Horticultural Semiotics: Ugly Beautiful Los Angeles

Los Angeles gets dumped on constantly for being an ugly city.  “It’s a concrete jungle!” the haters love to exclaim, their vision stopping at the edges of the freeway.  And we do admit there’s a degree of truth to these tired insults – it’s a sprawling, heavily paved megalopolis with no easy centre, no fine mode of navigation. And there is indeed a lot of concrete, but scattered throughout the city, sometimes in bountiful swaths, other times in tiny little fragments, there exists an overwhelming amount of landscape beauty, though it’s a type of beauty that can be difficult to read.

We’re more interested in tough, complicated beauty, the type of elegance that requires we force the elements into focus, to wrestle with our eyes.  Our favorite albums are the ones that we don’t understand when we first listen to them, and then, somewhere between the tenth and hundredth spin, something clicks.  What was formerly illegible is suddenly not.  What was a cacophony is now symphonic.

In the challenge and patience required of this type of beauty, in the hard-earned-ness of this beauty, it becomes exponentially more beautiful.  That’s the type of ugly beautiful that Los Angeles is.”

Maybe the trash talk directed at our fair city comes from an inability to read the landscape?  When people look out at the botanical panorama of Los Angeles, they might see palm trees, weeds and plants they assume to be native (which generally aren’t).  But there’s much, much more in LA than meets the eye.

Image by Adam Williams.

Horticultural Semiotics is a theoretical approach to looking at horticulture that we at Terremoto have been developing and tinkering with for some time now.  It’s still a work in progress, but the gist of it is that it’s a lens through which you see the botanical panorama of an urban environment, regardless of geographical location, and through plant identification and a layering of cultural/historical logic, you arrive at meaningful conclusions about the city, the region, and human existence.  Required is a sophomoric knowledge of botany, but more important than the ability to ID plants is an open heart, mind and a desire to find threads of history, culture and meaning in the horticultural vista beyond.

Allow Terremoto to set the scene

Let’s say you’re in Los Angeles, and you’re going to drive from Santa Monica (next to the Pacific Ocean) to Pasadena (located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains).  Over this 30 mile trip, you roll down the window, put your elbow comfortably on the ledge, and focus your gaze on horticulture as it rolls by.  Some of the things you may see are as follows:

Pale barked Eucalyptus trees emerging from banks of Algerian ivy, plumeria, and oleander.

Columnar cypress acting as hedges against large industrial buildings.

Clipped boxwood hedges, flanking the foundation of a house in a residential neighborhood.

Palm trees that rise 80 feet into the blue haze of sky, where they actually touch the ground entirely unknown.

Feathery stands of grasses emerging from pure hillside bedrock.

As you take this all in, you ask “What does this mean?  Why are these plants where they are?  Who planted them?  Who takes care of them?  Is their existence intentional, and if not, how did they get there?  Why does the horticulture in my city look the way it does?”

Per Horticultural Semiotics, in Los Angeles there exists four distinctly discernible meta-categories of horticulture.  They are as follows:

1 – Native

2 – Oasis

3 – Postwar

4 – Feral/Invasive

Image by Adam Williams.

1. Native

The original gangsters of Angeleno botany are the native species.  These are the plants that existed before man ever set foot in this region, whose evolutionary identity is inextricably linked to place, who need no supplemental irrigation nor maintenance, and who provide habitat and food for the native fauna that evolved along with them.  Depending on where you are in the city, native species may be powerfully abundant or non-existent. They dominate wilderness zones fully (spare the bothersome invasive), but as you move across the city their presence is fleeting.  On the Eastern part of Los Angeles, towards the foothills, they exist on undeveloped parcels of lands.  In Echo Park you can find them along city-owned walkthrough staircases; the odd sublime thicket of buckwheat still greets you on these ascents, the ever haggard California walnut cheers you on your descent. On the Western edge of the city they dominate unbuildable plots of land, bedrock outcroppings along the Pacific Coast Highway.  The Santa Monica Mountains are their lifeline.  But in any highly and long developed neighborhood (basically from Sunset Boulevard south towards the ocean), native species are essentially non-existent, save for the random liberal’s front yard.  They’ve simply been wiped out, being unable to withstand centuries of human development.

