By Jim Bishop.
In the late 70's the city of San Jose had something of an inferiority complex with its neighbors San Francisco and the Silicon Valley cities. In attempt to create an identity there was a mercifully brief media campaign presenting San Jose as the "Hub of the Bay". While being at the lower end of San Francisco Bay did make it a freeway hub of sorts, the ads seemed to also acknowledge San Jose’s reputation as the butt of Bay Area jokes. Still for me living next door in Santa Clara, a lot of great places were readily accessible by car from the “Hub.” I spent my weekdays working long hours and stuck in the very congested Bay Area traffic. However, come Saturday morning I was out the door and off on some outdoor exploration adventure. I lived just a little over 4 years in Santa Clara, but a partial list of places I visited were: San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Woodside, Half Moon Bay, the Santa Cruz mountains, Aptos, Capitola, Monterey, Pinnacles National Monument, Carmel, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Sacramento, Sausalito, Muir Woods, Stimson Beach, Pt. Reyes, Bodega Bay, the Russian River, Guerneville, Sonoma, Napa, and Berkeley. In each place, I was always checking out the plants and trying to figure out what I was looking at. I was unaware of any local garden club or Horticultural Society to educate me so I bought a few books on California plants, but most of my knowledge came from visiting places. I didn't even know what the plants were growing along the freeways and when I visited places like Strybing or Santa Cruz arboretums, with all of their exotic plants, I was on sensory overload.
Though I visited many of these places more than once, I had a few favorites that I frequented. Closest, up against the Santa Cruz Mountains, was Los Gatos. Downtown runs along Santa Cruz Avenue, a quaint, walkable street, lined with restaurants and antique shops. There is lots of landscaping and places to sit. The primary street tree is Melaleuca linariifolia with its domed canopy, needle-like leaves and shaggy bark. In June they bloom with white fuzzy flowers that rightfully earned them the very appropriate common name, Snow-in-Summer. Years later, I would plant one in my garden in Encinitas and also my current garden. There are some great local specimens in the Target parking lot in Mira Mesa. In front of the Victorian that housed the Chart House restaurant was a very large monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana. It must have been planted soon after the house was built in 1891.
Snow in summer, Melaleuca linariifolia in bloom
My next quick getaway was Palo Alto and Stanford. The western part of the campus has rolling hills of grass dotted with huge live oaks. The hills back up to the mountains with coast redwoods and California buckeye, Aesculus californica. In May the buckeyes were covered with masses of sweet scented white panicles that looked way to exotic for an un-hybridized plant. The flatter east side of campus has one of the most diverse eucalyptus groves in California with over 100 species. The city of Palo Alto, named after a 110' tall, 1,100 year-old coast redwood, takes its trees seriously. It has 36,000 city-owned urban trees and strict tree ordinances.
Another favorite spot was a bit further away, requiring a drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Located on Monterey Bay, just south of Santa Cruz sits the picturesque Capitola Village-by-the-sea. Originally a wharf for exporting lumber, in the 1890's it became Camp Capitola and later a resort, where people came to escape the inland summer heat. Today, it remains a cute town with Victorian homes and cottages dotting the bluffs above town. A small creek is dammed to create a lagoon that is lined on one side with restaurants. On the sea cliffs just to the north are several residential neighborhoods. Since it was nearly impossible to find a parking space in town, I usually parked in these neighborhoods and enjoyed the stroll to beach while enjoying all of the wonderful well maintained gardens.
Capitola Begonia Festival
In the first half of the 20th century, the tuberous "Pacific Begonia" was hybridized. Growing and shipping begonia tubers became a large local industry. At one point about 90% of all tuberous begonias sold worldwide originated in Capitola. The industry only wanted the tubers, and the flowers were thrown away. In an effort to promote late season tourism, the annual and very homespun Labor Day Begonia festival began in 1951. The begonias are used by local volunteer organizations to decorate floats that drift down the small creek to the lagoon. The floats are quite colorful and fun, covered with large blossoms that give at first glance the appearance of being made from crepe-paper flowers. One of the requirements is the rafts must be able to pass under the bridge from the creek to lagoon, so many of the floats have ingenious solutions to collapse and expand back up, occasionally some of the less clever entries capsize into the lagoon. You can learn more about Capitola history at: capitolavillage.com/capitola_history.php and the begonia festival at: begoniafestival.com