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Garden Visit

In Eagle Rock, a Jungle Land

Elmer Lorenz has grown subtropical plants in his expansive backyard for 53 years. Now he's caretaker of 6,000 species.

September 12, 2002|ROBERT SMAUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Don't duck, just push your way though," suggests Elmer Lorenz from somewhere up ahead. The narrow path I'm following is choked with bamboo palms, gingers, anthuriums and other subtropical treasures, which have been growing happily in this Eagle Rock backyard for 53 years.

Lorenz explains why his garden is such a jungle. "I've always been interested in the tropics and in jungles but figured I'd never get to travel there," he says, still buried in the vegetation, "so I decided to grow my own." Because so many of these plants grow under trees in their native jungles, Lorenz has covered half his property with shade cloth, though I hardly notice it overhead as we fight our way though the leafy vegetation.

I can barely keep up with him because I keep stopping to look. There is so much to see, like the huge staghorn fern that's firmly attached to a palm trunk. Not only is this epiphytic fern holding tight, it is strapped to the truck by the aerial roots of a Philodendron 'Evansii' that grows above it. It's like being in a Tarzan movie. I could probably grab onto one of those roots and swing across the garden.

Lorenz originally had a whole acre to play with but the California Department of Transportation swiped half of it for a freeway offramp. Bummer, I think, but he quickly adds, "Too bad they didn't take more," only half-jokingly. Caring for a jungle, it seems, is hard work.

The octogenarian does most of the work, repotting, moving plants around, weeding, watering large areas by hand, strengthening the shade structure. Shirley Kerins, who's in charge of the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens' plant sales, beams when she talks about Lorenz. He volunteers there every Friday, helping with preparations for the sales. "He's so amazing," she says, "he's in charge of the shade plant section, which means he schleps all the plants, and he's 88 years old!" She doesn't stop there. "He's one of the most devoted plantsmen. He's a treasure!"

Lorenz was a founding member of the Bromeliad Society and a past president of the group and the Southern California Horticultural Society. He was a member of the legendary Leafeaters, a group of plant fanatics that included UCLA's Mildred Mathias, designer Midge Davis and other horticultural notables. As we walk, he stops to pinch back some coleus that are trying to bloom because letting them flower at the end of summer will quickly end their stay in the garden. He points out all the work that needs to be done this fall, including the replanting of entire areas. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

I keep stopping for closer looks, this time at the long sprays of tiny Encyclia tampensis orchid blooms that arch into the path at this time of year. He has a number of unusual and really lovely hybrids. Lorenz says he prefers small-flowered orchids like these encyclia, and he has quite a collection. Most are hardy outdoors in his Sunset Zone 21 banana-belt garden, including this species from Florida.

Lorenz recently dismantled a large greenhouse but there is another smaller one for those plants that can't take the cold of winter. The temperature once dropped to 29 degrees. "I begin to get a little nervous when it drops to 32 or 31," he says. While all of the orchids spend summers outside, a few must be brought into the greenhouse in cold weather, and little red plant labels sticking out of the pots remind him which need protection in winter.

Most of the plants are from subtropical jungles like those found in Australia and Costa Rica, so they can take a little cold. The majority of plants are grown for their dramatic, tropical-looking foliage, which he is especially fond of, and this is why it's so hard to see very far. I stop again to look at some handsome and incredibly long and narrow leaves on two kinds of anthurium, growing in hanging pots. Their flowers are not much to look at but the leaves are like nothing I've ever seen. They must be 3 feet long and only a few inches wide.

He says one problem with a jungle garden is forgetting about individual plants. "I'll make a mental note to see the flowers on something, then forget all about it until the blooms are past." So he has set up a display area, next to a small patio, where he hangs some of the orchids that are flowering so you don't have to go searching for blooms.

His half-acre is home to an astounding 6,000 plant species. Years ago he began a list of "accessions," as newly acquired plants are called at botanic gardens, and he now has an inch-thick stack of sheets on a severely strained clipboard with the thousands of entries. "I don't know how he remembers all the names," said his wife Joyce, though Lorenz claims he doesn't.

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