May 132020

These are the big blooming surprises at South Coast Botanic Garden

south coast botanic garden in palos verdes
Sheep eating plant flowers (Photo by Joshua Siskin)(Photo by Joshua Siskin)

A visit to the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula serves as an antidote to cabin fever brought on by the coronavirus, which has confined Southern Californians to their homes over the past six weeks.

This is an excellent time to view a magnificent rose garden of 60 varieties, rapturous spring flower gardens, and glorious trees in full bloom.

Note: To gain admission, you must order tickets in advance through the website at

For me, the biggest horticultural surprise at South Coast is a bromeliad that sports a flower spike that can reach up to twelve feet in height, in contrast to the the flowers of most bromeliads which seldom rise above their leaves. 

This curious plant, Puya chilensis, comes from the Andes Mountains in Chile where it grows in hot, dry conditions at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 feet. It is highly drought tolerant and does not require summer water once established. You may have to wait 15 years or more to see it flower for the first time, but you will have spectacular floral eruptions each summer after that.

The foliage of this species with its sharp hooked spines will remind you of certain agaves. These spines are responsible for this bromeliad’s curious common name of “sheep eating plant,” due to a protocarnivorous quality. “Protocarnivorous” refers to the capacity of certain plants to trap insects or other animals either for defensive or nutritive purposes, despite not consuming them on the spot like classically carnivorous venus fly traps or pitcher plants. Sheep or other animals that wander into a clump of Puya chilensis may get caught in the spiny foliage and die there. In time, the rotting carcasses of the animals release mineral nutrients into the soil where they can be absorbed by the plant’s roots.

South Coast Botanic Garden shows off California natives to their best advantage. California poppy cultivars in colors not typically seen—dark orange, red, and pink—are flowering together in a vivid display. Orange, sticky monkey flowers (Diplacus sp.) and mauve beard tongue (Penstemon spectabilis) make an attractive couple in their garden bed. Desert mallows (Sphaeralcea sp.) in orange and pink are also in full bloom now, and hard to resist.

Desert prickly pear (Opuntia phaeacantha) is a California native cactus and qualifies as the Botanic Garden’s most notable ground cover, in my humble opinion. From a distance, its flowers bear a strong resemblance to roses. As you approach and notice they are attached to low-growing beavertail cactus pads, you do a double-take. Only nature can provide such contrasts.

One of the most eye-catching beauties in the South Coast spring garden is Chinese foxglove (Rehmannia elata). The name refers to its geographical origin and the close resemblance of its pink flowers to foxglove blooms, although there is no botanical relationship between the two plants. The roots of Chinese foxglove are highly medicinal and are an ingredient in a wide variety of herbal remedies. It’s a herbaceous perennial that can grow up to five feet tall and can handle full sun in coastal climates.

At South Coast, two trees are breathtaking for their flowers, another for its unique presence in this part of the world, and still another for its size. The Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) is flowering now at full capacity, as white and puffy as a cloud. Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense), native to East and South Africa, is overwhelming with its generous outpouring of pink flowers. The craggily-lobed leaves of a red oak (Quercus ruber), taken for granted in New England, are highly cherished when the species is encountered in Southern California as it is here. Finally, a humongous bronze loquat tree (Eriobotrya deflexa), the likes of which you have never seen before, is growing on site. Who knew that this popular ornamental tree could achieve such grandiose stature?

Tip of the Week: After gazing upon Madeira cranesbill (Geranium madarense), you may quickly decide that it’s your favorite geranium. It is undeniably glorious, growing to five feet in height with huge, finely cut leaves and a magnificent display of magenta flowers. Although it dies after its second or third year in the garden, it produces scads of viable seeds that you can easily germinate where the original plant stood.

Geraniums are often referred to as cranesbills on account of their elongated seed capsules that come to a point and resemble the beak of a crane. Madeira cranesbill is endemic to Madeira, an island 400 miles west of Morocco and 600 miles southwest of Portugal. Madeira gained fame in the 16th century for its fortified wine, a favorite of sea voyagers since an opened bottle would hold its quality for an extended period of time. 

The other exotic geranium worth searching out at the South Coast Botanic Garden is Pelargonium sidoides, a ground cover with silver-gray leaves and burgundy flowers. It blooms throughout the year in coastal gardens.

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