Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Tulip Bed at Descanso Gardens

If you were to ask me what my favorite flowers are, I would unhesitatingly answer, “Tulips!” (In a close second would be California Poppies.) Yesterday, Martine and I braved the springtime crowds at Descanso Gardens to see the springtime flowers. Our first interest were the tulips, which we were the first thing we visited when we got there, and then again the last thing we saw before closing time.

What I love most about tulips are the gorgeous colors. Unfortunately, they last such a short time and are not seen anywhere for most of the year. They originally came from the Middle East in the 11th century AD, and were taken up by the Dutch only around the 1500s.

The world’s first speculative bubble was not in stocks or currency, but in Dutch tulip bulbs. The bubble lasted from 1634 to 1637, and saw numerous fortunes made and lost. In 1850, Alexandre Dumas Père, of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo fame, published a novel called The Black Tulip, which is well worth reading. It contains the following syllogism:

To despise flowers is to offend God
The more beautiful the flower is, the more does one offend God in despising it
The tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers
Therefore, he who despises the tulip offends God beyond measure

Tomorrow: The California Poppy.

The Year of the Camellia

Camellia Japonica at Descanso Gardens

On Saturday, Martine and I went to Descanso Gardens. We were amazed at the lushness of the camellia forest after the torrential rains of the last six weeks. And, to make things better, there was also an exhibition of particularly beautiful camellia blossoms. It was a good day, something like the old days, which ended when a sudden switch was thrown and Martine was too depressed to enjoy anything. I hope this is a portent of better days to come for her.

I have finally succumbed to the cold, rainy weather and come down with a nasty cold. It’s as if my body were down a quart of the oil it needs to run. But this too shall pass.

Award-Winning Camellia Blooms

Actually, I’m surprised I haven’t come down with something earlier. The temperature has not edged much above 60° Fahrenheit (16° Celsius) since I’ve returned from Guatemala. Moreover, this is the rainiest winter we have seen for a couple of decades, it seems.


Two Worlds

Koi in Mulberry Pond, Descanso Gardens

This post originally appeared in November 2008 when I was posting—briefly—on Blog.Com.

I loved this picture I shot at Descanso Gardens a couple of weeks ago. On one hand, the camera is looking at a koi in a shallow pond swimming among the rocks. A scant inch or so above his fins is an entirely different world of air and trees and birds. In one world, you need gills; in the other, either a lung or photosynthesis. Standing by the side of the pond, we can look at the fish. But does the fish look at us? Or are we some distorted image that lies on an irrelevant plane above the surface of the water? Somewhere in that world I am standing with my Nikon Coolpix camera waiting for the right moment to bring both worlds together.

As I look at the koi swimming in Mulberry Pond, I cannot help but think that the patterns they form with respect to one another as they glide by is a form of handwriting employed by the Creator. To communicate with whom? I do not understand this script, though I think it is beautiful in a fluid way. If I could understand it, would I  reach enlightenment? The camera would go back into its case on my belt, and I would reel with a weightless feeling as I was one with everything I saw and felt.

I frequently think that everything around us is a form of writing which we, alas, are too dim to understand. Perhaps, in time….


Sun Shining Through Leaves

Nothing Puts Me in a More Meditative State of Mind

This scene at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond represents to me nature at its most lovely. I enjoy sitting there in the late afternoon and watching the lengthening sun shine through the leaves of the tree and the reeds growing from the pond. That luminous shade of green more than anything else makes me feel at peace. I usually let Martine walk around the park while I thinking about my inhaling and exhaling, all the while small children try to throw sticks and stones into the water. No matter: It’s all good.

One doesn’t always find this lush configuration of plants and sunlight in Southern California. More frequent are dusty botanicals that merely look dark. Not that Descanso has a team of caretakers dusting and polishing the plants—but that bench under the mulberry tree is one of the secret places in my heart. And it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the park in La Cañada-Flintridge.

The Calm Before the Storm


Tulips at Descanso Gardens

Tulips at Descanso Gardens

Since the beginning of May, I have been semi-retired. Now, with the passing of our tax manager on Tuesday, I am being asked to come back full time—at least until the end of tax season. I had hoped to avoid another high-pressure tax season, but I pretty much had to agree to help out; else, I might have been forced to look for another job at my advanced age. So I can expect the next six weeks to be highly stressful. Life is like that sometimes.

But before I started in on the heavy-duty work, I decided to go to Descanso Gardens with Martine. The tulips were planted, and this was the first weekend of a two-=weekend Cherry Blossom Festival. Only some of the cherry trees were in flower, but the gardens were crowded, mostly with Japanese-Americans looking for an American equivalent of their own cherry blossom festivals. Fortunately, Descanso is large enough that one can easily escape the crowds and still find beauty.

The beauty of the tulips, and even of the lone lilac that came into bloom early, will help me in the weeks to come. Unfortunately, the tax deadline this year is Tuesday, April 18. That happens whenever April 15 falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This year it is on Saturday, and Monday is a holiday (Emancipation Day) in the District of Columbia; so, Tuesday is the tax deadline.

I’ve already filed my taxes, so at least I don’t have to worry about that.


Camellias Are My Life

Red Camellia Blossom at Descanso Gardens

Red Camellia Blossom at Descanso Gardens

Yesterday, Martine and I visited Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge. At this time of year, the garden is still pretty dead—except for the camellias. The blossom above, fo example, caught my eye.

The title of this post refers not only to the flowers, which are stunning, but also to the fact that I am addicted to the Camellia sinensis, which is the scientific name for tea. I do not drink coffee, and I don’t particularly like carbonated beverages. In this cold month of January, I make a pot of Indian black tea every morning. I drink the tea hot for breakfast and iced for dinner and as a snack. Other than water, that’s about all I drink, ever. I might have a beer when it gets really hot, but no more than a dozen or so times a year.

