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Inspiration! A Tropical Wonderland in SoCal

by germinatrix | October 17th, 2009

philodendrons climb trees all over the tropics -beautiful parasites!

philodendrons climb trees all over the tropics -beautiful parasites!

You all know about my big project in Mexico – a big chunky paradise-garden in the Yucatecan deciduous jungle. Well, I was recently organizing my photos (which I’ve done exactly once in my lifetime) when I came across some images that showed me that I’d been preparing for this garden for much longer than I thought! And I didn’t venture very far from home to do it – It happened during a trip to lovely San Diego, California, in the amazing Lathhouse in Balboa Park.

these are bismarkia nobilis - surprise! I'm using them in the yucatan in spades!

these are bismarkia nobilis - surprise! I'm using them in the yucatan in spades!

They call it the Botanical building, but I call it the “lathhouse” because that’s what it is – a classic (if very ornate) structure made of lath to create a microclimate favorable to tropical plants. The structure differs from a greenhouse or glasshouse because it isn’t totally enclosed – there is a constant flow of air between the slender boards (lath) that it is built out of. The boards, spaced closely together, create a dappled shade (similar to a jungle or forest canopy), and protect the large leaves inside from harsh winds and other weather calamities. There is more humidity in the lathhouse; it’s warm and lush and it smells very, very alive.

don't ask me why jan is wearing an enormous scarf in a humid garden!

don't ask me why jan is wearing an enormous scarf in a humid garden!

The inside of the building is full of incredible tree ferns and lace ferns and mother ferns and every manner of fern you could ever want to see! Simple raised beds made of brick contain what must be very rich soil, and visitors wander around reverentially, taking photos and whispering about whatever specimen is before them. And then a mob of schoolchildren tear through, playing balance beam on the edge of the beds and trying to pick the orchids. Thank goodness for teachers and helper-Moms! I tried to give a stern look, but if I was a kid, I’d be doing the same thing! In fact, I think I actually WAS doing the same thing (with the exception of attempted orchid-picking)! It was all so jurassic and tempting!

wow. that's all I can say about this darling little grotto. wow.

wow. that's all I can say about this darling little grotto. wow.

look at the awesome tropical dynamic being worked out here!

look at the awesome tropical dynamic being worked out here!

I love working with contrasting textures in a garden. My favorite plantings play with big leaves and tiny leaves, rubbery agaves are  tickled by needle-y junipers, the grassy is cuddled up with the strong and spiky. I’d assumed that the overall look of a tropical garden was going to be big green leaves, with occasional splashes of crazy color. The examples in the lathhouse show a different story – there are so many textures in a tropical palette other than big and rubbery. There is feathery, spiky, airy – and then the COLORS!

I can hardly how cool this is! bromeliads are the succulents of the tropics.

I can hardly stand how cool this is! bromeliads are the succulents of the tropics.

these are pretty, hot, and tempting, don't you think?

these are pretty, hot, and tempting, don't you think?

One of the many garden spaces in the Yucatan project I am REALLY excited about is a tillandsia / bromeliad garden … we are using the existing trees in a space very close to the main house to create a hanging garden of bromeliads and tillandsias, leaving the space underneath available for outdoor entertaining. The idea of the parasitic is being explored in many ways in this project, and this is going to be a glorious representation of beautiful plants that use others as hosts. Lotusland has incredible bromeliads and tillandsias, but I am absolutely MESMERIZED by the way they are displayed here in the lathhouse at Balboa Park.

the moodiness of this design of air plants has got me ALL excited!

the moodiness of this design of air plants has got me ALL excited!

The moment above captures a real beauty, but the idea of decay is never far away. I LOVE THAT! These plants live on the carcasses of trees, they capture water and mist and nutrients from falling leaves, and they look FABULOUS doing it!

what a great sculpture made entirely of plants!

what a great sculpture made entirely of plants!

I was taken aback when I found these images in my files – I’ve been doing so much research so far afield, and here were many of the ideas that I was playing with, just a hop, skip, and a jump down the freeway!

If anybody is in the San Diego area, I encourage you to spend an afternoon in Balboa Park - it is beautiful and is home to some great old architecture and several interesting museums. And enjoy the Botanical Building (because if you look for ‘the lathhouse’ nobody will know what you’re talking about, that’s just MY name for it)!

Inspiration – sometimes it hides, and makes itself known exactly when you need it!

