A Tropical Eden with a Mission

By: Russell A. Beatty

Russell A Beatty is a consulting landscape architect in Santa Cruz, California, retired from the University of California, Berkeley, where…

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A misty green pool, centerpiece of the cloud forest garden; to the left, trunks of Dypsis baronii; behind the pool, Monstera deliciosa, better known as splitleaf philodendron. Author’s photographs

A misty green pool, centerpiece of the cloud forest garden; to the left, trunks of Dypsis baronii; behind the pool, Monstera deliciosa, better known as splitleaf philodendron. Author’s photographs

Exceptional gardens come in many forms: straightforward collections by plant enthusiasts, artistically designed creations that are a world unto themselves, enchanting compositions that evoke the spirit of place. Gardens may also be designed in response to an even higher purpose or deeper meaning, such as the conservation of water in gardens of climate-appropriate plants, the restoration of native habitat, the preservation of rare and endangered plants, or the production of organic food.

Dr Mardy Darian’s 3.2 acre tropical garden paradise in Vista, California, combines all of these attributes and much more. His vision embodies the now-familiar slogan, “Think globally. Act locally.” For forty-five years, Dr Darian, a retired veterinarian turned horticulturist, has traveled the world’s tropics, observing firsthand the destruction of rain forests. (Tropical rain forests are being destroyed at an annual rate of 57,915 square miles, an area roughly the size of the state of Iowa.) Believing that the salvation of the earth is dependent on massive reforestation, he has collected palms and other tropical plants—many endangered, rare, or extinct in the wild—and planted them in his hilltop garden to create a model rain forest. His encyclopedic knowledge of tropical plants and ecosystems, his skill at establishing and working with diverse microclimates, and his extraordinary global perspective have coalesced in a handsomely designed tropical garden—an enchanting landscape that rivals the best tropical gardens anywhere.

One might question the logic of developing a tropical rain forest garden in the semi-arid, mediterranean climate of San Diego County. My own skepticism was immediately dashed on a first visit in early 2008, as a member of The Garden Conservancy’s Screening Committee. After two subsequent visits, I was convinced of the importance and uniqueness of this garden and of Dr Darian’s philosophy, purpose, and achievement. He has successfully cultivated multiple generations of a range of tropical plants and adapted them to a subtropical climate.

His vision for this garden originated in 1962, when a severe freeze devastated avocado orchards in northern San Diego County, but left a small grove unscathed on a rocky hilltop in Vista. With a keen eye for, and understanding of, microclimates, Dr Darian acquired the property to fulfill his dream of growing palms and other cold sensitive plants. Motivated by the realization that tropical forests were being burned and bulldozed for farming, he left his veterinary practice to devote all his time to collecting and planting palms and other plants from the world’s tropical forests.

In his pool room, Dr Mardy Darian points out a giant leaf of the exceedingly rare Anthurium angamarcanum

In his pool room, Dr Mardy Darian points out a giant leaf of the exceedingly rare Anthurium angamarcanum

A Rain Forest Odyssey

Mardy Darian and his wife Cherie traveled around the world to remote tropical locations close to the equator—South America, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, New Guinea, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, Mauritius and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the Solomon Islands, and Madagascar—collecting beautiful and unique palms, orchids, ferns, bromeliads, aroids, and other tropical plants that he thought would grow on his hilltop.

A staghorn fern (Platycerium vassei) and a hybrid orchid (Cattleya) on the trunk of another elephant’s ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpa)

A staghorn fern (Platycerium vassei) and a hybrid orchid (Cattleya) on the trunk of another elephant’s ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpa)

He learned about the loss of forests, the resulting impacts on climate and microclimate change due to surface heating, the loss of oxygen, and the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. His philosophy evolved into a mission to help save the planet by demonstrating a method for restoring tropical forests. Three goals for tropical reforestation became clear: remove carbon through forestation; increase the production of life-giving oxygen from forestation; and increase rainfall using a canopy of trees to insulate the earth from excessive heat.

