2011-11-09

Native plant detective story - Aesculus californica


I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy in Malaga Cove, waiting for Juli to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sport clothes, the result was satisfactory. "Aren't you Brent?" she asked.
   I said: "Yes."
   She held out her hand. "I'm Dorothy Aesculus. You don't remember me, but you ought to remember my father, Bucky Aesculus. You-"
   "Sure," I said, "and I remember you now, but you were only a kid of eleven or twelve then, weren't you?"
   "Yes, that was eight years ago. Listen: remember those stories you told me? Were they true?"
   "Probably not.  How is your father?"
   She laughed. "I was going to ask you. Mamma divorced him, you know, and we haven't heard from him since 2005. Don't you ever see him?"
   My glass was empty. I asked her what she would have to drink, she said Scotch and soda. I ordered two of them and said: "No, I've been driving and hiking all around, but I haven't seen him."
   She said slowly: "I'd like to see him. Mamma would raise hell if she found it out, but I'd like to see him."
   "I would too.  And?"
   "He's not in the phone book or city directory."
   "Try his lawyer," I suggested.
   Her face brightened. "Who is he?"
   "It used to be a fellow named Jep-something-or-other-Jepson, that's it, Jepson Herbarium. He was in the Singer Building."
   "Lend me a nickel," she said, and went out to the telephone.
*

Well, it wasn't as dramatic as all that.

One of the fun things about a new garden is the time you spend before you plant, planning the whole thing. Gardening is work and you expect to break a sweat doing it.  But in the planning stages you can live in a sort of Platonic ideal of a garden - filled with possibilities and not one drop yet of sweat.

I was spending some time considering the merits of California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) as a yard tree and went looking for data supporting its presence on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It's a signature tree of my summer travels to northern California and I like it a lot.  Aesculus is one of the hallmarks of my summer travels with great looking new foliage, followed by 6 inch or longer flower spikes, and a distinctive early browning of leaf color before it loses them all.

However, I was regretful that I hadn't noted any in my travels around my neighborhood.  They are distinctive trees.  A few idle minutes with my underworld informants told me that there was information to be had in the Jepson Herbarium.  Sure enough, an occurrence was noted near Malaga Cove, but there was only one reported sighting from 2005 that noted only two trees, so anything could have happened in the intervening years! Were they the last ones?  I got a little excited about rediscovering what seems to be a rarely occurring native tree in Palos Verdes. Maybe there was no trace left? Maybe there was only one or none left!  The thrill of the hunt is similar to that of geocaching, except that the trees I was looking for could be well hidden or even extirpated.

Hot on their trail, this morning I went on a little walk and found what I think were two spindly looking, multi-trunked, Aesculus. I saw no dried flower spikes or fruits which would have made identification easier, possibly due to the poor health of the trees.  However, I had also expected either bare branches or completely brown foliage at this time of year based on what I know of the tree in N. California.  What I found were leaves still on the tree with a color that I'd expect to see no later than mid summer in hotter inland N. California areas.  See the photo of a typical leaf that I found on the ground nearby. The local climate is much cooler in summer and warmer in winter than N. California, so perhaps that explains the late autumn colors. Otherwise, it seems to match to Aesculus Californica. I've emailed some local experts for more info.

Are these are in fact PV-native or transplants?  Truly local plants will probably have genetic variations that are specific to their regional microclimate. Are there other stands of Aesculus elsewhere on the Peninsula?  Seems like there's a sequel in the making.

*Stolen without regret from Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man