14 Responses to “Inspiration! A Tropical Wonderland in SoCal”

  1. Urban Eden says:

    I grew up in and cut my gardening teeth in San Diego, but it took me becoming a professional garden-type in NoCal to really appreciate all that my hometown has to offer. If you do go back to SD while you’re working on the Mexico project, check out the Palm Canyon in Balboa Park… truly inspirational, and the old old old specimens are incredible. Also, look into what a cool garden gal Kate Sessions was – talk about inspirational! (Also, I am addicted to Balboa Park – had my wedding photos taken there, at the International Buildings & Organ Pavillion.)

    OK, and while I’m at it, I’m going to make a plug for the nursery that I work at here in SF. Lots of things you’ve been posting about tell me that you should pay a visit when you’re next in the area, and the Tillandsia log is yet another indicator… http://www.floragrubb.com Come have a cup of coffee (www.ritualroasters.com) and say “hi”!

  2. This is a lovely post. Great pictures, informational…loved the details on the lath house!…good comments, too. thanks. J

  3. Very interesting post. I enjoyed looking at each photograph. A lot of exotic plants that we can’t have here. Thank you for taking us on the tour, Germi!

  4. Wow – what IS that cool, red, excited curlique thing on that naughty looking plant?? (you KNOW the one I’m talking about)…what a beautiful post – I lived in Laguna Beach for a few years, but unfortunately never visited this place. Too bad for me – it looks just beautiful!

  5. Hi there Ur-Eden! (as in SUPER Eden!) first of all – OF COURSE I know about Flora Grubb’s work! Talk about creating something amazing – when I did a post a while back about the lack of cool nurseries in LA, Flora Grubb’s is one of the nurseries I was thinking about – a place that creates a movement! Since I am so passionate about succulents, palms, tillandsias and all manner of sculptural plants, your nursery is definitely a mecca! Next time I’m up there I will make my presence known!!!
    I am going to visit the parts of Balboa Park you mentioned – I LOVE San Diego and go down there as often as I can. Your hometown really is fantastic, and I know exactly what you mean about getting away from it to see it for what it is. I feel that way about San Antonio, Tx!

    Hello Jeannie! Thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting! I was surprised when I found the pics that I hadn’t posted them before – they are cool, aren’t they? I hope you visit the lathhouse in the park if you ever get down to San Diego … it really is a beauty!

    Hi Tatyana – it is my total pleasure to be your tour guide! Isn’t it fun to see those cool exotics? I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

    Sweet One! You must be talking about the anthurium! I don’t know exactly what variety that is, because it is an enormous family of tropicals, but those, um, erect spathes of excitement get me every time! Because they are used fairly ubiquitously as cut flowers, I never thought much of them until I saw them growing in situ – they can be incredible in gardens! Some of the leaves are as large and interesting as philodendron or monstera! Long live anthuriums!!!
    If you get down to those parts, Balboa Park is a real MUST, for lots of reasons… but for us who die for plants – the Botanical Building is a little slice of tropical heaven!
    MWAH!

  6. oh Germi! I was there a few years back (ok, more like 10) and totally missed this. Bummer, it looks lovely. SUPER lovely. At first I thought the anthurium was going to be a pink flamingo, tacky but I love them. Isn’t it funny how you forget yet are still (deep down) inspired by something like this?

  7. It’s me again. I want to thank you for your comment on my pink ribbon post. All the best to you!

  8. Hey Loree! You’d LOVE it! And the park has great succulents to whet your appetite! I felt the same way about anthuriums at first, but now a simply adore them. Maybe that’s the nature of working with tropicals – you just have to get over tacky! Tacky comes with the territory!
    Yes, I love how the mind works. The important things are there, lurking, just waiting for the prefect moment to be recalled. I was blown away when I saw how many plants I’m using were in these pics I took 2 years ago!

    Tatyana, that post was gorgeous. I cried. Thank YOU!

  9. Jean Prescott says:

    I must have been a spider monkey in a previous incarnation, because all of this looks very familiar and homey to me…and gorgeous and inviting. Wonder if a variation on this glorious theme would flourish on the subtropical Mississippi Gulf Coast. As always, stellar photos. Even if I never break ground, I can get my plant-fix here. Thanks, Germi.

  10. oooh! Thanks so much for sharing. The lath house looks very inviting, especially since there is a monsoon coming down outside my window! This totally brightened my day.

  11. I like the second picture of yours.. i`ll try to landscape my garden just like that..

  12. I am impressed with the sculptures. Really, this is art. I am amazed how you used natural elements to build a beautiful Garden. And it has its own life, is dynamic, and colorful. It must take years to build something like this… right?