As his knowledge of tropical plants from around the globe developed, Dr Darian experimented with his collection—albeit on his relatively tiny plot in a decidedly non-tropical environment—propagating nearly devoid of decent topsoil when he began. With Herculean effort, the garden evolved by blasting out planting holes, moving enormous boulders, and improving the soil with tons of composted sawdust. Through his understanding of tropical ecosystems, his skill in developing microclimates, and his global perspective, a pile of granite was transformed into a magnificent tropical rain forest garden.

The skywalk, suspended between trunks of lemonscented gums (Eucalyptus citriodora), provides views down into palms and tree ferns

The skywalk, suspended between trunks of lemonscented gums (Eucalyptus citriodora), provides views down into palms and tree ferns

Mimicking Nature in a Rain Forest

What sets the Darian garden apart from other, more fanciful tropical gardens is the skill with which he arranged the plants in ecological layers and associations. A high tree canopy shelters vines, orchids, and epiphytes on the tree trunks, along with tree ferns, philodendron, and other understory plants bellow.

This arrangement achieves maximum carbon sequestering, cooling, water retention, and oxygen production—simulating a true rain forest. Adhering to ecological concepts was no constraint on achieving beauty. The result of Dr Darian’s tireless devotion to principle and plants is a series of visually appealing compositions—a unique aesthetic experience. The key to his success was his own careful observation of these plants as natural assemblages in their native habitats.

Anthurium marmoratum, perched on the trunk of an elephant’s ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpa), a large leguminous tree from Brazil that is part of the Darian garden’s forest canopy, along with the lemon-scented gums

Anthurium marmoratum, perched on the trunk of an elephant’s ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpa), a large leguminous tree from Brazil that is part of the Darian garden’s forest canopy, along with the lemon-scented gums

Six to eight microclimates have been created in the garden through his understanding of the path of sunlight through the seasons; by arranging plants for shade as well as leaving openings for sun; by arranging boulders and rocks quarried from the site to capture warmth or shelter plants; and by creating artificial walls, grottoes, and cavities for special microclimates, either to trap the sun’s heat or to protect moist, shady pockets.

Beatty.05.grotto wall 2A Tropical Oasis

The garden is approached from the north through an upscale, gated community that has isolated Dr Darian’s place as a hilltop oasis amid generic “landscaped” homes. Upon entering the long driveway at the end of a cul-de-sac, cooling shade from the high canopy envelops visitors in a tropical Eden. The handsome ranch-style house on the apex of the hill is at the heart of the property. Broad concrete walkways lead around the hill through a series of gardens designed in response to the varying microclimates.

North of the house, one enters a woodland garden cooled by clouds of mist from fogging emitters hidden in the trees to mimic a tropical cloud forest. A small, rock-lined pond enveloped by bold Monstera deliciosa, delicate tree ferns, palms, and bromeliads evokes images of a mysterious, secret tropical pool. Passing through this dark, hushed setting, one almost expects a serenade of jungle creatures—birds, chattering monkeys, and clicking insects.

As the walk rounds the hillside into the dry, southern exposure, the garden opens into bright sunlight where plants that require heat are grown: various cycads (predominantly species of Encephalartos), tropical fruits (papaya, lichii, guava, mango, cherimoya, pineapple), subtropical fruits (avocado, citrus, guava, macadamia), and deciduous fruits (apricot, apple, peach, plum, pear, walnut) from temperate climates, along with cork oak (Quercus suber), locally native coast live oak (Q. agrifolia), and several types of sun-loving palms. Though this conglomeration may sound like a chaotic mix of unrelated plants, the complex composition is, in fact, memorable and harmonious. Dr Darian has arranged enormous boulders to capture and hold the heat for the most tender plants. An artificial, shell-like structure traps heat for a coconut palm (Cocus nucifera), rarely seen in California. A high, densely planted berm shields the garden from nearby houses below the walk, so that one is not even conscious of the close proximity of neighboring rooftops.

