Saturday 12 May 2012


Let me start this post with an ancient picture for a change. It shows the beginning of the creation of a great park in the El Cerrito hills, located in the community of Kensington. The year is 1924, I believe, and we see an Italian style grotto already built, with nice bowed stairways surrounding it and a prolonged pool to mirror the grotto in. The view is from a newly-built mansion; standing on grotto's roof, you might have seen a cosy reflection of the building in this lengthy watery mirror.

We can forget the architectural aspects of the picture for a moment and consider the landscape above it. It shows, in an instructive manner, the East Bay hills before the building frenzy started. We are seeing a bucolic grassland, only sparcely intersected by groves of native trees, mostly oaks, where brooks are gurgling or underground aquifers provide the necessary moisture. Now compare this with the view I took ten days ago from approximately the same angle:

Trees: Magnolia grandiflora (Southern Magnolia)          Water: Nymphaea (Water lily)
As we can see, the scenery has completely changed. The distant hills  are no longer visible and, in any case, no longer an open landscape; rather, in the immediate distance, an extended park landscape can be glimpsed. Further upwards, smaller private residences abound until, beyond the crest, Tilden Park is taking charge over nature.

Left: Berberis (Barberry)                      Right: Acanthus mollis (Bear's breech)
Does the title picture show us the original landscape of the East Bay, before White Man entered the scene? Far from it! The pre-Columbian days saw no open grassland on those hills; they were covered by dense thickets of macchia (Corsica comes to mind), except where tree groves interrupted the thorny sea. The grasslands are the result of a very recent invasion of Spanish/Mexican rancheros, some 200 years ago, who burnt off the thickets throughout the East Bay and established vast ranches on the hills. Not only the thickets disappeared, the native grass thriving on small batches also went to see its maker, being replaced by European grasses imported in the hide of the cows (see "The Green, Green Grass of Ho-ome").

Left: Equisetum (Horsetail)                 Right: Foeniculum (Fennel)
Compared to Europe, where vegetational changes have to be observed over a thousand years, here in the States everything changes much quicker. Within twenty years or so, the rancheros had established the open grasslands and, within the last 90 years, the hills have been covered by residences and, in rare cases for our enjoyment, by bucolic parks like the one we are about to enter.

Some observant readers have already asked me, whether I had forgotten about the second garden, on the hills, mentioned in the preceding chapter. Not to worry, we will deal with that one now. I had originally intended to deal with both in one single blog post, but pictures and text simply got out of hand, so I decided to divide into two this engaging topic.

Echium (Viper)
Whereas we last time looked at a private garden in the relatively limited space that even a grand private property nowadays is residing in, today's garden is found in an estate in the old sense of the world, looking down serenely at its lesser siblings below and saluting across the Bay its counterpart in grandeur, the Golden Gate Bridge. Garden is not really the right denomination for this green expanse, so let's call it Park. And indeed, we are visiting Blake Garden, the famous Park surrounding Blake House, the official residence of University of California's President.

Kniphofia uvaria (Red-hot poker)
This estate was created by one of the great families in the Bay Area, the Stiles-Blake family. The land was originally owned by Harriet Stiles, who gifted it to her four children. Two of those, Anson and Edward, decided to build a residence each on the land. Eward's house was subsequently sold to the Carmelite Order and still belongs to the Church, separated from the estate proper. Anson's part was instead transformed into a marvelous garden landscape, due to the valiant efforts of Anson's wife Anita and her sister Mabel Symmes. The latter was a landscape architect and laid out the basic garden plan. Together, the two sisters worked for decades to implement that plan, foraging the globe for plants suitable to the Hills' climate and filling the park to the brim with exotic foliage.

The result of their work is astonishing. The narrow area around the residence is laid out like an Italian garden, with flowers from the Mediterranean and the Canaries populating the slope at the residence's back. The front is a marvel of architectural planning. The elongated pool provides structure to the lay-out, surrounded by lush Magnolias and polished off by the winding staircase and symbolic "grotto" in the background. Golden fish linger about lazily in the pool, a breeze is whispering in the tree crowns, and the greenery around the staircase beckons the visitor to come thither and explore the remainder of the park, lying just beyond those enticing steps. This Italian type garden is of course only a minor part of the park; around it an English type park of artfully "untended" landscapes is spreading its wings.

