Notes on two popular California native plants: Manzanita and Ceanothus

Only two botanical gardens in California collect exclusively native plants: the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden,, and the Regional Botanical Garden in Berkeley,  In early spring, the botanical garden in Santa Barbara is a sight worth the visit.  In the heart of the garden ― set around the old caretaker’s cottage ― you will find an array of about 20 Manzanita species.  Most are shrubs, but some take the form of low ground-covers, while a few are tall enough to be considered trees.  

 As is true of many California native plants, over the millenia, different species and sub-species have evolved to adapt to the widely varying climates in California.  In some cases, the variations in species and subspecies are quite slight.  For instance, we have a native, San Francisco sub-species of Manzanita, Arctostaphylos hookeri, subsp. franciscana, common name Franciscan Manzanita. (Until recently, the San Francisco subspecies was thought to be extinct in the wild.  A few, low shrubs could be found in various botanical gardens. Happily, during the recent re-construction of Doyle Drive , the access road to the Golden Gate Bridge, a huge patch of native San Franciscan Manzanita was discovered.)

This San Francisco sub-species is one of many closely related Bay Area forms of Manzanita. “Tamalpais Manzanita, “Presidio Manzanita,” and “Hearst’s Manzanita” are all also subspecies of A. hookeri. The Presidio form is endangered (presumably due to the urban proximity of its native habitat), but the Tamalpais and Hearst’s subspecies are thriving.

Whenever I visited Santa Barbara, I used to succumb to temptation and bring back a couple of plants from the Santa Barbara garden nursery. Then, a biologist explained to me that it is ill-advised to bring Santa Barbara natives to the Bay Area. Apparently, “foreign plants” from a different eco-system could cross-pollinate with local species and mess up the local gene pool. So now I demur.

All Manzanitas along the coast bloom in early spring (beginning in February or March). The exact date each year depends on the timing of the winter rainfall.  Some blossoms are pinkish, some pure white. All take the form of tiny, urn-shaped bells, hanging in clusters.  The branches of every species are twisted in arresting, sculpture-like configurations set off by the Manzanita hallmark of smooth, deep-red bark.  

 The Santa Barbara garden used to have, in addition, a splendid collection of Ceanothus. Also known as California wild lilac, Ceanothus is another early spring bloomer. Although its blossoms range in color from white to intense, purple-blue, the best known species bear blue blossoms, sometimes in profuse numbers.

Unfortunately, in one of the recent and all-too-common Santa Barbara wild fires, “Ceanothus Hill,” as it is known, was completely scorched. So, now, you must go to Berkeley or the San Francsico Botanical Garden’s native plant section, to enjoy Ceanothus in the spring.

One of the common species of Ceanothus local to the Bay Area is Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, also known as “Blue Blossom.” It is said that a bush of C. thyrsiflorus could be found in the front garden of almost every early San Francisco house. I suspect that it is since the 1906 fire that these Ceanothus have disappeared from the city. They are still abundant in the wild.

After the amateur botanist has trained his eye in one of the botanical gardens to recognize Manzanita and Ceanothus, he should venture into the field. Many handsome forms of both genuses can be found in the Pt. Reyes vicinity, around Half Moon Bay, on the slopes of Mt. Diablo and in San Simeon State Park.  Not surprisingly, many California native plants flourish in these wild areas.

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London’s Royal Society

Among many unexplored corners in London is an institution with little flash, but a lot of punch, known as The Royal Society.  If you google “royal society,” you will find a Royal Society of Medicine, of Literature, of Chemistry, of Arts, etc.  Here I refer to The Royal Society, the first one, founded in 1660 under the patronage of  Charles II.

Now, an affiliation of notable scientists, both English and foreign, it boasts dozens of Nobel Prize winners among its membership.

Although it has been housed in various locations during its 350-year history, since 1967 it has been lodged in London’s West End, on Carlton House Terrace, a few steps from St. James Park. A stellar address from all appearances.

Inside are high-ceilinged, ornate reception rooms on the ground floor.  A Council Chamber and small library grace the second floor.  Throughout, exhibitions and artifacts are on display.

The first reception room you enter, adjacent to the entryway, has a display case containing the scepter of The Royal Society, a gift from Charles II.  This item is massive, made of chased silver and about 7 feet long.  The baroque decoration is extensive and ornate.  The whole thing looks as though it must weigh at least 50 pounds.  A scepter is, of course, a hallmark of high office to be grasped in the hand of a presiding or ruling master (for instance, a King) during proceedings of major significance (such as a coronation).  One can only hope that occasions when the president of The Royal Society has been obliged actually to hold this massive scepter have been few and far between.

Over the marble staircase leading up to the library hangs a huge, handsome, wooden placard listing all the past presidents of The Royal Society.  Among the early presidents, we find such historic figures as Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks and Robert Hooke. More surprising is the inclusion of Christopher Wren, the architect of much of 17th century London, as well as Samuel Pepys of the famous diaries.

Past fellows of the Society have included such notables as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Disraeli.  If you are reading an English biography and see the mysterious letters “FRS” following someone’s name, they trump PhD, MD or DD.  “FRS” stands for Fellow of the Royal Society, and there are far fewer than PhD’s, MD’s, etc.

What I like best about the Society today is the ongoing activity on the premises.  Lectures on subjects ranging from solar power to archeology to the history of science are offered every week and are open to the public.  Receptions and dinners keep a catering staff busy. The constant hum of activity throughout the building is a reassuring reminder that science is ticking along — examining, discovering, probing and publishing in the present day.

Indeed, the activities of the Society extend to the publication of a number of scientific journals with articles on cutting-edge research.  The Society also awards numerous research grants.  Over its lifetime, the Society has sponsored a number of famous scientific expeditions, including James Cook’s 18th century voyages to the Pacific, and, more recently, expeditions to Antarctica, the Solomon Islands, and Brazil.

But let us return to the physical set-up on Carlton House Terrace. Up in the library, are some splendid views of St. James Park from the south-facing windows.  Busts of scientists, such as Charles Darwin and Mary Somerville, grace credenzas and tables.  Glass-fronted cases display old scientific instruments, such as a 19th century microscope, even older navigational quadrants, and standard weights and measures, such as the British pound and the standard yard. (These last two date from 1855)

But did I suggest that this address was highly desirable?  Here, recent history catches up with us and casts a long shadow over numbers 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace, which comprise half the premises of The Royal Society.  Before the onset of World War II, in 1939, these very buildings served as the German Embassy.  The ghost of Von Ribbentrop stalks these same hallways now filled with the benevolent activities of The Royal Society.

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