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desert rat

Midday in the garden of golden barrel and euphorbia

May 21, 2000|Deanne Stillman

Some people feel at home with a cup of hot chocolate and a hug from Aunt Edna. I feel at home in the desert. I like my space uninterrupted, my heat dry, my plants freaky. When I can't get to the desert, I go to the Desert Garden at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

This garden is one of the most brilliant feats of landscaping in Southern California. By "brilliant," I mean that, as a contrivance, it makes me happy, takes me back to myself. Which is no small accomplishment in this city of tawdry artifice, designed to take you anywhere but to the heart.

Five-thousand species of xerophytes--succulents, trees, shrubs, cacti--flourish here. They are a vegetable version of the melting pot that is L.A., hailing from Mexico, Peru, Madagascar, Bolivia, South Africa, the West Indies, America. They each speak their own language. Some, such as the Oreocereus celsianus, with their furry coatings of hair, tell a silent joke; others, like the Carnegiea gigantea, as tall as a two-story building, hint of ancient struggles; and then there are the species that, frozen in upward supplication, bespeak beauty in the never-ending attempt to reach for water, to hold onto life. I come here often to hear their tales, to see the experience that we mark in our own ways reflected in their very existence.

The path into the garden fans out in several directions. I have walked them all. The assembled xerophytes look different on each visit, depending on the time of year, catching light at a different angle, hidden reminders that seasonal change in L.A. is marked by more than the ebb and flow of traffic on PCH.

Generally, I am drawn down the path of what in the Southwest is known as the organ pipe cactus. Actually, various species of cacti here are unrelated, even though they look alike; they have developed similar survival strategies because they evolved in similar habitats, a process known as convergent evolution.

I descend to a little island of prickly pear, and then into a grove of golden barrel cacti. In nature, these delightful globes would not be bunched so closely together, although they lose none of their appeal when so tamed. There is something about repetition, especially of the unexpected, that calms. The earth spins, a tiny lizard skitters, and I round the bend, past what I call the Horn of Stenocereus eruca, or creeping devil, an isthmus of low-lying cacti that snake across each other. I sit on the bench under an acacia, reclaimed by the desert, knowing that the real thing lurks just beyond the sprinklers.

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