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Disney's Jungle : How They Built It 40 Years Ago and How You Can Build One Now in Your Own Back Yard

August 30, 1992|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Almost 40 years ago, landscape architect Bill Evans began what he now calls "the best darn jungle this side of Costa Rica." He is, of course, exaggerating, but the lush vegetation that envelops the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland has become as interesting as the ride itself, if you can see past the rhinos and headhunters.

"We tore out the last plastic plants about five years ago, so everything you see is alive and growing," said Evans, who retired as the director of landscape design at Walt Disney Imagineering in 1975 but has been serving as a consultant ever since.

"Stare up at that canopy," he said proudly, pointing at a mix of giant bamboo, ficus and palms towering 70 feet overhead. "It's beginning to look like the real thing."

Any gardener planning his own personal jungle could learn a few things here.

Jungle plants have fascinated Southern Californians since the first Angelenos discovered they could grow some of the tougher ones in our mild coastal climate. Palms, big-leaved things like philodendron and giant bird-of-paradise, ficus trees with their buttressed roots, thick groves of bamboo and other tropicals and subtropicals have gone in and out of fashion several times since. At Disneyland they've lasted long enough to mature into the genuine thing.

Some say jungle plants are due back in popularity, and despite the recent drought, there has been more interest in big-leaved exotics like bananas and gingers in the last few years.

Although weather like what we've had this summer is what most people think of when they picture a jungle, most of the jungle plants we grow really don't need that much humidity or water.

Many of the plants are actually quite drought tolerant despite their jungle looks. Some, such as bananas, giant bird-of-paradise, ficus and philodendrons, get along with very little irrigation. Note how many grow in gardens around town that have been all but abandoned.

The Disneyland jungle is watered every night, from high above, with sprinklers hidden in the tops of the trees. There are a lot of plants packed into a very little space, which is why they are watered so frequently, though they are now on a water budget, according to Karen Hedges, who directs garden maintenance at Disneyland.

Evans readily admits to a long romance with jungle plants (though trees of all kinds are his first love). His father, an avid gardener and later a nurseryman, was the first to bring many into California, including the first hybrid bougainvillea, the coral trees that line San Vicente in Santa Monica (all of them came from three cuttings started by Evans), even hibiscus.

Bill Evans learned the ropes in the 1930s at his father's pioneering nursery, Evans and Reeves, on Barrington in West Los Angeles. One of the more dramatic philodendrons bears the family name, Philodendron 'Evansii.'

Trying to drum up business for the nursery's rare and exotic plants, Bill and his brother Jack turned to landscaping so they could specify unusual plants on the plans. One of their clients was Walt Disney, who was building a home in the Holmby Hills in the early 1950s.

Disney called the brothers again in 1954 to landscape Disneyland--his answer to The Pike in Long Beach (now-demolished) and other somewhat tawdry amusement parks.

"Walt wanted the landscape to set Disneyland apart from other parks," Evans said, and they literally did so with a 20-foot landscaped berm that surrounds the park and cuts off the outside world.

The 2 1/2-acre Jungle Cruise was to be one of the highlights of the park and its lushest section. But it takes time for a jungle to grow, so at first they made do with some of the orange trees from the old grove, carefully picking off the oranges so no one would be the wiser, and covering them with fast-growing, tropical vines.

Large specimen-sized trees were not common then as they are today, so when the park opened on July 17, 1955, some of the tallest trees were actually huge limbs cut from an old pepper tree--which surprisingly took root and lived for several years.

Other big trees were salvaged. The Santa Ana Freeway was pushing its way through old Orange County neighborhoods and the Evans brothers dug up all the big trees they could from in front of it, including some dramatic queen palms. The large ficus trees that shade the entrance to the Jungle Cruise are some of these redeemed trees.

Bill said they would have been happy with a canopy of foliage 30 feet tall, but with plenty of water and fertilizer and a kind climate, the plants grew quickly and today the jungle has a canopy of foliage at least 70 feet tall, as tall as the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House (an artificial rubber tree with manzanita branches and plastic leaves).

Cold is a consideration, and hidden in the center of one of the two islands (named Manhattan and Catalina) is a huge gas heater with propellers. It rises out of the ground and warms the jungle on chilly nights, though it is seldom used (it did pop up the night of the big freeze two years ago).

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