June 9, 2019

coral tree
Coral Tree, Marina Vista Park, 4/17/19 (6 by 8 inch, watercolor colored pencils and Inktense pencils on watercolor paper)

The other day I was in Long Beach, visiting my aunt and uncle. As I drove around Marina Vista Park (English/Spanish translation=“marine” distant view) I noticed there were a number of coral trees (Erythrina) in bloom. The park is actually just an expanse of grass, dotted with these trees, and of course the marina. In summers past I have actually sat on a lawn chair on the grass, with hundreds of other people, to listen to live music. Pretty nice actually. Such events are generally in the evening and whoever is playing sets up right next to the water, so you look out over a narrow strip of very calm break water while enjoying the music. But I don’t remember seeing any of these amazing bright flowers on the trees in summer, so they must be done blooming before then. On the 17th it was just me, a few dogs on leashes with their owners and gardeners riding around on large lawn mowers, cutting the grass. 

I have driven through the park countless times and hadn’t planned to stop this time either. But I had just come from Starbuck’s and decided I would sit at a picnic table under one of the trees and drink my cappuccino. As luck would have it I also had my little “just add water” sketching bag in the car. So, I sat down, set up and began sketching with my watercolor and Inktense pencils. When I had finished I took the cup of water I got from Starbucks and poured some in my squirt bottle. Then I gave the sketch a light spray of water, tipped the paper from side to side, top to bottom—moving the color around. I also scrubbed some of the pigment with a wet brush, then I added just a bit more of the pencil to brighten up some of the color. And there you have it!

As spring is here in sunny southern CA, I have been on the lookout for blossoms on plant material that looks like it should have some kind of flower—roses, wildflowers, irises, gardenias… There are quite a number of flowering trees in the various neighborhoods and parks all around. The coral tree is very exotic looking, even without the blooms and I had a feeling that it is not native to CA. So once I got home I looked up “coral tree” on the Internet. Sure enough, it is not only not from California, but it is also not native to North America. It is actually supposed to be growing in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world. I also learned that the seeds, flowers and leaves of most species are poisonous. It was actually very shocking to learn that as it is quite a gathering place for lots of people and animals throughout the year. Not to mention, I was there, and so was a crew of gardeners mowing the lawn under the trees where I sat drinking my coffee. Good thing that cup had a cover on it. I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been good if anything from a coral tree dropped into my coffee.

If you have been reading my blog you may remember the art and story I did the other week about another non-native brightly blooming beauty called the jacaranda. As I just said, Southern CA is loaded with exotic looking non-native flowering trees, as well as flowering shrubs (e.g. geraniums, bird of paradise, hibiscus). Our winters are so mild that tropic plants grow very well here. All you need to do is water them regularly. (Not really a great idea to have tropical plants in this desert climate. Did I mention that there are also lots of palm trees here?)

With all this blooming going on around me, and probably in your neighborhood as well, I am acutely aware of the exposed pollen each and every flower presents each and every time another flower opens. For some this time of year is not only the spring season, but also the allergy season—with sneezing, watery eyes and a runny nose. I usually only get seasonal allergies (hay fever) during spring and it usually isn’t the pollen from flowers that gets me—it’s grass. In fact, ragweed seems to be the biggest blooming bad boy for me. (I just sneezed thinking about it.) Several years ago I worked on a book about ornamental grasses for Sunset (Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses, copyright 2002). For that book I interviewed Tom Ogren, an expert on the subject of allergies and how it relates to all manner of plants that produce pollen. He lives in San Luis Obispo and wrote a book called “Allergy-Free Gardening.” In the book he has a kind of handy list of plants that he has rated for allergy—with an allergy index scale from best (1) to worst (10). It’s pretty extensive and I found it very interesting reading. I found out that the coral tree has a ranking of 6 on that scale. So, it isn’t really bad for allergies, but it isn’t great. I remember him saying that allergies have been on the rise in recent years because people just want to landscape with ornamental flowering trees that produce only flowers (male) and not fruit (female). So, there is a problem here. People don’t want fruit dropping on the ground, but I don’t think they want extra pollen blowing around that might kick up some allergies either. BTW, he said that you can’t really blame your neighbor for having a flowering tree that’s blowing pollen your way. That’s much too far away for one or two trees to make you sneeze. It is more likely that the pollen offender(s) is in your own backyard. As you would probably guess, grass is a big allergy producer too. Mr. Ogren said that most grasses produce pollen in the morning. So, he said to be sure to keep grasses short, but not to mow during early morning hours when the pollen is most likely to be at its peak. And isn’t that when the garden guys come around to mow and blow? Hmmmm…

But what if there are thousands of pollen producing trees nearby?  This might be a problem if you live close by them and have allergies. And if you live near California’s Central Valley, you would definitely be subject to large amounts of pollen in spring. It is here that mile after mile of fruit and veg have been planted and grow in abundance. I looked up the allergy index for some of the fruit trees we have in huge numbers here. Prunus is the genus that includes over 400 species of deciduous shrubs and trees. I was most interested to read about our garden variety “Prunus” fruit trees such as plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds. Mr. Ogren has rated all of these trees for possible allergies. It seems that the different kinds of cherries ranged from 5, 6 or 7—so not bad, but not good either (similar to the coral tree). Plums and peaches were pretty good for allergies at a ranking of 3 or 4. What was most surprising, however, was the ranking for almonds. It is the biggest offender for allergies with an index value of 10, the worst. I wasn’t surprised that apricots are the lowest at 2. This is because it is not really that easy to grow and have it bare fruit, as it needs very mild winters. I have had a couple of these trees drop every blossom after a couple cool evenings in a row. He mentioned that plums and pears are pretty good, with a ranking of 3 or 4, but that pears are susceptible to fire blight. I thought it interesting that he said some people thought the blossoms of pear trees had a bad odor. Who wants a beautiful blossom that stinks? And I have had a tricky time with pears because of the blight and worms that love the fruit as much as we do.

So, what to do? Should you take a chance and plant a tree that produces flowers? This is what I suggest. Go to the farmer’s market and enjoy the fruit that others grow. And, if you want to look at beautiful blossoms, just keep looking here at One CA Girl and I will brave the pollen and poison for you. Until next time (A-choo)!  

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