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Petal Pushers

The Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point offers tours of its flower and herb garden and lunch with its yield.

March 26, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spring hath sprung. Splurge! The Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point stages a Flower and Herb Garden Tour of its sumptuous grounds that includes a three-course lunch in the Terrace restaurant. (Try identifying those flowers in your food!)

MORNING, 1

The tour and lunch is $35 all-inclusive. Helpful hint for budget-busters: Bring about $3 in quarters for the parking meters at the Salt Creek Beach Park lot (opposite the Ritz-Carlton), and you can forgo the hotel's $9 valet fee. Also bring plastic bags for cuttings.

The glorious floral display starts at the street (and are those gold-plated fire hydrants?), but the tour departs from the rhinoceros sculpture near the fireplace inside the hotel.

Jungle Julie, a.k.a. Julie Hunt, a gregarious if not downright bubbly certified arborist, usually leads the tour. On it is a mix of serious gardeners and those simply out for a lovely day; tour size can range up to 90, but 15 is average. Ours included a garden designer from Leicestershire, England.

Hunt handed out a list of 61 flowers, plants and trees we might encounter--e.g., amaryllis (naked lady) and brunfelsia (yesterday today tomorrow)--and off we went.

More than 15 acres are serviced by 15 full-time gardeners. "If a flower dies, it's outta here," Hunt explained. The flower scheme changes every Wednesday. "Isn't this a blast of color!" she exclaimed at one point, "look at that eye-biting flash of color," at another.

Hunt put an orange flower in her hair and tasted almost every herb in the garden. (Get out those Baggies!) Lemon verbena is used in dining room chef Yvon Goetz's signature dish, roasted Maine lobster with vanilla bean pasta and Gewurztraminer lemon verbena essence. Hunt said she used Vietnamese cilantro to win three salsa competitions. Black death chili is hotter than a habanero and acts as a natural pesticide.

Yes, despite insanely cheery bright yellow ranunculus, there is a dark side to all this. Most palm trees on the property, for instance, seem to be dying; of one near the pool whose yellow fronds seemed vibrant, Hunt said, "That's death." A little farther along, datura plants, whose seeds can be fatal, bloom during the full moon and glow in the dark.

Plant parenthood is evident: There's a mother fern, for instance, carrying babies on its fronds.

Hunt discussed microclimates on the property, noting that at one spot overlooking the ocean, "almost anything will grow." Near that point a large group of budding, and apparently quite talented, artists was painting the flowers and coastal view. In fact, they were spouses along for a life insurance meeting. "First time I ever touched paint in my life," said Selma Searfoss of Farmington, Conn.

Gardening and landscaping secrets were shared; common concerns about fertilization, plant disease and pest control were discussed. Hunt recommended her own Black Magic brand of "prescription-strength" fertilizer, whose jingle promises that "even some men will notice the change." The English landscaper admired the maintenance involved with the hotel's gardens but characterized the overall design as "repetitive."

LUNCH, 1

Pepper on your pansies? A menu "created especially for garden aficionados" includes a salad of California baby mixed lettuces. "It tastes as if it were picked a half-hour ago," said Kay Sandland of Newport Beach, one of five on the tour. If she meant the pansies, she could be right. The grilled chicken breast with herbed linguine and asparagus came with society garlic flowers.

AFTERNOON, 2

Wander the hallways; the hotel is filled with museum-quality furniture and art. Or bring a gardening book and sit at a picnic table on the bluff at Salt Creek Beach Park; maybe watch the surfers below. Or bring a bathing suit (and more quarters for the meters), change at facilities in the parking lot and enjoy a day at the beach.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1) Ritz-Carlton

1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, (714) 240-5008.

Garden tours 10 a.m. Friday and Tuesday through June 26 (and 10 a.m. Friday through Sept. 4); lunch in the Terrace follows at 11:30 a.m.

2) Salt Creek Beach Park

Ritz-Carlton Drive and Pacific Coast Highway, (714) 661-7013.

5 a.m.-midnight daily.

Buses: Laguna Beach Transit's Light Blue Line runs along Pacific Coast Highway with a stop on Ritz-Carlton Drive.

Parking: Metered parking at Salt Creek Beach Park is 25 cents per 20 minutes. Valet parking at Ritz-Carlton, $9.

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