June 12, 2021

In the fall of 2018 I found myself at the entrance to the Descanso Gardens, studying a large and unusual autumn sculpture made from the woody bits of palm trees, called bracts. Such bracts surround the flower spikes (inflorescence) of a palm tree and are normally way up at the top of mature and tall palms. However, such palm tree bits often drop to the ground—especially on windy days. Each bract and inflorescence can grow to be pretty long up there. And the display I was looking at had many individual bracts that were at least 6 feet in length. Each one had been spray painted a wonderfully bright color, then layered one on top of the other to form tall organic columns. On the ground and all around these colorful piles of SoCal palm tree detritus were lots of bright orange pumpkins. It was very dramatic. I wasn’t sure if I could recreate the display, but knew I wanted to do something like it for my 2018 outdoor holiday display. Once I left the Descanso I began to look around for interesting and usable palm tree parts that had fallen to the ground. Palm trees are pretty common here in SoCal, so I hoped I would find what I was looking for just laying around. That Thanksgiving I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Long Beach and saw great piles of palm tree bits in the streets and yards of their Belmont Shore neighborhood. (We had had a major storm and the wild winds snapped off just what I was looking for.) I picked through the damp mess and made a pile of bracts/flower stems I wanted to take home. As it turned out, they were pretty heavy and I had to drag the stash to my car in several loads. Once I got them home, I let them dry out and sprayed painted each one metallic gold. Then I placed them around my front door and windows. The gold was not as dramatic as the bright colors I had seen earlier, and my display didn’t look like much from the street. But, once you got up close it was much more interesting, or so I kept telling myself! In the end I had to admit that it looked quite underwhelming and I should have put all of it in the green waste after the holidays. But they were too long to fit easily into the cans, and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of cutting them down. So I tucked them away in the garage for another day of ?? 

Fast forward to spring break April 2021. Some of my climbing plants (specifically my moonflower morning glory) had greened up and were looking for something to climb. I found myself again looking at the palm bracts/flower stems that had gathered quite a bit of dust in my garage and decided they might be interesting to use for just that purpose. I brushed them off, got out my saw to cut each one down a bit, then I placed them near the climbing morning glory. Looking at the art I have shared here today, you may have guessed, something unseen by me, must have also been looking for a place to climb.  

I didn’t see the chrysalis for this specific monarch butterfly until the 8th, but there it was nonetheless. Once I see something that’s so bright and obvious I am astounded that I didn’t notice it earlier. But maybe it’s best if such events are not always evident to us mortals. We don’t need to see or know everything. However, once I caught on that monarch caterpillars from a nearby milkweed plant might be looking for a place to climb I monitored this very palm tree flower spike daily. 

And guess what? On May 19 I saw another monarch caterpillar that had clearly climbed the same palm tree flower spike. It had attached itself to a spike tip that was very close to the first chrysalis. However, this one had not yet magically cloaked itself into a sparkly green shell, but by the next day it had changed. I am pleased to report this one finished its metamorphosis just as the other one had. But I didn’t get to see this one crawl out its chrysalis skin. As I said, I don’t need to see or know everything. I was just thrilled the caterpillars had found a safe place to continue their life cycles—sending yet other lovely monarch butterflies into the world. I guess I’m glad I didn’t bin those palm tree flower spikes after all.

However, I must report that one of my squirrels and her two babies seem to enjoy climbing the palm tree bracts against a post, across from the chrysalis. It appears that with this additional height, a leap into the air could result in contact with the bird feeder, which might result in a bonanza of sunflower seeds on the ground. I’ve hear them banging around out there, trying to launch themselves from the golden holiday palm bracts. I already know too much about what’s going on, I can’t look…

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