To Robin Jansen and Vernice Lohman of Carlsbad, it felt like being in the English countryside. Rows of deep pink, white and yellow yarrow reached up to touch them. Basil beckoned. Traces of pineapple mint fragrance hung in the air as they meandered through the growing fields of Taylor's Herb Gardens in Vista.
"I come here at least five or six times a year," Lohman said, but "I've brought Robin for the first time." Jansen, like her friend, cradled at least a dozen small containers of herbs that would find their way into her patio and hillside garden--and this year, into personalized holiday gift baskets as well. With each gift herb, a lucky friend or relative will get one of Jansen's favorite recipes for using it, and a card on its cultivation.
If you've gotten or given one poinsettia too many, it may be time to expand your idea of holiday plants. Specialized nurseries like Taylor's offer both a respite from malldom and a chance to pick up unusual plants at often-lower-than-general-nursery prices. You may have to travel a few miles to track down the elusive Epiphyllum or singular Saintpaulia , but it may be worth the effort.
Following is a sampling of special "growing" places, grouped by geographic area, that offer plants of a different holiday stripe. Most specialize in just the plants, not the wrappings; you'll probably have to add your own bows and baskets. Call ahead for directions.
SAN DIEGO ENVIRONS
--Taylor's Herb Gardens, 1535 Lone Oak Road, Vista 92084, (619) 727-3485; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-noon Saturday. This is the premier herb farm; all plants are raised organically--without chemicals, pesticides or herbicides-- on more than 25 acres in a pastoral setting complete with wild geese and ducks. Taylor's ships gift packs, but the real pleasure is in seeing the herbs grow in the fields and discovering varieties hard to find elsewhere. An olfactory paradise, Taylor's grows eight kinds of mints, seven types of rosemary, five kinds of garlic and nine kinds of thyme that can be used as ground covers, including caraway, coconut, creeping and woolly. Herbs sell for $1.25 per 3-inch pot. Also available for the holidays, gallon cans of ivy trained into Christmas-tree and wreath shapes for $15. Today at 11 a.m., herbalists will talk about medicinal and other properties associated with herbs as part of informal in-garden lecture series held the first Saturday every other month.
--Kartuz Greenhouses, 1408 Sunset Drive, Vista 92083, (619) 941-3613; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. If you seek traditional red and green for the holidays, you'll find an unusual array of prize specimens here, also available by mail order. Kartuz specializes in gesneriads, a family of plants which includes the African violet ( Saintpaulia ) and many of its relatives. Kartuz also features a range of begonias, hoyas and some orchids. Available in 2-inch pots at $3 is the Sinningia cardinalis, whose shrimp-shaped red-orange flowers are reminiscent of a cardinal's robes. The rose-pink speckled flowers of the velvety-leaved Kohleria Roundelay nicely fit into holiday color schemes and sell for $3.50 in 2-inch pots. For the begonia fancier, Kartuz offers the beautiful rexes with their fanciful iridescent leaves, as well as a large variety of cane and rhizomatous begonias; they sell from $3-$4.95 in 2-inch pots. And you'll find a rainbow of African violets, including hard-to-find specimen violets. For the outdoor plant fancier, don't overlook the unusual Impatiens African king, which produces bright crimson flower clusters on quilted oval leaves.
--Seaborn's Del Dios Nursery, Willow Lane in Del Dios (Route Three, Box 455), Escondido 92025, (619) 745-6945; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, (closed Tuesday). Seaborn's specializes in bromeliads, funnel-shaped members of the pineapple family with arching rosette-like leaves that cup to catch water. Though they flower at different times, several varieties are now sending up orange and pink blooms. They can cost from $5-$75, depending on their rarity. Seaborn's also carries unusual palms, cycads and some cacti.
--California Epi Center, 1444 E. Taylor St., Vista, (619) 758-4290; primarily mail order, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. only three Saturdays in December (today, next Saturday and Dec. 20). Though this is not their primary flowering season, these "Orchid cacti" ( Epiphyllum ) do put on a small show this time of year--and you won't find most of these varieties in bloom at your supermarket. "White Christmas" is one of the "Christmas cacti"; others are "Holiday Lites," "Rocket," with purple-red blooms and white throats, "Majestic," "Gold Charm" and "Lipstick." They sell for $3 in 3-inch pots.