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Archive for the ‘USA – California’ Category

Monday 9 February 2015 – Around Bellflower

For me a relaxed, easy day, without any plant photography to report.

During the morning Eunice needed to take her rental car back which involved a thorough clean inside and out. Eunice needed to attend her photography classes in the afternoon, so an opportunity for me to catch up, in rather random fashion, with some of the holes in the Cactus Trip Diaries.

Tomorrow is another school day for Eunice and I’ll be driving at my leisure to Bakersfield for another talk.

Sunday 8 February 2015 – South Coast Cactus & Succulent Society meeting

We set off in good time to arrive early at the South Coast Botanic Garden where the C&S Society meet, but due to everyone rushing to the coast to enjoy the sun and my overly cautious driving (according to Eunice) we arrived at 13:03, still in good time to set up and shake hands with the Officers and with folk that I had met at other meetings during the week. There must have been some 80 members, who had given up a day in the sun to sit in a darkened hall and listen to a presentation called FOG, when this phenomenon is something that they are already very familiar with as they often wake up to it – as we did during the last week.

Setting up my laptop was quick and easy and the projector provided by the Society was already placed at the correct distance from the screen so it was just a matter of plugging in the VGA cable. There was a short wait so that I could take a quick look at the monthly mini show that consisted of plants in the genus Astrophytum and Euphorbias in the caput-medusae group. When I returned for President Dale La Forest’s introduction, the laptop had gone to sleep and only woke up after several attempts. Fortunately it came back to life just in time!

After the talk there was the judging of the plants. There were classes for novices, beginners, intermediate and expert growers and as at all talks to date, the exhibits were of a high standard including the attractive pots that did help me to separate plants that might otherwise have been in dead-heats. In the UK it tends to be the plant that is judged while pots are ignored, except where their size is inappropriate for the size of the plant. