Mexican fan palms dominate the Los Angeles skyline

Words: Sally Charrett

It’s always fascinating to check out the local plant life while on holiday. Discovering something you’ve never seen before, or have only glanced at in gardening reference books, can be just as thrilling as soaking up the atmosphere and culture of distant lands.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go on the trip of a lifetime to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I didn’t feel the need to go to any special botanic gardens at either city – the street trees, parks and urban front yard plantings were enough of a feast for my eyes.

North America’s climatic variations are huge. In California alone, there are 24 different zones – and even then, locals tend to find that their patch doesn’t fit readily into these climatic categories. Both San Francisco and LA have a Mediterranean climate – characterised by mild winters and warm summers, but San Francisco is cooler because it’s flanked by water, the North Pacific to the west and the Bay to the east.

One of the dominant street trees in San Francisco was Ficus microcarpa – I detected it was a ficus because of the classic pointed leaves (just like the Ficus benjamina houseplant). These street trees have beautiful smooth creamy bark and the dense tree canopy can easily be clipped into a neat dome. This particular ficus is too tender for the UK’s climate – but can be grown as a houseplant in a semi-bonsai form.

Asparagus fern at Big Red Sun on Rose Avenue,
near Venice Beach

The foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus)  seemed to be a popular choice in both cities. Its wafting fronds looked fabulous either as a stylish specimen in a pot, or as underplanting for a street tree. This plant wouldn’t survive our winters, so should be grown as a houseplant. House of Plants are a UK supplier:

Other plants I saw in San Francisco were more familiar and already happily grow in the British climate – penstemon, agapanthus, pelargonium, roses and acanthus to name a few.

LA skydusters
Eight hours southbound on a Greyhound bus and we were in palmy Los Angeles. The palm trees (locally nicknamed skydusters) are such an inextricable part of LA’s identity but curiously, just like the people of LA, the majority aren’t indigenous.

The ubiquitous Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), is an immigrant from neighbouring Mexico and the thicker, shorter date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) came over with Spanish missionairies in the 18th century. The Californian fan palm (Washingtonia filiferia) is the only palm that is native to the Western US.

Sadly a lot of LA’s palm tree are coming to the end of their natural lives (many were planted in the 1930s) and there’s lots of controversy over whether or not to replace them, as they don’t actually make very good street trees.

Citrus-scented Carissa macrocarpa

We were staying near Venice Beach – a gentrified bohemian neighbourhood – where many of the front yard plantings oozed coastal chic.

Succulents and cacti seemed to be everywhere – the only question being: who could display them in the most stylish way? (LA style is very understated, cool and minimalist). Wayward climbers like bourgainvillea, morning glory and campsis rained down from the top of tall, gated front yard fences, while lower to the ground, sea lavender (Limonium perezii) had clearly declared itself to be the ‘hood’s signature plant. Along the beach front, smart, low-growing hedges of Carissa macrocarpa perfumed the air with glorious gardenia-like scent.

Although a lot of the plants I saw can’t be grown in the UK without a large conservatory – or even better, an orangery! – my trip has inspired me to create mini succulent gardens in pots on my sunny windowsill, and also to grow the asparagus fern as a houseplant. A little bit of Los Angeles in my front room to remind me of my wonderful trip…

The Angelenos have some very stylish ways to display succulents