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Hotbed of Creativity

In Claremont, There Is Always a Cultivar in Development

May 18, 2003|GINNY CHIEN

Nestled within the 86-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont is a lovely little haven of horticultural creativity. The California Cultivar Garden spotlights more than 600 beautiful blooms derived from native species and nurtured for their ability to thrive in California's climate. Many display spectacular forms or colors, from delicate beds of unusual white coral bells to pole-like cactuses with big peach flowers. "You'll see one or two [native cultivars] at your local nursery, but if you want to see a breadth of them, this is the only game around," says Bart O'Brien, Rancho Santa Ana's director of horticulture.

For the uninitiated, cultivars are bred from exceptional plants of an existing variety because they possess a desired attribute such as leaf shape or drought resistance. Rancho Santa Ana's two-acre cultivar parcel features plants selected for adaptability to home gardens. The plot is designed like a backyard, with fences, gazebos and even a reflection pool.

With an unusually warm January and last month's rains, the cultivar garden, which opened in 1991, already is in full bloom. Deciduous pink-flushed azaleas, or Rhododendron occidentale 'Irene Koster,' have sprouted in a corner, emitting a prominent sweet smell; O'Brien says this California variety is perhaps the most fragrant of all azaleas. A vigorous grape plant--which will turn "electric red" come fall--shrouds a gazebo, and a small strawberry patch boasts dainty white blossoms. "If we didn't have native strawberries, we wouldn't have strawberries to eat in California," O'Brien notes. "They were very important in hybridizing the industry's commercial crops."

Founded in 1927, Rancho Santa Ana has a long history of developing new plants that flourish in California's Mediterranean weather, with its summer droughts and winter rains. Of the 115 cultivars it has introduced, the two most famous are Fremontodendron 'California Glory' (a fast-growing shrub with glorious waxy, yellow flowers) and Mahonia 'Golden Abundance' (another shrub with small purple fruits and redolent yellow blooms), according to O'Brien, who has a master's in landscape architecture from Harvard. In his 13 years overseeing the cultivar garden, more than 30 new varieties have debuted to the horticultural community. "The only things we haven't done are a tree and a fern," he says. All newly hatched plants are made available at twice-yearly sales held the first weekend in April and November.

Cultivars can be developed by methods including selection from the wild and hybridization. Many are discovered during fieldwork, but O'Brien has even spotted some while driving. "I was on a stretch of I-5 where wild sunflowers grow," he says, "and normally they're golden yellow, but that day I saw a very pale yellow one. So I marked it, came back and harvested the seeds. We ended up introducing it as Helianthus 'Claremont Sunshine.' "


Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont; (909) 625-8767.

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