Friday, September 19, 2014

672 Million Breaths

Time is running out

Most of the grains of sand have passed through my life's hourglass, and I wish I possessed the power to turn the device upside down and begin again. The average American lives to 2.4 billion seconds, which is also approximately the number of heartbeats that you will experience. Those who excite easily will perhaps accomplish more beats than average, but then maybe not live so long. If you live to 80, you will take about 672 million breaths and accumulate 216 million steps...covering 108,000 miles in your lifetime, or around the world just over four times. I estimate that I walk three or more times the national average per day, starting from age one to present. Of course a hefty portion of that distance is explained by frequent trips from my couch to the refrigerator.

Pinus torreyana

In my arboretum I have amassed a considerable collection of pine species and I have been fortunate to see many of them in the wild. One notable exception was Pinus torreyana, which I had neither grown nor seen in its native habitat. The species is restricted to a small area north of San Diego, California on buttes above the Pacific Ocean, and also on one of the Channel Islands (Santa Rosa) west of Santa Barbara, California. It is considered the most rare pine in the United States, where it is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. I vowed that I must see it in the wild, and I put it on my "bucket list" as they say these days. Since the distance from my home to San Diego – where I've never been – is slightly over 1,000 miles, I realized that I must fly rather than take the necessary steps by walking.

Lost in thought
La Jolla

La Jolla beach from hotel balcony

My family was gleeful at the prospect of visiting the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo, then swimming in the ocean to their heart's content, but they also gamely accompanied me to the Torreya State Park and the San Diego Arboretum, so that I could write off my portion as a business expense. While at the zoo I observed a number of interesting plants – and I took a few photos – but the labelling was very sparse. I admit that I enjoyed the zoo and the adorable pandas, but I was most impressed with my relatives, the mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei. There are only about 700 individuals left in Africa due to habitat destruction, war and poaching. We homo sapiens tourists can recognize their intelligence, and we're told that in captivity they have even learned simple human sign language.

Pinus torreyana

But back to the pines. I wouldn't call the torreyana species particularly attractive or majestic, but it does present a unique open-canopied form. They arise from the sage and chaparral scrub, which looks worn-out by the end of August, and can grow up to fifty feet tall, often with contorted and windswept forms. They exist in a dry region that receives less than 15 inches of rain per year, but they also collect moisture from coastal fog in spring and summer. It is so unusual to have a tall floral species in this boring landscape that the trees were once used in maritime navigation.

Pinus torreyana needles

Pinus torreyana

Pinus torreyana

Lilium parryi

The needles are arranged in fascicles of five, unusual for a "yellow" pine. Cones are heavy, rounded in shape, and slightly larger than Pinus ponderosa. I wanted to collect a fresh cone, one harmless cone, but since I was in a State Preserve with only 7,000 trees remaining, I resisted. The species was named by Englishman Charles Parry (1823-1890) for his American botany instructor John Torrey. Parry didn't restrict himself to the California coast, but also climbed and measured many Colorado mountains, such as Parry Peak at 13,391 feet in elevation. The beautiful Lilium parryi ("Lemon Lily") from southwestern USA and northern Mexico was named in his honor.

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

I scheduled a lengthy visit to Balboa Park, but since my family had little interest in what was offered, they dropped me off and returned to our beach-front hotel at La Jolla to indulge in an all-day swim. Naturally I arrived an hour before anything opened, so I just milled about...admiring the architecture and palm trees. Members of a fitness class for mothers – all attractive California ladies – were jogging with baby strollers ahead, and in one case I admired an erstwhile mom with triplets.

Ficus macrophylla

Almost by accident I suddenly noticed an enormous tree, fenced off for its protection, named Ficus macrophylla, and I'll let the sign speak for itself. Furthermore, I later learned that this member of the Moraceae family is native to the eastern coast of Australia. The evergreen "Banyan Tree" is best known for its impressive buttress roots, but the San Diego specimen didn't reveal much of that characteristic. The largest Ficus macrophylla in the United States is believed to grow in Santa Barbara, California: when a seaman visiting in 1876 presented one to a local girl; and now the crown spreads to over 200 feet, while the trunk diameter above the buttress roots is nearly 13 feet. Thankfully the seaman left a Ficus specimen for Santa Barbara's posterity, and that was truly nice of him.

