Tag Archives: palm trees

a palm garden takes shape

I’m sure I’m not the first to have noticed the irony: The main approach to Los Angeles County Museum of Art takes you through the BP Grand Entrance. The back way in takes you through the La Brea Tar Pits.

When I took the photos on the last day of July crude oil was still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and the irony was heavy like the odor of tar coming from the fenced-off pits where archaeologists were working behind the museum on extracting critters and plants that got caught in the ancestral goo.

Here, junior’s ball has somehow made it over the fence around one of the pits. You could maybe rescue it with a stick…or you could wade through the tar and hope that you don’t get caught, only to be discovered by archaeologists a few millennia down the road.

We arrived at the museum an hour before it opened, via the back entrance, so we had a chance to spend some time with Robert Irwin’s Palm Garden Installation. I posted [ before ] on the earlier stages of the garden, and it’s still not complete. But by now you can really make out many more of the elements of what the final garden will look like.

There are many palm species used in the garden. A number of them are planted in a lawn, inside planter boxes that mimic the wooden planter boxes the trees were grown in. But unlike the wooden temporary planters, these permanent homes are made out of thick steel plate–the “it” material of the moment for well-financed modern gardens.

A closer look at the planter box…

In a back corner you could see a collection of palms in pots, and in this photo you can get a better idea of the kind of planter box the steel ones are meant to suggest.

Another look at some of the palms in transition… In this installation some of the plants are rotated out according tot he season. I’m not sure whether these are headed in or out.

LACMA was about to open a new facility, the Resnick Pavillion designed by Renzo Piano. As the building nears completion more elements of the Palm Garden Installation are being planted. In addition to palms it includes several of the non-palm species. These are some spectacularly variegated agaves plants of a furcraea, possibly Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’–Thanks for the correction, Loree!

The way the plants have been shaped, with the lowest leaves removed, made them look like variegated New Zealand flax (phormiums) until you got close to them. It’s not a bad look. It’ll be interesting to see if these agaves furcraeas are kept pruned this way or whether they’ll be allowed to grow into the rosettes that agave furcraea growers are used to seeing. This is in no way a naturalistic garden, so my guess is that the agaves plants will be kept this shape. Besides, how do you mow around them without running over the leaves?

Detail: Furcraea foetida, I think

Another detail of the variegated furcraeas

Another of the non-palm species: this cycad developing this really cool cone. It’s probably something like three to four feet long.

A bench and real palms outside the Resnick pavilion…

The single most dramatic gesture is the placement of this palm with a thickly bulbous trunk that’s been planted in a tight opening that leads two stories down into a parking garage. The effect is like staring down into a North Dakota Minuteman missile silo. It’s more than a tad unsettling, and asserts that garden-making can be about more than designing pleasant, unchallenging spaces.

Say “Los Angeles” to someone and ask them what comes to mind. Palm trees would probably be one of the first things the person might bring up, even though the city’s official tree is the coral tree is and the official flower the bird of paradise. “Cars” would probably be another. Here palms and cars come together, with a short arcade of the trees lining the driveway down into the parking garage.

I’m not anything remotely resembling a palm expert, so I can’t tell you what species this is. But I can show you that it has amazingly sculptural trunks.

Looking up into the fronds gives you the sensation closest what you get from many of the artworks Robert Irwin did before he designed gardens. The fronds filter the light in interesting ways, and two or more layers make things darker than just a single layer. If you stand in the driveway and look straight up the negative space of the sky reads like a bright zigzag between the delicate layers of palm.

If you’d like to compare the effect of the palm fronds to an earlier Irwin piece, here’s a corner of his Running Violet V Forms, a piece that I walk around and under at least twice a week. In this 1980s piece panels of violet-colored mesh turn light or dark, depending on the number of layers, and the mesh turns opaque or transparent depending on how the light is striking it. The mesh interacts with views of the eucalyptus grove where it’s placed. I’ve loved this piece ever since the day it went up. You can read my love story with this piece [ here ].

Artists often complain that big museums don’t pay enough attention to local artists in their scramble to show off big-name artists from the other coast or another country. This summer day LACMA had several galleries devoted to the the photographs of Cathy Opie, and work of other local artists could be found the walls of several of the galleries. But I didn’t identify any plant species used in this garden that came from within a thousand-mile radius.

Word is that Robert Irwin is designing yet another garden, this one for a new federal courthouse here in San Diego. Wouldn’t it be great if he could use some of our California species in the project? What about some of our delicately transparent plants like deer weed or broom baccharis? Or what about some of the many plants that undergo stunning transformations as the seasons change? To see an important new, high profile garden comprised of local natives would be such an amazing opportunity.

a visit to the l.a. county museum

Another quick stop over the holidays took the form of a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installed at the new main entrance is this battalion of 202 antique streetlights, Urban Light, by artist Chris Burden. Streetlights like these of course were positioned at curbs in straight lines, spaced regularly. Clustering them together like this accentuates that fact, and to me makes the whole installation seem maybe just a little bit militaristic.

Arranged behind the Burden piece are some palm trees, the first plantings of what will be a large installation of palms by Robert Irwin. Irwin is the design force behind the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum, but here the trees will read less like a separate garden than plantings integrated into the art and architecture.

Their trunks echo the posts of the streetlights, as does the fact that they’re planted in a regular pattern. Also, as with the streetlights, they’re a collection of different kinds. A press release states: “Along with the palms, Irwin’s other medium is Southern California’s light, and the species of palms have been specially chosen to gather and reflect the interplay of light and shadow native to L.A.” [ source ] I love Robert Irwin’s work [ here’s a sample ], and I’ll be checking back on this installation as time goes on.