The camellias at Descanso this time of year are Camellia japonicas, though there are a couple of other species, such as reticulata and sasanqua are also to be found. What makes Descanso’s collection unique is that they are protected by a large forest of California Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia)—protected in the sense that camellias usually do not like direct sunlight.

Some of the Oak Forest at Descanso

Some of the Oak Forest at Descanso

There is talk that many of the oaks at Descanso are centuries old and need to be replaced little by little with some other shade tree that coexists well with camellias. I don’t know how the garden staff will accomplish this, but I am sure that their professionals will be ultra-conservative, in the best meaning of the term.


Thoughts in a Dry Season

Descanso’s Rose Garden on New Years Weekend

Descanso’s Rose Garden on New Years Weekend

Today, Martine and I went to visit Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge. Despite the drought, I thought at least the camellias would be in bloom. There were camellias all right—two blossoms looked pretty fair. Most of the camellia bushes had not yielded any flowers. The Rose garden (above) looked as if it were ready for some cactus plantings.

I report with a smirk that rain is predicted for most of this week beginning tomorrow night. I have already gone on record about the unjustifiably high salaries TV weather persons earn for telling whoppers to their broadcast audience. Oh, it will probably rain—a few millimeters in the mountains. But I rather doubt I will be getting wet soon unless I take a shower.

The oak trees at Descanso (below) looked all right, but most are over a century old and will eventually have to be replaced by another type of shade tree to encourage the camellias.

Pacific Coastal Oaks at Descanso

Pacific Coastal Oaks at Descanso



That’s Dutch for “Tulip Mania”

That’s Dutch for “Tulip Mania”

Tulips are my favorite flowers. Sadly—in Southern California anyhow—they are in bloom only during the months of March and April. Wouldn’t you know it: That’s just when I am most occupied doing overtime work on taxes. When I got an e-mail from Descanso Gardens saying the tulips were in bloom, I wasted no time getting out there with my camera. Even though Martine has not been feeling good lately, the flowers and the warm weather made her feel a little better. As for me, it was a major lift for my spirits.

There was a time in the Seventeenth Century that tulips were big business in the Netherlands. Introduced to Europe late in the previous century from Turkey, tulips spread like wildflower (sorry about the pun). British journalist Charles Mackay wrote a book in 1841 called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which there was a chapter about Dutch tulip mania, or tulpomanie. At its height around 1637, a single bulb for the tulip called “The Viceroy” (see below) cost between 3,000 and 4,200 guilders—this while the average skilled tradesman made around 300 guilders for an entire year.

Catalog Picture of “The Viceyoy” Tulip

Catalog Picture of “The Viceroy” Tulip

If you are interested in reading more, you can still find the Mackay book around, and you may be even more interested in reading Alexandre Dumas Père’s The Black Tulip, which dramatizes the whole tulip mania period in Holland. When the City of Haarlem offers 100,000 guilders to anyone who can produce a black tulip, all hell breaks loose.

“Heart of Oak”

The Oak Forest at Descanso Gardens

The Oak Forest at Descanso Gardens

“Heart of Oak” is and has for more than 200 years been the official march of the Britain’s Royal Navy. If you want to hear the lyrics, see below:

For me, the connotation is somewhat similar: There is something about oak trees that exude both strength and beauty. At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, there is a massive oak canopy protecting a host of other plants, most particularly the acres of camellias that Descanso is famous for. According to the park website:

Experience the giants in the Descanso landscape, the Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia). These trees, some centuries old, are the remainder of a forest that once blanketed the region. The Coast Live Oak typifies the natural Southern California coastal landscape. These trees are flowering plants and belong to the beech family (Fagacea). There are 19 species of Quercus native to California. The Coast Live Oak is an evergreen tree oak. Its natural distribution ranges from California’s Mendocino County along the Coast Ranges down to northern Baja California.

The Coast Live Oak is known as a “keystone species,” meaning that the tree supports the existence of hundreds of other species, including mammals, birds, insects, fungi, plants, and even reptiles and amphibians. The Tongva [Gabrielino] people who made this region their home relied on acorns as an important food source. The importance of the Coast live oak in the interconnected web of life cannot be overstated.

For me, the oak forest is the principal year-round draw. Because California is in the middle of a drought, the camellias are not as lush as in previous years, but the oaks are always evergreen. The pattern of intersecting branches as in the above photo are Zen-like in heir intensity and always make my heart glad.

This Bud’s for You

Camellia Buds at Descanso Gardens

Camellia Buds at Descanso Gardens

Today, in the dead of winter, Martine and I visited Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge. There wasn’t much to see, except perhaps a foretaste of things to come. Usually by this time the camellias are in full bloom, but this has been the driest rainy season on record thus far, with less than an inch of rain over the last six months. The number of camellia blossoms was way below normal, but there were a few nice blossoms, and quite a few buds (such as the above) waiting for better conditions.

Sometimes I wonder what the global climate change has in store for Southern California. Will we become like the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru, where the annual rainfall is measured in millimeters? And this while the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern parts of the country are suffering from record precipitation!

The Rose Garden was surrounded by a fence to protect the bushes from hungry mule deer that find their way into the gardens and devour up to twenty pounds of plants a day. There didn’t seem to be many, if any, roses; so any damage the deer might do would be mostly to future plants.

Even in a dry season, Descanso was beautiful. It contains the largest camellia forest in North America, shaded by some of the most spectacular oaks on the West Coast. We watched the koi form patterns, as if they were ink strokes in God’s own pictographic language. What He was communicating, I don’t know, but it looked nice.

Koi at Descanso

Koi at Descanso