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Jack Smith

South Coast Botanic Garden nurtures flora, fauna and romance--and we even saw peonies

April 15, 1987|Jack Smith

We made our first visit the other day to one of the many undervalued treasures of Southern California--Los Angeles County's 87-acre South Coast Botanic Garden at 26300 Crenshaw Boulevard, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

There is little chance that the garden will be taken over by land developers. Once the site lay under the Pacific Ocean, which deposited untold trillions of microscopic unicellular algae called diatoms on it, thus creating layers of diatomaceous earth. Then 3.5 million tons of trash was buried there. As a result of this unstable foundation the earth is constantly moving.

Mary Lou Steinmetz, one of the garden's many volunteer docents, was our guide. We met in a cluster of adobe-colored buildings inside the gate.

Steinmetz wore a pink cardigan, a Botanic Garden T-shirt, beige pants covered with pink peonies and blue morning glories, pink suede flats and a crownless straw hat.

I thought I heard a meadowlark--that sweetest of sounds. "We have meadowlarks here," she said.

Three coral trees in a courtyard inside the buildings shed coral petals on the walks. Outside, orchid trees were in bloom. At the crest of a low rolling hill a white gazebo stood in the sun. "We have weddings there," Steinmetz said. "We also have them here," she added, nodding at a nearby arbor. "These are more intimate. Second marriages, you know."

A profusion of bright orange flowers with black centers circled a palm tree. "Black-eyed Susans," she said. "They'll take over the world."

She said busloads of children from the inner city come down to visit the gardens. "They say some scary things. They say, 'It smells funny.' Because we've just cut the grass. They don't know what cut grass smells like."

We walked by the volunteers' garden, where big, floppy orange, white and yellow Iceland poppies were the favorite, towering over orange and yellow calendulas.

Next came a homely vegetable garden, with rows of cabbages, celery, artichokes and other lowly table plants.

"The kids didn't used to know the vegetables' names, except the simplest. You'd say artichokes, they'd go blank. Not anymore. They're getting sophisticated. I don't know whether it's the Oriental influence or what."

We saw a few strawberries. "We always have strawberries. The animals eat them a lot."

I asked what kind of animals they had.

"Foxes, skunks, snakes, raccoons, rabbits. You should come in the morning. The birds are out in the morning, and there are more animals."

We came upon a volunteer named Gloria Rice. She was digging in the earth with a four-pronged cultivator. She nodded at a volunteer in the next garden. "She's deadheading," she said.

I asked what deadheading was.

"She's taking off the dead flowers. If you let a flower go to seed, the whole plant dies. Flowers are like chickens. You have to take the eggs away from the chickens so they'll lay more."

"The schoolkids don't know about chickens," Steinmetz said. "They think eggs come in boxes."

Rice poked at a plant with large leaves. "These are supposed to be opium poppies. We're not supposed to grow them."

"I don't believe it's the same poppy," Steinmetz said.

Rice said, "I told the Torrance police department to come and check them out."

Steinmetz changed the subject. "A little boy said, 'We'd like to come here to live.' "

We looked down at a glory of brilliant purple sweet Williams, orange and white ranunculuses, yellow and purple Dutch iris and deeply colored pansies. "Those little blue goodies," Steinmetz said, "are forget-me-nots."

To the north we could see the plain of Los Angeles stretched out, its white towers shining in the sun.

A shuttle bus picked us up to take us to the lake. We passed experimental gardens where Australian palms and other exotics thrived, and an Audubon observation platform over a stream. A young couple with arms around each other stood at the rail, looking down.

"A lady likes to come here and sing," Steinmetz said.

"Unaccompanied?" I asked.

"Yes. She's a cappella."

We drove along the stream past dozens of grotesquely twisted Aleppo pines. In the tornado of '82, Steinmetz said, 225 trees had been uprooted. We came to a five- or six-acre lake with an asphalt shore. Steinmetz gave us small plastic bags of parched corn to feed the ducks.

Despite its asphalt bottom, the lake was quite pretty. Weeping willows wept from an island at the center. Children and families sat along its banks. Ducks skittered this way and that. Two raucous geese set sail.

"We didn't put those geese in here," Steinmetz said. "Somebody snuck them in under his overcoat."

Enormous gold carp made ghostly appearances below the surface. Steinmetz said the mallard ducks live on the lake all year. "Things are too good here. They don't move on."

Two ducks were cavorting in the shade of the willow trees. "Soon there'll be babies," she said. "Then the foxes will eat them. This is a sanctuary. What will be will be."

Riding back toward the gate we passed an orchard. "Peaches, pears, apricots--they're all in the rose family," Steinmetz said. "We planted a lot of them in a big swatch there. We hoped something might happen, we'd have something they've never had."

Somebody wondered whether they were able to grow peonies.

"We can grow so many plants here that other people can't grow--why kill ourselves trying to grow peonies?"

A lovely place to visit, and only $1.50; 75 cents for seniors and students.

If I ever have a second marriage I'll keep it in mind.

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