Tag Archives: San Diego

out of the beer cooler, into the fire

Landing in Denver during the last week of February
Landing in Denver during the last week of February

It all seems a little surreal. Less than three weeks ago I was on a plane landing in a very snowy Denver. Waiting for transit to downtown required a 50-minute wait in 8 degree weather. Before that the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced was 11 degrees one September morning shivering on the slopes of Mount Whitney. So this trip broke a personal record.

The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.
The lovely view out the windows of one of the hotels I stayed in.

That week also was a city record for Denver, the most snow ever to fall in a single February. This view out the hotel window was on the day the record fell (along with the snow). Among sightseeing opportunities, the Coors brewery would have been walking distance if it sounded like an interesting thing to do. On this cold, snowy afternoon the walk did not sound tempting.

Zigzag shadow on snow with dried plantsDenver often warms enough to melt some of the snow between storms, so what was on the ground was a nice light snow blanket, not the smothering white wooly layers much of the rest of the country has had to deal with.

Plant under snow To this subtropical California it was all pretty exotic. So, plants that get frozen like this come back to tell about it? Sounds like an episode of The Walking Dead to me.

More snow! More bare branches!
More snow! More bare branches!
But don’t let all this snowy whiteness fool you. Denver and the rest of the state have undergone a big transformation since they legalized pot, and things are quite green in the indoor grow facilities. Someone in town was commenting that large industrial buildings are suddenly hard to find with all the competition from the growers. It’ll be interesting to figure out the carbon footprint of this new industry. A 2012 piece on energy use in California found that the power used for the indoor cannabis crop in California was equivalent to 9% of all household use. Colorado’s carbon footprint is bound to grow…

Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
Stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, already more seed than bloom early in the season.
The local perennial "coreopsis," Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms
The local perennial “coreopsis,” Leptosyne maritima, with a few flowers, but mostly spent blooms, ready for deadheading

Now, a couple weeks later, back to San Diego, it’s totally “spring” in the gardens around here. Friday was a day spent outside with a bucket and a hose, hydrating new plants and annual wildflowers. And yesterday was the third freakish day with temperatures almost matching those of Palm Springs out in the desert. It is hot. The established plants will be fine if the heat breaks, but the new plants haven’t had a chance to put down mature root systems. The annuals set seed and disappear once the going gets tough, so a little deadheading and extra water will keep them going a few extra weeks. And a few of the perennials respond the same way, including the local sea dahlia, Leptosyne maritima. A few buckets of supplemental irrigation is pretty little investment, especially when you look across the street to the neighborhood lawns.

But the humans have had enough. Can we have our normal weather back for a while, please?

staycation 2011

College Prowler, the website that provides crowdsource ratings of colleges and universities by important factors like campus dining, academics, and the guys who go there, recently also ranks the schools for “weather.” (Really, we’d call that “climate,” wouldn’t we?) Of the five schools rated as A+, three are here in San Diego.

Keeping that in mind, when I was recently trying to decide where I might want to go on a short little summer vacation, San Diego won out. Really, when Newark recently hit 108, D.C., D.C. struck 105 and Dallas roasted at 100 or more for three weeks solid, it was hard to think about going anywhere else, especially now in the hot breath of summer.

Monarch butterfly on ginger

So home it was. Long weekends in the garden…monarrch butterflies…

The long weekends were an excuse to get to the beach and get my feet wet. Pathetic that I haven’t done this in over two years.

The extra days were also an excuse to go for a short visit to Torrey Pines State Preserve, where lots was still in bloom even though it’s high summer and there’s been no significant rain for several months:

The new cat, hiding in the cables behind the electronics...

And we adopted a new cat. She’s closer to feral than being a lap cat, but we’re hoping that she’ll at least not feel the need to hide behind the furniture while humans are around.

James SOE NYUN. Yellowstone Lake Hotel, Yellowstone National Park, 2008. Digital pigment print, 16x19.75 inches.