I was invited to visit this marvel of a park by a new-found friend, whom I got to know first by his astute comments on an earlier blog. His name is Rudi Schmid and he is Professor (retired) in Botany at UCB. The plant is not yet conceived that would escape his universal knowledge of all things green. We have to thank him for the two ancient pictures shown above, as well as for the plants' name indicated, for once, under each relevant picture. He also introduced me to the Park's valiant guardian, Lauri Twichell, who is managing the park together with her three assistants. Only four gardeners for this huge estate? Well, we should not forget the volunteers (to be counted in the tens and twenties), as well as the UCB students in botany who do their homework here.

Rudi and Lauri, not to forget Rudi's lively companion Fleur
Rudi took me on a long and much educational tour around the park, explaining to me all the intricate details of its design and plants. Unfortunately, photographer as I am, I was unable to take all of it in, since I was mostly concentrating on picturing the many small marvels. That notwithstanding, let's highlight the park's important features, as I remember them.

Clivia miniata between redwood trees
The most impressive of them for me, as lover of "eternal" trees, was the grove of redwoods located at the park's fringe along a quietly gurgling creek. When descending the grove, many a small bridge and an enticing pond invited us to proceed, and some interesting flowers, rare to grow under and between redwoods, according to Rudi, led our steps to advance more eagerly.

Left: Clivia miniata                       Right: Hedera helix (English ivy) clinging on redwood
In the center of this quiet grove, suddenly Lauri re-appeared, this time accompanied by a group of enthusiastic children, admiring the redwoods just as I am used to do. Isn't it charming to see small kids, with their heads turned firmly upwards, paying tribute to those red Methuselahs?

After spending quite some time in the cool and calming shadows of the red giants, it was time to explore the remaining parts of the park. As we mounted towards the grove's upper fringe, a green abundance of leaves was welcoming us, pointing us towards the more open oak ranges. 

Asarum caudatum (Wild ginger)
Many an oak was standing there, with their lower branches extending almost horizontally towards the light. As we were ambling among these trees, which generously let through ample sunlight to the shrubs and flowers underneath, I suddenly felt like back home in Sweden, where, in mid-June, the oaken ranges abound with light and flowers, just as they did here on the hills that day. Of course, the oaks with their horizontal branches and undivided leaves soon called me back to reality, as did the flowers who quite differed from our colored companions back home. 

Cistus X purpurea (Orchid rockrose)
As you can see from the next picture, Rudi did his best to explain to me the names and properties of vegetation, trees, brushes, flowers and all that we met on our way. I was unable to retain them all whilst we were ambling through this abundance, but Rudi was so kind as to remind me of the names afterward, when he saw the pictures, so I am still able to provide you with their correct denominations. 

Ceanothus (Wild lilac)
And now, dear readers, comes a first in the history of this copious blog! A juxtaposition of the hunter and his prey, so to speak. Thanks to Rudi you can see me photographing the very flowers that are on the picture below to the left. This was an occasion that demanded the deepest concentration from your blogger! I had to take two photos with different adjustments, to be merged later in Photoshop, to catch this complicated scenery.

Left: Phlomis fructicosa (Jerusalem sage)                     Right: Courtesy Rudi Schmid
Turning yet another corner, we passed by a small cliff, along which the two garden sisters had planted still more of the flowers that are adorning the park wherever you look!

Yellow plant: Sedum
I have already mentioned that the sisters also provided for a "dry" Mediterranean section with plants that thrive in those parts of the world, as well as on the "Fortunate Islands" (The Canaries). When walking along the backside of the mansion, I recognized for once several high rising flowers that I had met many times during my hikes on Gran Canaria. For instance, take a look at the plant adorning the beginning of one of my Canariablogposts and compare with the corresponding plants growing below the Blake House, in the picture below:

Plant in foreground: Echium (Viper)
We are approaching the end of our walk, dear readers! But let us tax your patience one moment longer, by returning to the Italian type "grotto" in front of the mansion, mounting the stairs surrounding that contraption and continuing further up the slope behind it. 

A reward for your patience is awaiting you up there. Suddenly, a clearing opens up among the trees and brushes; Blake House is now completely hidden among the trees, but the most marvelous view of the Bay is spreading itself out before our astonished eyes. Far in the distance, we can glimpse the Golden Gate with its rust-red companion and below our feet lies the sea of houses that is El Cerrito. Again we can confirm that the rises above North Berkeley and El Cerrito face the Golden Gate straight on across the Bay. 

By now we have spent two hours in this marvelous park and I guess you are getting exhausted by this lengthy report. But the time spent on this post was worth it, don't you think? It is not every day that you are visiting the official residence of the President of the University of California!


Eva said...

Dear Emil,
What a marvellous photographer you are! I was totally enchanted by the lovely pictures and the explaining text. Thanks a lot for showing all this beauty to us!
Regards, Eva

Stephen Rosen said...

