Weekly Weeds: Valentien's Visions

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Weekly Weeds: Valentien's Visions

Southern California is basically a desert, right? Maybe we should all be growing cactus in our front yards?  

Well, I do love a healthy cactus garden - and the Getty's playful arrangement above Los Angeles is both near and an under-appreciated local delight.

Nonetheless, it's not too prickly to note that while it's true that Death Valley is within our realm, and water scarcity is among our most serious challenges, our state is populated by dozens of other plant communities, from freshwater marsh to chaparral to Joshua tree woodland. 

From this plethora of micro climates we have much to select from for our very own growing pleasure, cacti being just one option.

Venture away from the big box garden centers to visit some of the independent nurseries, such as Las Pilitas or Theodore Payne California Native Plant Nursery, and you'll find horticultural harems of climate-appropriate beauties. In such places, your eyes can feast on botanical variety you won't find in any Home Depot as you share knowledge and experiences with folks whose job it is to nurse and grow them.
The plant wealth of our state is hardly a secret. More than a century ago, the artist Albert Robert Valentien (1862-1925) provided us with a stunning overview of what California offers in the way of flora. He began his career as one of the founding employees of the now well-known Arts & Crafts era Rookwood Pottery in Ohio where he created many botanically inspired pieces.   

After visiting California, Valentien and his wife fell so in love with the climate and environs (oh, how it must have looked 100 years ago), that they settled in San Diego.  He had his life's work cut out when, in 1908, he was commissioned by a super wealthy lady (Ellen Browning Scripps, a la Scripps Clinic, Scripps College, Scripps Institute) to paint all of the native plants of California.

Estimating that California had about a thousand different plants, for a decade Valentien enthusiastically painted away, as his wife Anna collected fresh specimen after specimen for his "plant portraits."  He may have never started had they known that, in fact, California boasted more than 7000 native species, about a quarter of which are found nowhere else in the world.

He depicted in wonderful detail over a thousand different plants before Miss Scripps decided her Valentien venture was getting too expensive and turned off the cash spigot. It wasn't until 2000, decades after both a somewhat disappointed artist and patron had died, that Valentien works were finally published. 

You can see a few of his finely wrought botanical portraits below. The fact that many of these plants are today endangered or have vanished entirely from our landscape lend these watercolors a special poignancy.

The largest collection of his watercolors is at the San Diego Natural History Museum. An even more lovely way to experience his work may be to plan a romantic summer weekend at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, a classic Craftsman-style resort, and enjoy dinner nestled amongst Valentien's artwork and memorabilia at the eponymous restaurant, A.R. Valentien. 
These surroundings would surely soothe any angst provoked in choosing between the  Short Rib Terrine, Pickled Wax Beans & Tarragon Vinaigrette and the Alaskan Halibut with Braised Butterball Potatoes, Ramps, Anzio Artichokes & Fried Parsley.
Of all the native plants that Valentian so lovingly portrayed, one of my favorites is Romneya Coulteri, or the Matilija Poppy (a Native American name: ma-TIL-i-ha). 

As with many other California flora in the 1800s the British sneaked the Matilija Poppy back across the pond where it became a spectacular foreign addition to the English garden.  The Brits have been cultivating many of our native plants  for longer than we have - you should see some of the Ceanothus that grow there!

Once  established, this "fried-egg" plant is an exuberant grower with huge white crinkly flowers.  Plant it mindfully as it can overtake your garden faster than a duck on a June bug.

Until you find a spot for it in your garden, watch it blossom here:

More Matilijas?  How about a Weego Home pillow,  a B Bo Bag, or if have your very own wealthy patron, a genuine Valentien watercolor?

Weekly Weeds by Nancy Knapp

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