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April Showers, April Flowers

April 06, 1986

Two of our gardens' nicest adornments of the moment came a long way to get here, but we have not had much luck finding out the details.

Clivia provides that flash of molten yellow, red and orange in shady spots, the brilliant flower stalks emerging from dark-green strap-shaped leaves.

Raphiolepis, a now common evergreen shrub, also is at its prime these days, covered with clusters of small, delicate pink blossoms.

We consulted a number of California experts, trying to find out when these remarkable plants were introduced here, but there is no helpful record. We talked with James Bauml, plant taxonomist at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia; Dick Dunmire, editor of the Sunset Western Garden Book and a senior editor of Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park; Mildred E. Mathias, emeritus professor of botany at UCLA, and Victoria J. Padilla, author of "Southern California Gardens." The best that they could do was this:

Clivia came from South Africa and--in some places, unfortunately--is still called Kaffir lily--a name better forgotten, for kaffir has come to be a contemptuous term for blacks in South Africa. The lily was carried at least a century ago to Europe, where hybridizers in France, Belgium and England developed some spectacular colors--later improved on by California growers. It was first reported in California gardens at the turn of the century, but seems to have gained real popularity only in the 1950s.

Raphiolepis is of Chinese origin, although one of its most popular species is called India Hawthorne. That species, indica, reached England early in the 19th Century, and a French hybrid, delacouri, developed at Cannes on the Riviera, was being featured at Kew Gardens in London as early as 1913. One can only guess that it arrived in some of California's more celebrated gardens about the time it was going on display in London. Padilla speculates that Evans & Reeves, a remarkable rare-plants nursery no longer in business, was first to import the shrub in Southern California. It now is available in 15 species and, according to Bauml, must be ranked among the top 10 plants that flourish in Southern California. That doubtless matters more than when it arrived from China.

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