This is another beautiful post Emil. You have a marvelous eye for photographic composition. Your text material is friendly and informative. It makes one want to visit the Blake Garden without delay.
Thanks so much.

Werner Stastny said...

Hallo Emil. I envy You when reading your blogg and see all this beautyful plant photos. You had as I could see a botanic guide. I assume You do not know all this plants. One is not Berberis, it is Mahonia, but never mind they are related
Yours Werner in Sweden

Alice/ Salzburg said...

Lieber Emil,
auch ich will dir danken für alle die wunderbaren Augenblicke, die du uns mit deinen Fotos wie auch durch deine Komentare schenkst.
Irgendwann nach der Arbeit, meist zur späten Nachtstunde entrücken wir Dank dir nach Korelia oder Kalifornien, wo wir noch niemals waren und können ein Bißchen von deiner Betrachtung und Reflexion für uns gewinnen!

Per Magnus Wijkman said...

Dear Emil,
Inspired by your latest botanical blog we have purchased a magnolia and shall plant it in our garden today. With luck, the tree grows in Southern Sweden, although the one we planted a couple of years ago did not survive an exceptionally severe winter. I have fond memories of this magnificent tree from a small school in New jersey. If I apply the same determination and optimism as characterises your travelogues from California I am certain that the tree will take root and flourish even in this chilly Nordic soil.
Cheers, Per

Frank Schönborn said...

Lieber Emil,

Danke für Deine schönen Berichte und die phantastischen Bilder. Sind diese immer noch mit der NIKON D 60 gemacht? Ich habe die gleiche; aber meine Bilder sind nicht so schön.

Du hast ja wirklich 1000 Talente.

Viele Grüße aus Italien,

Emil Ems said...

Lieber Frank,

Die alten Bilder dieses Blogs (Kapitel 1-34) sind mit Nikon D90 gemacht. Kapitel 37-38 mit der billigsten Nikon Coolpix Kamera die es zu kaufen gibt (99 Dollar). Die folgenden Kapitel sind mit Canon G1X gemacht.

Was ich damit sagen will ist, dass es eigentlich egal ist, mit welcher Digitalkamera man fotografiert, solange man sich auf Internetpublizierung beschränkt. Was den Ausschlag gibt ist die Bildbearbeitung nach der Fotografierung. Jedes Bild dauert diesbezüglich 2-3 Stunden. Hin und wieder ist es schon passiert, dass ein ganzer Tag draufging.

Man nimmt die Rohdaten in 16 Bit Bildtiefe aus der Kamera (d h ignoriert total die JPEG-Bearbeitung der Kamera) und entwickelt die Rohdaten mit Adobe Camera Raw im Farbenraum Adobe RGB.

Meistens sind die Bildkontraste zu hoch, um in einer Entwicklungsphase bewältigte werden zu können. In diesem Falle entwickelt man die Daten zwei- bis dreimal und mischt das Resultat zu einem Bild zusammen.

Darnach folgt noch eine Spezialintensivierung der mittleren Kontraste und, schlussendlich, wenn das Bild auf Internetgrösse reduziert ist, appliziert man noch eine auf die Bildgrösse angepasste Schürfung der Bilddaten.

Erst darnach geschieht die Konvertierung des Bildes in den Farbenraum sRGB mit 8 Bits Bildtiefe und Komprimierung mit JPEG (das heisst was schon aus der Kamera kommt, wenn man als Amatör die Bearbeitung der Kamerafirma akzeptiert).

Mit vielen Grüssen aus (noch) Kalifornien

Rudi Schmid said...

A note on names in response to Werner Stastny: Mahonia is now usually submerged in Berberis (barberry), a large genus with over 600 species. The first edition of "The Jepson manual" (1993), the flora for California, recognized 6 species of Berberis growing in the state, whereas the second edition (2012) recognizes 10 species of Berberis, in both cases Berberis including Mahonia. -- Rudi Schmid

Anonymous said...

Lieber Emil!
Wunderschöne Bilder; man könnte träumen und glaubt fast dort zu sein dank Deiner Beschreibungen, bei denen es auch stets viel zu lernen gibt.
Herzlichen Dank dafür!
Beste Grüße,

Tim Austen said...

Hi Emil, I happened across your post whilst looking for images of mature Magnolia grandiflora. It just so happens that I have designed a linear, canal-like pool for a residence in Kerry, Ireland and am thinking of planting Magnolia alonngside the pool. They are tree-like in your pic - fantastic. I hope that mine will look this cool in the future. Nice post btw.
All best,