Leaving the hot, sunny garden as suddenly as entering it, one moves into a magical forest of tree ferns, other ferns, and various small palms, beneath towering lemon-scented gums (Eucalyptus citriodora), their smooth trunks festooned with epiphytes. The forest is layered to simulate a real rain forest, with the high tree canopy sheltering a medium-height understory of tree ferns that further shelters a lower understory of anthuriums and other aroids. Looking up into the canopy, one sees a curious plank walkway through the trees, what I call “the skywalk.” An eerie, creaking sound emanates from the trees that support the walkway, the result of the wooden beams rubbing against the trunks as the tree canopy sways in the gentle breeze. Dr Darian built this walkway to offer visitors the experience of being in the tree canopy and looking down on tree ferns and the forest understory.

Passing through the tree fern forest on a lower walkway, one encounters the “cave and grotto wall,” designed and built by Dr Darian to mask the plain concrete block wall that marks the property line. By cleverly layering brown gunite (a mixture of cement, sand, and water, such as is used for free-form swimming pools) onto the block wall, he was able to incorporate cavities or grottos, which were, in turn, planted with brilliant orchids and bromeliads—red, orange, yellow, and pink jewels that sparkle in the moist darkness.

The waterfall alongside the terrace; Stephanotis floribunda climbs a post behind a cluster of hybrid Chamaedorea palms; ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Fluffy Ruffles’) flank the pool on the left, a grass tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) on the right

The waterfall alongside the terrace; Stephanotis floribunda climbs a post behind a cluster of hybrid Chamaedorea palms; ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Fluffy Ruffles’) flank the pool on the left, a grass tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) on the right

Hilltop Gardens and More

The Darians’ sprawling home at the top of the hill is surrounded by other gardens, including a lovely shade garden on the north side, protected by a high canopy of dark shade cloth. From this garden, one enters a broad terrace at the rear of the house featuring an exquisite waterfall of simulated rock formations that serves as a backdrop to the outdoor dining area and koi pond. Attached to the house is a large “pool room” (approximately eighty by forty feet) housing a gracefully curved swimming pool under a broad, translucent roof. Arranged around the pool are some of his most rare and precious plants, those that would not succeed in the outdoor garden.

Dr Darian propagates thousands of seedlings and cuttings from his collection in a surprisingly unobtrusive 3,000-square-foot greenhouse nearly hidden from view across from the dry south garden. His experiments have involved the successful propagation of a striking red-shafted palm from Malaysia (Cyrto-stachys lakka), plus ongoing attempts to find any plant that will tolerate the lowest temperatures of the area for introduction into the commercial trade. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the introduction of many of the newest palms available in nurseries in Southern California.

The garden—its plant compositions, the grotto wall, waterfall and ponds, pool room, and even the house—have all been designed by Dr Darian. The garden has been constructed with the help of only a few part-time workers and his current right-hand man, Scott Whipple, who has done the heavy lifting and most of the maintenance for the past nine years. Today, the collection comprises an astounding 4,700 plants, including 300 species in the ground, 100 genera of palms, and 5,700 plants in containers in the greenhouse and throughout the property. Rainwater collected in two 2,500-gallon tanks (a half-inch of rain fills both tanks) is supplemented with city water. Because of his understanding of planting in various microclimates, the use of shaded canopies, and a drip and fog irrigation system, water use is remarkably efficient.

Although the garden is not open to the public, those fortunate to experience it will not only be enthralled with its surprising splendor, but will inevitably learn of its more important meanings and of Dr Darian’s message of the necessity of planting forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere, to increase oxygen production and rainfall, to insulate the earth from excessive heat and cold, and to reduce wind speeds—all to combat climate change and to preserve the world as we know it.

The palm garden, filled with more than forty species of palms from tropical regions around the world

The palm garden, filled with more than forty species of palms from tropical regions around the world

The Darian garden is an exceptional place on many levels—an inspiring example of one man’s passion and understanding of how to address global climate change. The result is a cleverly designed and lushly planted tropical garden, with significant potential as a research facility for the study and propagation of rare and endangered species, and as an educational facility for the study of rain forest ecosystems, microclimate design, and sustainability.

Now, at seventy-six, Dr Darian’s primary wish is to preserve the garden by finding an individual, institution, or corporation who would continue his legacy under his guidance. There is much yet for the world to learn from this exceptional tropical garden.