Mediterranean Splendor in Leucadia

By: Susi Torre-Bueno

Susi Torre-Bueno is president of the San Diego Horticultural Society and serves on the board of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation….

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A Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) accents a hillside planting of oleander (Nerium oleander), bougainvillea, and succulent Aptenia cordifolia along Leucadia Boulevard. Photographs by Bob Wigand

A Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) accents a hillside planting of oleander (Nerium oleander), bougainvillea, and succulent Aptenia cordifolia along Leucadia Boulevard. Photographs by Bob Wigand

Susi Torre-Bueno In San Diego County, the sleepy seaside community of Leucadia is part of the coastal town of Encinitas. Known as much for its mild climate (Sunset zone 24, USDA hardiness zone 10) as for its miles of sandy beaches and laid back attitude (street crossing signs show surfers carrying boards), the area is home to dozens of retail nurseries and wholesale flower growers, including the Paul Ecke Ranch, which began growing poinsettias here in 1923.

As you exit Highway I-5 at Leucadia Boulevard and head east, you’ll find one of the most innovative and appealing mile-long stretches of streetside landscaping you’re likely to see in San Diego County and, indeed, in much of California. Mike Wells, of the Encinitas Parks & Recreation Department, says the entire landscape is watered by recycled water from the San Elijo Pollution Control Facility. He estimates this area uses only seventy percent of the water a conventional landscape would require. In addition, he adds, “considering the variety of plants, maintenance has been relatively low.” Construction on the project began in 1998 and was completed two years later.

In a city where municipal planting often consists of little more than the same overused trees and shrubs, this landscape stands out because it utilizes the local climate to its fullest to display an exceptional variety of plants from mediterranean climate zones around the world.

A small grove of arborescent aloes (Aloe bainesii) mark a gracious curving walk, with underplantings of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) and Agave attenuata. Overhead are the large scarlet blossoms of African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) and, in the distance, the crimson flowers of Eucalyptus ficifolia.

A small grove of arborescent aloes (Aloe bainesii) mark a gracious curving walk, with underplantings of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) and Agave attenuata. Overhead are the large scarlet blossoms of African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) and, in the distance, the crimson flowers of Eucalyptus ficifolia.

A Team Approach

The project’s lead designer was Gregory Nowell, ASLA, owner and founder of Nowell & Associates, Landscape Architecture. Nowell was hired by the city of Encinitas in 1995 to, “celebrate the floricultural history of the area with a really exuberant design reflecting the diversity of people and plants found in Leucadia.” He’s done a masterful job, and we hope that this creative landscape encourages other communities to think of planting similarly imaginative public spaces. In addition to a thoughtfully selected mediterranean-climate plant palette, he brought in stone and boulders to give the street plantings a more natural appearance. Nowell held several workshops with the community to get their input, and gives “a lot of credit to the city for having the vision to see and approve something like this and allowing us freedom to do it.”

Before the plans were finalized, Julian Duval, executive director of Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, at the behest of then-mayor Dennis Holz, asked two San Diego Horticultural Society (SDHS) members to meet the designers and suggest additional low-water plants to use. Garden designer and SDHS board member Bill Teague, along with SDHS founder, horticulturist Don Walker, made a number of suggestions, most notably from Teague’s list of palms for the area, and most of their ideas were incorporated in the final design.

Nowell brought in landscape architect Chris Drayer to help finalize the planting design. Drayer notes that he planned the landscape “like a piece of music with recurring themes. Each intersection has its own combination of plants, which set the tone for that block and which appear both earlier and later along the street.” Drayer, who now heads his own design firm, also designed some of the exceptional lush but dry gardens at the Rancho La Puerta Spa in Tecate, Mexico.

When he began, Drayer took the original palette plus Teague’s suggestions and added some of his personal favorites to arrive at a list of plants. From those, he worked on a scheme for how the flow and layering and forms of the plantings would develop. He laid out the entire ten-block-long street on one piece of paper and, “got down and moved along the street at eye level to figure out how [the landscape] would unfold. It’s like a painting that you drive through. Different themes would show up and change.” He used subtropical flowering trees to showcase Encinitas’s flower heritage, with an “overarching mediterranean theme, including aloes, rosemary, and lavender.”

Succulents, such as tree-like Aloe bainesii and gray green rosettes of Agave attenuata, are featured along Leucadia Boulevard

Succulents, such as tree-like Aloe bainesii and gray green rosettes of Agave attenuata, are featured along Leucadia Boulevard

Color and Drama

When I strolled through the landscape last September, I was impressed by the softly curving paths and neighborly benches. There is an appealing juxtaposition of strong, solid plant forms against ferny-textured ones, and a wealth of mostly evergreen plants to assure interest in every season. Clumps of blue fan palms (Brahea armata) contribute silvery blue leaves, while the gray green foliage of pindo palms (Butia capitata) lights up other areas. The tropical-looking, dark green fronds of kentia palms (Howea forsteriana) provide interesting texture and form elsewhere.

About twenty species of flowering trees blossom in white, yellow, orange, magenta and bright red. The deep green needles of the attractive, drought-tolerant Afghan pine (Pinus brutia subsp. eldarica) are an excellent foil for the large palmately lobed leaves of the spiny-trunked floss-silk trees (Chorisia speciosa) planted in adjacent clumps. From late summer into fall, the Chorisia are laden with six-inch-wide, deep pink, hibiscus-like flowers. One intersection features three hybrid locusts (Robinia 5 ambigua ‘Purple Robe’) with long-blooming purple flowers. The opposite corner showcases ‘Iceberg’ roses, whose clear white blooms are a standout over many months; these roses have surprisingly modest water requirements.

The ten-inch-diameter clusters of four-inch, cupshaped blossoms on the African tulip trees (Spathodea campanulata) are visible blocks away; six are planted together for greater impact. Many shades of pink and violet are used, including magenta-flowered Hong Kong orchid trees (Bauhinia blakeana), which are underplanted with the nearly matching flowers of a shrubby rock rose (Cistus).

Other vibrant colors come from about forty different vines, shrubs, ground covers, and succulents. Large swaths of Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskyou Pink’ serve as ground cover, with spires of pink flowers rising about two feet above the foliage. A magenta Bougainvillea covers a masonry wall, with silver-foliaged trailing licorice (Plecostachys serpyllifolia) at its feet. Silvery, fine textured Geranium incanum, with showy, pale violet flowers, looks particularly handsome in front of strap-leaved, orange yellow daylilies (Hemerocallis), and both are a good contrast to the nearby prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’), with small pale blue flowers. This and other rosemaries appear in many places, adding both a pungent aroma and dark green foliage.

To quote from the 2001 Orchids & Onions Awards program of the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects, “The Leucadia Boulevard right-of-way has been transformed into a dynamic and ever-changing corridor of explosive color and texture—a moving sequence of tropical events and surprises to be viewed when traveling at 35 mph…and when walking along the gently meandering foot paths. This streetscape proclaims that cities have as much right to be beautiful as they have to be safe and clean. We toss a bouquet of Orchids to Encinitas for keeping up the reputation as ‘Flower Capital of the World’.” I agree, and I hope that this article will encourage the community activists among you to demand more from your municipal landscapes.

If You Should Like to Visit . . .

Look for the Leucadia Boulevard exit from I-5 in Encinitas, California, about twenty-five miles north of San Diego. It is the first exit north of Encinitas Boulevard, which is the exit for Quail Botanical Gardens, featured in the October 2005 issue of Pacific Horticulture.