The Adoration of The Shepherds
Pentitent Saint Peter

Balboa Park is a 1200 acre urban cultural park containing green belts, gardens, walking paths, as well as the San Diego Zoo. Besides all of that it features fifteen major museums and I attended three. The highlight was a couple of El Greco oils at the San Diego Museum of Art, both of which I was familiar with from art books; but the real painting of the Penitent Saint Peter was as good as it gets.

A cactus collection was on the other side of the highway, linked by a footbridge, but nothing was labeled. I was the only visitor – maybe for the entire day – but previously Cody expressed his love for Jennifer by carving his sentiment on a cactus trunk. Hopefully she dumped him when she saw what he had done.

Balboa Botanic House

Balboa park had a fantastic Botanic House, from the outside anyway, and there was no need for it to be 100% enclosed. By the time I got there it was jammed with tourists, replete with running children and crying babies. There were a lot of interesting plants and the majority of them were labelled, but the noise and the dodging of baby strollers wore me down and I quickly exited. Nearby I found serenity in the Japanese Garden, for it was almost empty, and I rested on a shady bench.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa
Balboa Park was named for Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519), a Spanish conquistador and explorer. He was the first European to see the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean when he crossed Panama in 1513, and of course he claimed all of the land that touched the ocean for Spain. Balboa killed hundreds of natives (along with Francisco Pizarro) in his lust for gold, although he did marry the daughter of a local chief. Vasco met his Maker when he was framed (though innocent) and charged with treason, and was publically beheaded. He never set foot in the San Diego area, but then he did claim everything for Spain. Originally the park was called City Park, but city leaders wanted a name more colorful for the upcoming 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Most of the citizens were outraged when Balboa was chosen, given the sordid conquistador's history, but the three city commissioners responsible paid no heed; an example of politics just like today.

I was surprised that the San Diego Botanic Garden was not in the city, but rather 26 miles to the north in Encinitas. The town's name translates as "little holm oak" or "little holly oak" which is botanically known as Quercus ilex. Interestingly, Quercus ilex is not native to California, but rather to the Mediterranean region, and is the national tree of Malta. Perhaps the Encinitas name was due to the native "Coast Scrub Oak," Quercus dumosa, since both species are evergreen. Anyway the 35 acre arboretum was located one mile inland from the sea, and we arrived at mid-day.

Quercus suber

Quercus x hispanica 'Lucombeana'

I was happy to immediately discover about ten "cork oaks," Quercus suber, the largest of which I have ever seen. The species is the primary source of cork for wine bottle stopper and is native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. It is believed that the corky trunk evolved in defense of forest fires. Quercus suber is evergreen and of medium size, and the cork can be harvested once the tree is about 25 years old...then 9-to-12 years for the second harvest. The bark is harvested by human hands only, with skilled men wielding small axes so as to not harm the tree. Two years ago in Belgium I saw Quercus x hispanica, a cross of Q. suber with Q. cerris ("Turkish Oak"), commonly called the "Lucombe Oak." I'm sure the 1.5 billion-euro cork industry is nervous as Phytophthora ramorum, the "Sudden Oak Death," has reached Europe.

Acacia abyssinica
Agonis flexuosa

Aloe 'Hercules'
Araucaria cunninghamii

Melaleuca viridiflora var. rubriflora

Eucalyptus species

Other trunks of interest include Acacia abyssinica, the flat-top acacia from Africa; Agonis flexuosa from Australia, commonly called the "peppermint tree" due to the aroma when leaves are crushed; Aloe 'Hercules', the vigorous cross between A. barberae and A. dichotoma; Araucaria cunninghamia from Australia, known as the "hoop pine"; and Melaleuca viridifolia var. rubriflora from Australia and Papua New Guinea, commonly called the "paperbark tree." I'll admit that I don't recall ever seeing any of these trees before, as none of them would be winter hardy in Oregon. One thing I've noticed about these Southern Hemisphere trees is that the trunks are far more interesting than the tops, just as with the many Eucalyptus species.

Euphorbia cooperi

A couple of Euphorbia species caught my eye, and they couldn't have been more different from each other. E. cooperi is a South African native with curious pyramidal arms, but don't be tempted to pocket a start as the milky latex can cause a severe rash. The poison is called euphorbon about which little is known, but in South Africa the euphorbia word is synonymous with "poison." This "Transvaal Candelabra Tree" can be used to paralyze fish so that they can be caught by hand. A bundle of grass is tied to a rock and then covered with the latex. The fisherman throws the rock into the water and the stupefied – but still breathing – fish soon rise to the surface. This fishing story is something I have read, and of course I've never tried it myself, and I can't help but wonder if there's any danger to handle, then eat the fish.

