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Alice in the Buff
updated: Jan 16, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Alice in the Buff
by Billy Goodnick

I like taking pictures of Alice when she's nearly naked. We have this arrangement. She seductively sheds her outer layers while I, waiting for just the right light, tenderly capture her most intimate parts. From the blushing pink petals of her magnolias to the bare silvery limbs of her deciduous trees, winter changes how we see Santa Barbara's most treasured downtown paradise.

Right now Alice lacks the riotous floral color of spring and summer, but there are sensual delights even in the middle of January, some subtle and some that will knock your socks off.

These are a few of my top picks for winter interest. There's nothing challenging about growing any of these plants for your own garden. For an in-depth photo tour, click on the Flickr.com link at the end of this article.

Chinese saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana): These small trees grace the mid-block entrance along Santa Barbara Street. After dropping all of its leaves in late fall, hundreds of dark pink buds gradually open up in a long succession, sometimes continuing for up to three months. The petals are lighter on the inner surface, creating a soft blend. As much as I welcome the flowers, I equally enjoy the delicate, open structure of the plant and the graceful way the twigs and branches reach outward. With a mature height and spread of around fifteen feet, it fits into almost any garden. If you're visiting the County Courthouse sunken garden soon, look to your right just as you pass through the big stone arch.

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Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora): These sweet yellow flowers sit atop the stiff, grass-like foliage of this bulb-like plant from South Africa. Montbretia is a no-fail plant that grows to three feet high in sun or shade, needs no supplemental water once established, and comes in a range of warm colors including red and the more common orange. When it's done blooming, give it a few months to recharge and then cut the entire plant to the ground. Next year it'll be back as soon as the rains start, just like magic. They make great emergency cut flowers and the leaves work as greens in floral arrangements.

Author's note: I feel like I'm getting in touch with my inner Martha Stewart

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Palm Grass (Setaria palmifolia): Speaking of green leaves, there's nothing overtly spectacular about palm grass, but it's another one of those plants that can play many roles in the garden. Growing just north of the iris bog near Santa Barbara and Arrellaga, it has gradually colonized under the shade of a few low-branching trees. I use it in my designs when I want a bright green foliage background or as a tropical effect mixed with bold Philodendrons or palm trees. As the botanical name implies, the clusters of leaves look like the fronds of a queen palm, except you don't have to climb the trunk to get a good look. My favorite use for the plant is in a narrow side yard that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic. I plant it on both sides of a simple gravel path and allow the foliage to drape jungle-like over the ground, hiding the paving. The leaves easily brush aside as you walk through them. You can almost hear Tarzan's bellowing call in the background.

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Australian Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum): If there were a single icon for the park, it would be the dramatic Australian Tea Tree that seems to be melting, Dali-esque, over the sandstone wall at Micheltorena and Garden Street. This plant was likely planted when the Herter estate occupied the site sometime after 1904. Tea tree gets its common name because the leaves were said to have been made into a hot beverage by Captain Cook's crew to fight off scurvy. You know how in the game of "telephone" a phrase keeps getting passed around until its original meaning is lost? I had one of my students proudly announce that the tree we were observing had been planted by none other than Captain Cook himself. Who knew that in addition to his explorations of the south Pacific, he was an accomplished time traveler?

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Floss Silk Tree (Chorisia speciosa): This tree is still a bit of a mystery to me, since it can take so many forms—sometimes tall and sparse, like the ones on upper Garden Street, or broad and stubby, like a few at Alice. Some have vicious thorns covering the light green bark and some are bare. But what caught my Nikon CoolPix S10 this week were the smooth green fruits displayed on the bare branches. Lurking inside is the stuff that gives the plant its common name. As the weather warms, these capsules burst open displaying what appear to be wads of cotton. There are photos of the stunning speckled pink flowers at the Flickr gallery.

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No Common Name (Arbutus ‘Marina'): Yes, it happens sometimes. In the vast world of horticulture and plant propagation, a plant slips through without a cute common name. I say put the best and brightest in a room and don't let them out until they come up with something clever. Until then, this relative of our native Manzanita and Madrone is another go-to plant I use in lots of situations. The leaves are always a crispy dark green and the porcelain-like surface of the urn-shaped flowers is a delight. But in the late afternoon light, the show stopper is the bark. Call it ‘Irish setter orange'—now there's a common name: Orange Irish Setter Bark Tree. The surface comes to life in bright light or creates a warm glow in indirect light. It's very tough, needs little or no pruning and provides interest year round. There are a few single-trunk specimens at the entrance to Kid's World across the street.

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Dusk: This last shot is just a reminder of how winter light can be so magical in a garden. It's a welcome trick of nature that as the cold winter evening temperatures descend on the park, the boost in the golden end of the spectrum creates a comforting warm glow.

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Thanks Alice. Give me another month or two and you can put your clothes back on. I'll be looking forward to your display of Naked Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) in late summer, all pretty in pink.

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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