Species list:

  • QUERCUS AGRIFOLIA / Coast Live Oak
  • ARTEMISIA CALIFORNICA /  California Sagebrush
  • CEANOTHUS SP.  /  Lilac
  • ARCTOSTAPHYLOS SP. / Manzanita
  • RHUS OVATA  / Sugar Sumac
  • VITIS CALIFORNICA / California Wild Grape
  • WASHINGTONIA FILIFERA / California Fan Palm
  • SALVIA APIANA / White Sage
  • SALVIA CLEVELANDII / Cleveland Sage
  • FRAXINUS DIPETALA / California Ash
  • FRAGARIA CHILOENSIS / Wild Strwaberry
  • ERIOGONUM FASCICULATUM / California Buckwheat
  • PINUS TORREYANA / Torrey Pine
  • RIBES SPECIOSUM / Gooseberry
  • PLATANUS RACEMOSA / California Sycamore
1. Native: Just a short drive from the city into the nearby foothills of Angeles Forest, one can find themselves in a relatively pristine native landscape. Image by Adam Williams.

2. Oasis

The second horticultural world is the highly romanticized vision of Southern California in which worlds Arabic, Spanish, Italian and Moroccan haphazardly overlap.  This botanical historical moment coincides with the first major post agricultural development / population boom in Southern California.  In this category we find Los Angeles’ psychic center- the almighty palm tree.  This section will be full of ubiquitous plants that botanical newcomers might assume are native to California – though they are absolutely not – like bird of paradise, jacarandas, bougainvillea.  This typology is Old Hollywood through and through, and can be found protecting more storied hotels (Chateau Marmont, Beverly Hills Hilton), and in great abundance throughout apartment buildings in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.  This particular category, though in some ways dated, ages nicely, and even when unkempt and overgrown exudes mystery, sexuality, and has deep resonance in cinema.

Species list:

  • PHOENIX CANARIENSIS / Canary Island Date Palm
  • WASHINGTONIA SP. / Palm Trees
  • STRELITZIA REGINAE / Bird of Paradise
  • BUXUS SP. / Boxwood
  • HEDERA HELIX / Algerian Ivy
  • EUCALYPTUS CITRIODORA / Lemon scented gum
  • ROSA SP. / Roses
  • CEDRUS DEODARA / Cedar of Lebanon
  • ROSMARINUS SP. / Rosemary
  • OLEA EUROPEA / Olive Tree
  • MONSTERA DELCICIOSA /  Swiss cheese plant
  • PHILODENDRON SP.  / Philodendrons
  • CYATHEA COOPERII / Australian Tree Fern
  • ULMUS PARVIFOLIA / Siberian Elm
  • SCHINUS MOLLE / California Pepper Tree
  • AGAPANTHUS / Agapanthus
  • ACANTHUS MOLLIS / Bear’s Breech
  • BOUGAINVILLEA SP. / Bougainvillea
2. Oasis: A textural hallucination of lush feeling non-native species in Beverly Hills. Image by Adam Williams.

3. Postwar

After World War II, the American dream became directly associated with owning a single family home, and with that home inevitably came a garden.  That landscape was archetypically a grass lawn, foundation hedges, maybe some rose bushes and a tree. Devoid of region or context and heavy on the fertilizer, these plants were simple, generic American staples and commodities.  These landscapes still persist heavily throughout Los Angeles, with greater frequency in neighborhoods that have yet to “turn over” to new development.  If you’re between the ages of 30 and 55 and grew up in Southern California, chances are you know this garden type well.

And though it’s easy to scoff at the aesthetic myopia or regional inappropriateness of these landscapes now, they fundamentally embody a moment in American history that is profoundly important. We returned as a nation from the violence of World War II psychologically and economically shattered, and we craved normalcy and peace, and these dull, ubiquitous landscapes provided that comfort.  Mainstream environmental sensitivity simply didn’t exist at the inception of this landscape type, so though it’s days are numbered, these landscapes harken to a more innocent, suburban dream of a moment in our history.

