguna Moun­tains you can look down down down over the edge of the escarp­ment of the Elsi­nore Fault to the Val­lecito Val­ley imme­di­ately below. It’s a quick ver­ti­cal mile of dropoff, a height com­pa­ra­ble to many vis­tas along the Grand Canyon. The change in ele­va­tion is impres­sive, but so is the rad­i­cal change in land­scape. A fairly well-watered green-and-brown moun­tain plant community–think pines, cean­othus, moun­tain mahogany–careens into a sere desert land­scape, all of it in muted brown and pur­ple and pink and gray tones. Down below the col­ors of geol­ogy quickly over­power those of biol­ogy. Some­one who doesn’t love deserts might liken the descent into Anza Borreo Desert State Park as a descent into Hell.

On this early Jan­u­ary day Hell was pleas­ant, in the low 70s, sunny and dry. Some­thing I hadn’t vis­ited before was a big instal­la­tion of sculp­tures by Ricardo Bre­ceda. Installed on a flat expanse on the edge of Bor­rego Springs you’ll find a rusty steel menagerie of var­i­ous crea­tures. I rec­og­nized the camels and horses, includ­ing this horse with an unfortunately-placed sup­port column.

Camel scuptures in the desert

Horse with rectal probe

Archduke Charles sculpture
(Note to artist: It is pos­si­ble to model rear­ing horses with­out rec­tal probes, as this sculp­ture of Arch­duke Charles in Vienna’s Helden­platz shows. (Photo by Peter Ger­st­bach and used here by the terms of the GNU Free Doc­u­men­ta­tion License.))

I rec­og­nized some of the crea­tures but a few started to get pretty fan­ci­ful, like they’d escaped from a Mau­rice Sendak picturebook.

Beheaded beast

This one had either just lost its head or was still in the process of being installed.

Horse escaping creature

Head­less or not, it was scar­ing the horses…

Ricardo Breceda sculpture creature

And what the heck is this crea­ture sup­posed to be? What­ever it was, it appeared to be mom with a lit­tle one on her back.

Dragon head

Dragon with mountains

And now we come to the dragon, a big and fancy and fear­some num­ber with five dif­fer­ent seg­ments that go from one side of the road to the other. (Edit Jan­u­ary 20: Ricki points out that it’s prob­a­bly a sea ser­pent and not a dragon, and I agree with her.)

Dragon segment as gate

Here one of the seg­ments func­tioned as a really lovely lit­tle gar­den portal.

Dragaon vs cholla

But in the end the most fear­some thing of all out in the desert that day wasn’t the dragon, but this “jump­ing” cholla cac­tus, one of the local Cylin­drop­un­tia species (maybe C. gan­deri?). I’ve never been hurt by a dragon, but this bit of botan­i­cal evil is a dif­fer­ent story. Be afraid, be very afraid.

highlights from 2012: disney hall garden

Sort­ing through last year’s pho­tos I ran across many lit­tle piles intended for blog post­ings that never happened.

One of the roads paved with good inten­tions led to Los Ange­les. We were up June 1 to the Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall for one of the pre­mier con­cert per­for­mances of John Adams’ new ora­to­rio The Pas­sion Accord­ing to the Other Mary, a big and sprawl­ing work with many amaz­ing musi­cal moments. (The piece is being reprised in early March in a ver­sion staged by Peters Sellars.)

Disney Hall exterior reflecting the sunset

Disney Hall exterior with evening sky

Disney Hall southwest side
Dis­ney Hall has estab­lished itself as an archi­tec­tural land­mark, for rea­sons that you can see here. But less pub­li­cized is its lit­tle roof gar­den.

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney

The main cen­ter­piece is a delft blue-and-white rose foun­tain Frank Gehry designed for con­cert hall bene­fac­tor Lilly Dis­ney. Dur­ing mid­day the fountain’s blue col­ors play off the blue of the sky reflected in the thou­sands of reflec­tive facets of the con­cert hall’s stain­less steel exte­rior. But we were there at dusk and the reflected col­ors formed a back­drop of warm tones.

(Writ­ing now, in Jan­u­ary, when these short win­ter days sees dark­ness falling in late after­noon, it’s com­fort­ing to see that within a few months the sun will still be up late into the evening, sum­mer manic to counter the win­ter depres­sive. I can hardly wait!)

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney alt

Disney Hall Garden Lilly Disney fountain

Disney Hall Garden plants

Disney Hall Garden Heuchera maxima

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building alt

There was a nod to native Cal­i­for­nia with this clump of coral bells, Heuchera max­ima, but the other plants drew on the imported botan­i­cal palette that you see around South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. This bloom­ing coral trees were prob­a­bly the most promi­nent among them.

Disney Hall interior with the french fries

Going inside the hall, the wacked out organ pipes behind the orches­tra always amaze me. The archi­tect refers to them as his “French fries.”

So ends this delayed lit­tle tour of a sight from last year. If my blog host­ing ser­vice spares me fur­ther times with­out ser­vice, I’ll have a few more glimpses back ahead, along with what some South­ern Cal­i­for­nia gar­dens are doing in the length­en­ing days of late winter.