Recently I made a field trip to a gem of a spot that should be better known: the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.
The garden comprises 86 acres of California native plants. I’ve seen the place in lush springs and full-bloom falls, but in Southern California’s current full-on drought, the garden is gorgeous in another way.
Fay’s Wildflower Meadow, for example, normally features a “spectacular wealth of wildflower species native to California.” Though the species at the moment are limited, the very sparseness makes the soft yellow of the evening primrose, the lambent orange of a few scattered California poppies, and the crisp gold of a desert marigold that much more striking.
Along with the rest of us, the garden has cut back on watering. Explains special assistant for communications and developmentApril Garbat: “We’re a display garden, so we’re trying to re-shape aesthetic ideals. How far do we push what’s considered beautiful? Dormant can be beautiful.”
In a garden, concepts like seasons, resurrection and drought become metaphors for our lives. The Prickly Pear, Jojoba and Coast Cholla flourish. The creosote soldiers bravely on. But the Fairy Duster visibly suffers. The Pencil cacti droop in the sun. Even the invincible barrel cacti look tired.
In the shade of the Palm Oasis, two monarch butterflies frolic on a Giant Wildrye.
Up on the section of the garden known as Indian Hill Mesa, it’s a symphony of gnarled manzanita roots, gently decaying maple leaves and old live oaks — dead quiet except for the squirrels and the birds. I come upon a little shaded pond and a bench and sit. A koi swims languidly through bronze-green water. A babyRed-eared Slider turtle suns on a rock. Sunlight filters through the dying leaves of a pink floss tree.
I think of Psalm 63 from the Divine Office:
O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.
I get up and move on. A groundskeeper gently rakes. Lizards rattle through the dried fronds of the Hybrid Douglas Iris. Tucked beneath the pines is an old school diorama, “From Plants to Basket,” showing how Native Americans harvested, prepared, stripped, dyed and wove reeds to make the baskets which “touched every aspect of an Indian’s life, from the cradle to the grave.”
Further on, there’s the Mistretta Fountain in memory of Anthony Joseph Mistretta (1950-1996), “who loved the woods.” An outdoor exhibit called “Plants Interact describes the miracle of wind pollination. We learn of people who study the way flowers are arranged on plants — their “inflorescence.” How worthy a calling is that!
In the Trustees Oak Grove, a lone Wooly Blue Curls dangles blooms of flocked purple. A stand of Hummingbird Sage thrives next to a Creeping Snowberry. More than 150 species of bird have been observed in the garden — among them the Anna’s Hummingbird, Lesser Goldfinch, Cedar Waxwing, Spotted Towhee and Cooper’s Hawk.
The Cultivar Garden features lovely tall Coast Redwoods, a pergola, and masses of Route 66 California Fuchsia, blazing with flame-orange flowers. A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding, and the garden has a long history of developing their own, including varieties of native California plants salvia, ceanothus and keckiella.
Scattered throughout are sculptures: “Genesis,” “Contemplations,” “Silent Sentinel.”
What you do, though, I figured out after an hour or so, is you wander beyond. You keep walking, to the area called “California Plant Communities,” and a mile-line trail that on a 100-degree weekday noon is completely deserted. California Chaparral, Bay Trees, Northern Juniper Woodland. The boojum tree is a cousin of the ocotillo, its name borrowed from the Lewis Carroll poem “The Hunting of the Snark.”
Sections of Torrey Pines, Joshua Trees, Creosote Bush Scrub. Smells of sweetgrass, warm pine needles, wafting sage. A sycamore leaf falls.
I look out over the acres of scrub and chaparral and pines to the mountains. I’m in a “garden,” which is where lovers meet.
And suddenly I think: Someday I’m going to be walking down a road like this and Christ is going to be walking toward me. I think: What if he materialized right now and started walking toward me — would I recognize him?
I think of how maybe we would look at each other for a minute with a little expectant smile, like when you meet a stranger at the airport — “Is it you?” And then I’d know. I’d just know. One day, this face I’ve been looking for, searching for, waiting to see my whole life, will come into focus.
Apparently Blessed Mother Teresa, guardian of the poor of Calcutta, once wrote a note to Dorothy Day, guardian of the poor of the Bowery. "Dear Dorothy,” it read. “My love, prayers, and sacrifices to you. If you go first, please tell Jesus that I love him. If I go first, I will tell Jesus that you love him."
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is located at 1500 N. College Ave, Claremont. Information: (909) 625-8767.
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.