Species list

  • ROSA SP. / Roses
  • HYDRANGEA SP. / Hydrangeas
  • RAPHILOPSIS INDICA / Indian Hawthorne
  • STRELITZIA REGINAE / Bird of Paradise
  • LANTANA SP. / Lantana
  • ULMUS PARVIFOLIA / Siberian Elm
  • PITTOSPORUM TOBIRA /  Japanese Cheesewood
  • JUNIPERUS CHINENSIS / Hollywood Juniper
  • HEDERA HELIX / Algerian Ivy
  • PINUS NIGRA /  Black Pine
  • BETULA PENDULA / White Birch
  • AGAPANTHUS / Agapanthus
A classic postwar landscape approach – ample grass lawn, foundation hedges creating room for classic flowering shrubs. Image by Adam Williams.

4. Feral/Invasive

These species are a mix of the previous two layers.  Some plants, when presented with ideal growing conditions, have no qualms about reproducing rapidly, everywhere.  Humans have been moving plants around for as long as we have lived in groups – agriculture is inseparable from culture – and a result of this is that we’ve inadvertently moved many species to new geographic locations where they then become invasive.  We won’t delve into the infinitely complex layers of invasive biology (an incredibly dense subject in its own right) and will simply leave our description at that for the moment.

Species list

  • BOUGAINVILLEA SP. / Bougainvillea
  • SCHINUS MOLLE / California Pepper Tree
  • OPUNTIA SP. / Prickly Pear
  • AGAVE AMERICANA / Century Agaves
  • ALIANTHUS ALTISSIMA / Tree of Heaven
  • STIPA TENUISSIMA / Mexican Feather Grass
  • ARUNDO DONAX / Giant Cane
  • PENNISETUM SETACEUM / Crimson Fountaingrass
  • CYTISUS SCOPARIUS / Scotch Broom
  • EUCALYPTUS CITRIODORA / Yellow Scented Gum
  • HEDERA HELIX / Algerian Ivy
  • WASHINGTONIA SP. / Palm Trees
At Elysian Park, a semi-neglected public open space park in Echo Park, invasive species run rampant, to a disquieting beauty. Image by Adam Williams.

With these layers now legible, we can suddenly read the botanical fashions and trends of past decades, the foolish mistakes we’ve made (invasive species), and acknowledge the vestiges of the native landscape that existed prior to our existence.  In doing this it becomes immediately clear that the plants of the greater landscape are an amalgamation of highly specific moments in our history.

Depending on where you find yourself in Los Angeles, these layers ebb and flow, at times to beautiful effect.  You can find yourself deep in a postwar neighborhood (West LA or Pasadena, for example), make an errant turn, and suddenly find yourself confronted with a landscape of purely invasive species.  These collisions are fascinating and energizing.  And where it gets most interesting, in our opinion, is where these layers mingle and meet.  On hikes in the foothills of the Angelus National Forest, we can find invasive species flirting with native ecosystems, and there’s something dramatic and profound about seeing in real time, in first person, the edge of civilization kissing wilderness.  In vacant lots we can be a spectator to botany operating on its own terms – and when we think about the geographic origins of these species, we come to realize that feral spaces are mirrors of our civilizations – we are communities of immigrants doing our best to survive.

What was formerly an illegible patch of weeds along the freeway thus becomes a meaningful allegory for who we are as a region and culture, our successes and mistakes laid bare for all those driving by to witness, if they have the eyes to see.

Every city will have its own layers, its own history.  At Terremoto we’re just beginning to make sense of our own.

David Godshall is a landscape architect and  co-owner of  Terremoto in Los Angeles.

This essay was edited by Katherine Montgomery, with photography by Adam Williams.

Native species quietly mingle with invasive species at Hahamongna Park in Altadena. Image by Adam Williams.

Footnotes, in no particular order:

  1. The meta-categories aren’t mutually exclusive – and you may notice that certain species show up in multiple categories. We find this interesting, and it belies the fact that certain species were fashionable and appropriate through much of California’s history.
  2. The lists of plant species within each category is by no means complete, and it is an ongoing effort.
  3. Horticultural Semiotics is a way of read the panorama – not the single family home. It’s possible that a house of, say, a cactus collector, does not fall easily into our categories.  We don’t mean to disregard this house – it exists just as much as any other – but these outliers and aberrations tend to not play meaningfully into the panorama.
  4. Within the postwar layer there is tremendous space for stylistic impressions. In pockets of West LA, for example, there were formerly communities of Japanese Americans, and you can see the postwar idiom expressed with a distinctly Japanese sensibility.  In Pasadena, the postwar sensibility is expressed through landscape devices that harken to French or English Gardens.  This is of great interest and an essay on its own.