The whole vertical shaft thing becomes a theme around the Museum’s latest building, the newish Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which has red exterior accents, including plenty of red columns.

The landscaping in this part of the museum is interesting in that it uses palms or flat plantings. Virtually no shrubs. It’s a pretty urban planting that in part seems designed to give the homeless no place to camp.

Most horizontal surfaces, using decomposed granite or this Turfstone product, are designed as walkable extensions of the concrete paving. Where does the landscape end and the urban fabric begin?

Here’s an interesting gardening aside: The Museums are located on the same big city block as the famed La Brea Tar Pits, where the ground oozes black, gummy tar, a substance that has preserved bones of sabertooth tigers and woolly mammoths from the last ice age that got too close to the stuff. Just imagine trying to garden where digging a hole to plant a shrub might put you in contact with the deadly sludge! I have yet to pick up a garden book that even begins to discuss what to do with this kind of soil problem. While the park containing the tar pits has a few gooey shoe-grabbing spots, these plantings seemed free of the muck.

My main reason for visiting LACMA was to take in a photo exhibit that reassembles many of the works that were seen in the seminal 1975 “New Topographics” exhibition of landscape photography. These works in the show signaled a break from the more romantic takes on what landscape photos ought to look like and engaged a land where the human presence reigned supreme.

One of my favorite photographers in the show, Robert Adams, often combines the romantic sublime with a cooler take on what the world really looks like. To the left is “Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado” from 1973 [ source ], a great example of what his eye sees. You get the sense in his work that the human landscape often fails to live up to the stunning geography where it’s sited.

Seeing his work again prompted me to reread some of his Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. (From this photo you can see that he takes “traditional values” pretty broadly.) Here’s a quick snippet gardeners and landscape designers might like to think about.

Not surprisingly, many photographers have loved gardens, those places that Leonard Woolf once described as “the last refuge of disillusion.” Gardens are in fact strikingly like landscape pictures, sanctuaries not from but of truth.

–from the essay, “Truth and Landscape” in Beauty in Photography

In parting, let me move from beauty in photography to beauty in art. Here’s a closeup of Urban Light, backlit by the afternoon sun:

(For another example of Burden’s work, check out the installation of 50,000 nickel coins and 50,000 matchsticks that the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited: The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.)

long shelf life for seeds

When I’d heard years ago that a lotus seed from China had germinated after laying low for 1300 years I was pretty amazed. That was from seed collected in 1982 when Shen and Miller at UCLA sprouted a number of seeds that were radiocarbon dated to be anywhere from 95 to 1288 years old, plus or minus a few years.

But when I heard the news making the rounds now that a two-millennium-old date palm seed from Masada had sprouted, I was definitely impressed.

Studies of the lotus plants grown from the old seeds showed that all were abnormal, a fact that the scientists attributed to radiation-induced mutations that occurred as a result of naturally-occurring radiation in the soil where they were found. The date palm–which has been dubbed the “Methusalah tree”– however, has been growing spunkily since it was sprouted in 2005, and is now five feet tall. If that palm doesn’t take the cake in the more-heirloom-than-thou plant contest, I don’t know what would!

when landscaping fails

Desert Center, California lies about halfway between Indio and the Colorado River, halfway between a hot, flat desert town and the Arizona border. Unless you need to stop for gas, you pass by it on I-10 at wide-open highway speeds. It’d be a blur like any other anonymous desert town if it weren’t for the palm trees.

The huge date palms there grow single-file in formations that describe wide circles, V-shapes, or a triangle that’s many acres across. Transplanted there by Stanley Ragsdale in the early 1990s, most of the trees now have seen better days. Even for drought-tolerant date palms, irrigation is essential here in the low desert. The watering proved inadequate and many of them died. In their current state of falling into ruins the trees are visually amazing, the vegetable equivalent of the Acropolis.

Palms 1, Desert Center

James SOE NYUN: Palms I, Desert Center, California

I first went to photograph the town and its trees in 2003 on a hot, breezy day in April. It was approaching noon, and there was no shade other than what a minimal palm trunk could provide. It’s not the sort of lighting situation that a lot of photographers consider acceptable, but for this body of work it was perfect. Besides, so many of the well-known 19th century expeditionary photographs of the American West were taken in harsh conditions similar to what I encountered. Palms I, above, and Palms II, below form a diptych: Imagine Palms I on the left and Palms II on the right.

James SOE NYUN: Palms II, Desert Center, California

There weren’t many structures there next to the interstate, not much beyond the obligatory cafe and gas station. The big surprise, though, was an abandoned school, compact, constructed of brick, and modern in its architecture. It had almost no windows in the classrooms except for high clerestories place beneath broad, sheltering eaves. Not that different from the schools I attended up in the Los Angeles area, I thought. In photography–and in painting for centuries before it–ruins are often a bit of a cliche, but name me a landscape photographer who hasn’t shot some at some point. I couldn’t resist:

Desert Center School

James SOE NYUN: Breezeway, Abandoned School, Desert Center, California

Both the palm trees and the town clearly had seen better days. Stephen A. Ragsdale, the man who founded the town in 1921, died in 1971. Stanley Ragsdale, the one who directed the planting of the trees, died in 1999. Without their energies, this area of the city faltered, and the palms began to fail. The town and these landscapes shot there function for me like Northern European vanitas paintings, reminders of life’s struggles, its shortness, and the certainty of entropy. Again, those aren’t transcendentally fresh ideas, but to see them particularized in a place that’s struggling though still very much alive fascinates me. Judging by the number of people who leave the highway, gas up, then drive slowly towards the palm formations, I’m not the only one who’s fascinated.

For more information on Desert Center see: Wikipedia / The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

For more information on the large series this images are a part of see: James SOE NYUN: Blue Daylight Project.