And last, I had the chance to participate in some art stuff. I’m in the current 20th Juried Exhibition at the La Jolla Athenaeum. I was really surprised and honored that I was awarded first prize by the local big art name jurrors, Kathryn Kanjo of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and Joseph Bellows of the photo gallery that bears his name. Woohoo!

This is one of three images in the show, works from the Yellowstone region that channel photographers from the nineteenth century. If you’re on vacation here in town, stop by. The show is up through September 3.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer!

interpreting history through plants


The native plant garden at San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park occupies a gentle rise in the land on the north end of the park. The garden sits on the grounds of the Silvas-McCoy house, a modern reconstruction by the park service based on foundations excavated in 1995.

The house replicates an 1869 structure by Irish immigrant James McCoy. Previous to McCoy’s arrival the site was previously in the hands of Maria Eugenia Silvas, and the grounds also contain the foundations of two adobe structures that predate the McCoy house.

The park service, charged with interpreting the history of San Diego’s founding, decided between rebuilding the McCoy house or recreating the earlier adobes. Would they opt to tell the story of early Spanish settlement? Or that of later settlers? Or instead could they do something to interpret the area’s original inhabitants, the Kumeyaay, whose village of Koss’ai occupied the site, and whose tenure went back thousands of years? Choices like that are never without controversy, and you could make good arguments on all sides of the debate.

This was during a flurry of historic reconstruction in Old Town which turned this corner of the park into a construction zone. During the project I spotted one of the more amusing informational signs I’ve encountered, one that proclaimed a nearby patch of earth to be the “Future site of San Diego’s first city jail.” (Do you ever regret not having a camera along?)


The native plant garden, like the Silvas-McCoy house, also participates in the park’s mission to provide historic context. The selection of plants reinforces the story the garden tells.

In the days of Silvas and McCoy the San Diego River flowed in front of this site. The plants that would have been found here would have been primarily riparian species. To tell that story, you’ll see stands of mugwort, sycamore, mulefat, coast live oak and willow featured on the grounds.

In the past, the river would sometimes empty into Mission Bay to the north, or into San Diego Bay to the south. The geographical indecisiveness of a meandering river works fine for the natural world, but poorly for a culture tied to private ownership of property. The current San Diego River has been forced into an engineered channel a quarter mile to the north and is no longer able to decide on its own where it would like to go. So, in addition to telling a story about the location of the river 150 years ago, the garden–a riparian plant community stranded hundreds of feet from the river that would have originally sustained it–to me speaks to notions of ownership of space and ideas about the control of nature. It’s not just another pretty garden.


Of course, when you say “garden,” people do want to see pretty flowers. Above is chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), and here’s the perky red monkey (Mimulus aurantiacus)…


…and the ever-popular California state flower (Escholzia californica) in its most recognizable color form, with wands of white sage (Salvia apaiana) in front.


And here’s a bouquet of some of what was blooming.

The garden in its current state goes back only a little more than a year, when a group of local California Native Plant Society volunteers weeded the site and planted many of the plants. The garden hosted an open house on Saturday, and visitors got a chance to tour the site and get insights from ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee about traditional Kumeyaay uses of many of the plants in the garden.

For example did you know that young flowering stems of white sage were peeled and eaten raw? This is one of the most assertively aromatic of sages, but peeling the stems purportedly takes away the oil-producing glands and gives the stems a flavor something like celery. (Maybe “tastes like celery” is the botanical equivalent of the catch-all “tastes like chicken,” but I intend to find out the next time my plants need a haircut…) Future plans for the garden include signage on traditional Kumayaay uses of the plants growing there.


That’s ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee, second from the right in this photo, along with landscape architect Kay Stewart, far right, who was heavily involved in designing the garden. Next to Richard is Peter St. Clair who, along with the original donor to the native garden project, had the vision and persistence to have the garden in the first place. Peter also organizes the volunteer work crews that help maintain and shape the garden.

