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An Old Pepper : In the Quintessential California Garden, the Inhabitants Aren't Necessarily Natives

June 04, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

IT IS NOT OFTEN CALLED by its botanical name, Schinus molle , perhaps because, said aloud, it might sound like a sneeze followed by a polite apology. One reference suggests skye-nus as the way to pronounce it.

We call it the California pepper, believing it to be native to this state. Down under, it is called the Australian pepper, locals there apparently making the same assumption. Brought here from its homeland in Peru, it was one of the first trees cultivated in California by the Mission fathers, and it has been here long enough to have given us some remarkably gnarled specimens. One, identified by some as the oldest, is being enclosed in a newly refurbished garden at the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, the most affluent of the old missions, located between San Juan Capistrano and San Diego. Another notable planting is an official Historic-Cultural Monument for the City of Angels--the pepper trees, planted in the 1920s, that overhang Canoga Avenue from Ventura Boulevard south to Saltillo Street. And another street collection has added some notoriety to the pepper's resume: the peppers lining Euclid Avenue in Upland--trees that a few years ago began to rot and drop heavy limbs on passers-by.

The pepper pictured here is also quite old but new to its garden. Found growing in a vacant lot and estimated to be 35 to 40 years old at the time, it was moved here to give the garden an "understated and established" look, according to the landscape architects Jerry Cummings Associates.

The garden is as distinctively Californian as the pepper tree; that is, none of the plants are natives, but they are enthusiastically at home here just the same. The pepper's tallest companions are pigmy date palms and giant bird-of-paradise. The bold accents to the left are cycads (commonly called Sago palms), and to the right, agapanthus. All of these nearby plantings are drought-resistant, as is the pepper, which can survive on rainfall alone. (Peppers can tolerate soil with poor drainage as long as the soil does not get too wet.)

Azaleas make up most of the shrubbery in the garden. The prettiest is a Gold Cup hybrid named 'Baby Jill,' which makes the pink clouds in the distance beneath the giant bird-of-paradise. They in turn are set off with plantings of purple and blue cinerarias in winter and New Guinea impatiens in summer, a scheme developed by the master gardeners who care for the property, Patrick Turnbull and Collie Valadez.

The paving is porous (broken concrete with Bermuda grass planted in the gaps) to ensure that air and some water get to the tree's far-reaching roots. Peppers are susceptible to root rots, and to ensure that this tree does not receive too much water, nothing is planted within a 6-foot radius of its base, and sprinklers are aimed away from the trunk. At first the presence of azaleas seems to reflect a mistake in planning a drought-resistant scheme designed to protect a tree that doesn't like too much water. However, azaleas actually need far less water than they are usually given. Here they are a good 10 feet away from the trunk, and both the azaleas and the cinerarias get regular irrigations.

The roots of pepper trees grow near the surface and can pose a problem, another reason that nothing is planted at the very base of this tree. Peppers should definitely be kept away from sewers and sidewalks.

As for the heart rot that brought the notoriety to the peppers of Upland, that can be prevented if all large pruning wounds are sealed promptly and properly. Peppers also are prey to a tiny psyllid; this particular tree is sprayed commercially twice a year with Dursban.

Another complaint heard about California peppers is that they drop a lot of litter--tiny branches, leaves and peppercorns. But in this garden, the litter is effectively absorbed by the plantings underneath. I remember trying to bicycle to school down a street lined with old peppers--no small trick considering the billions of peppercorns that made the street as unstable as a linoleum floor covered with ball-bearings. Offsetting that recollection are memories of the pleasant dappled shade the trees cast on hot September days and the wonderfully warm smell of peppercorns crushed by the balloon tires on a Schwinn Cruiser.

Some people would say that the pepper tree's susceptibility to rots and psyllid, its aggressive roots and its messy manner make it a poor choice for a garden. But when properly sited, what else has such grace and grandeur, with its dainty leaves and its slender, weeping branches draped from massive, gnarled limbs?

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