Euphorbia lambii

Euphorbia lambii is a "spurge" from the Canary Islands, and as a tree it can grow to ten feet tall. It too is poisonous, but then it is deer-resistant if you want an annual for a dry place in the garden. E. lambii is also known as E. bourgeana, but they are the same. The native stand is restricted to a small area on only one island (La Gomera), and the species is considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The name euphorbia is derived from Dr. Euphorbus, a first-century Greek physician who used it medically, and "spurge" is from old French espurge – to "purge," as in a purgative. Euphorbia comes from all around the world and it contains about 2,000 species, making it one of the largest genera of flowering plants. One common species is E. pulcherrima, known as the Christmas poinsettia.

Echinocactus grusonii

Ferocactus diguetii

Of course there were cacti in the Botanic Garden, but I don't know a lot about them, in particular the difference between an Echinocactus, a Ferocactus, a Notocactus etc. Echinocactus grusonii is commonly known as the "golden barrel cactus," and some men refer to it as the "mother-in-law's cushion." It is from central Mexico but is rare and endangered in the wild. Ferocactus diguetii is native to the Gulf of California and Baja California on rocky slopes. It can grow to 12 feet tall and eventually attains a solitary columnar shape. I don't know why this specimen was flowering in late August, for its normal bloom time is March-to-May. The genetic name refers to the ancient Greek ferox meaning "very spiny," and the specific name diguetii honors Leon Diguet, a French explorer.

Furcraea foetida

Golden blades of the "Giant Cabuya" or "Green Aloe," botanically known as Furcraea foetida, were ablaze in the afternoon sunlight. This species is native to the Caribbean and South America, but it has naturalized in other warm parts of the world. The leaves are used to produce a fiber, similar to sisal. The label said only Furcraea foetida, but I wondered why the leaves appeared variegated. Perhaps it was the cultivar 'Mediopicta', or perhaps the leaves were just yellowing after the long summer.

Citrus 'Oro Blanco'

Musa species

Musa 'Namwah Dwarf'

Syzygium jambos

Syzygium cordatum

Syzygium cordatum

Syzygium cordatum

Syzygium samarangense

Syzygium samarangense

An interesting aspect to the San Diego Botanic Garden was the "edible" section. Grapefruits, bananas, figs were fun to see, as well as other fruits that I have never encountered before. Syzygium jambos was new for me, and the species originates in southeast Asia. The fruits have various common names, such as "Malabar Plum," "Malay Apple" and "Plum Rose." Another species is S. cordatum from Africa, and the fruit is eaten by humans, monkeys and birds. The berries can make an alcoholic drink, and the tree is said to cure stomach ache and/or diarrhea. S. samarangense is a species originally from the Malay Peninsula, but it is now widely cultivated in many tropical regions. The fruit is commonly known as the "love apple," "wax apple," "royal apple," "cloud apple" and many more names. Its flowers contain tannin, and are used to treat fevers and diarrhea.

Ficus carica 'Panache'

Another edible was Ficus carica 'Panache' commonly called the "Striped Tiger Fig." I have never seen a fig in flower – nor have you – since the flowers develop inside the fruit and cannot be seen. The carica species is known as the common fig, and is native to the Middle East and western Asia. Consuming figs is very nutritious, but do so in moderation, as they have a laxative effect. Figs have been cultivated for a long time, yeah from the very beginning, since Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7).

Aristolochia gigantea

At the nursery I grow (for fun only) Aristolochia durior, the "Dutchman's Pipe." More impressive was A. gigantea, known as the "Brazilian Dutchman's Pipe" or the "Giant Pelican Flower," and it completely covered a garage-like building. Unfortunately it is only hardy to 32 degrees F.

The Botanic Garden was a wonderful place to visit even though I'll receive no commercial benefit from it. The staff was attractive but didn't say much, my kind of crew. I'll only receive 672 million breaths if I live to eighty, but I don't regret any of my inhalations in San Diego.

Goodnight La Jolla

1 comment:

  1. While all your posts are richly rewarding, this one about my hometown was the best! I hope you got to sample some craft brews and enjoy a few fish tacos while you were here. We do treasure our Torrey pines - but happy to send you a fresh cone from my brother's backyard in Del Mar if you like. Patty Berg, Encinitas, CA