At not much over a year old, this is still a young garden. There are still areas to be cleared and plantings to be finalized, but the garden has good bones and occupies a fascinating location. It’s definitely a place to watch as it matures, and they’re always on the lookout for volunteers to help the process along. Sign me up!

the view from the top

It’s spring, and the wildflowers wait for no one. I’ve been forsaking gardening and home projects and blogging (gasp!) a bit to check out some of the local open spaces. Here’s a panorama of part of the view from the top of Fortuna Mountian, at 1,243 feet the second highest “peak” in the San Diego city limits. (Click the image to enlarge.)


This peak burned on October 26, 2003 during the county’s big Cedar Fire. Revisiting the area is a great lesson to see how things recover from a major fire, either by resprouting from the roots or reestablishing themselves by seed. There are still plenty of dead branches poking up towards the sky, but there’s also a huge amount of green. And these big, gorgeous rocks didn’t hold on to their scorch marks for long. (Don’t you just love rocks in a landscape, either in the wilds or in a garden?)


Many of the plants and flowers aren’t ones you’ll find even in native plant gardens, but several have passed the “garden-worthy” test. In the second frame from the left above, you’ll see a bloom spike of the stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, sort of an awful name for a beautiful plant.

While I haven’t seen plants of this annual species offered for sale, several online sources do list seeds, including S&S Seeds, and Seedhunt.

Also on the summit were two other plants that are used fairly frequently in native gardens: laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and mission manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor), both of them eventually forming large, interesting shrubs.

I’ll be sharing more bits and pieces of the trips as I get them more organized.

once an orchard

I wanted to find the quince tree again.

It probably had been close to ten years since I last hiked my nearby Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. Still I clearly remembered coming upon an ancient but still fruiting quince in one of the tributary canyon bottoms. Unwatered for decades and tended only by the wildlife, it had seemed like a miracle of survival in San Diego’s desert climate.

Survivor quinceLast Saturday I scootered up to the preserve and started a slow stroll through the native willows and sycamores and oaks that line the dry creek in López Canyon. I only vaguely remembered the location, but less than half a mile in, right by the side of the trail, there it was, still very much alive, green and loaded with fruit.

Fruit on old quince tree

Nearby, in the shade of an old sycamore and crowded with some robust shrubs–including poison oak–I found a second tree with fruit on its branches.

Quince and poison oak

And then I started looking around in earnest. Off to the left stood a different kind of tree, either a different quince or maybe even a pear. It had a thick, creased trunk and the plant was clearly old. But the tree still drooped a little from the weight of the fruit.

Quince or pear treeQuince or pear fruit

Old apricot in Lopez CanyonNot far ahead stood another specimen. Though without fruit it was clearly another fruiting tree, probably an apricot, judging by its leaves, a month after the last of its offerings would have been ripe.

So that made for four trees that I could find without crawling through more poison oak or further through the snakey grass. I’m certain all the trees were many decades old, but exactly how old I couldn’t say for sure.

Local history places an orchard operator in this canyon as late as 1921, so some of the trees may date to then, though this area has been ranched and cultivated at least as early as the early 1800s, when this area was contained in the first of the Mexican land grants in Alta California, to as recently as 1962, when the land was acquired by the County.

Ruiz-Alvarado adobe, San DiegoNearby, under a protective shelter at the confluence of López Canyon and Los Peñasquitos Canyon, stand the remains of the Ruiz-Alvarado Adobe, one of the oldest structures in San Diego County.

Anything older than a hundred years around these parts is considered a relic. If you were to believe the most wishful of the sources the adobe would date all the way back to 1815, though more reliable sources place its construction at 1857. This small adobe, along with a later, grander one to the east, became part of a thriving concern dedicated to ranching.

Ruiz-Alvarado adobe, San DiegoMaybe it’s wishful and over-romanticizing on my own part–or maybe not–to imagine that the settlers who lived in this adobe planted the fruit trees in López Canyon. But the trees are as much of the human history of this area as are the few remaining adobe walls. Here we need all the history that we’ve got.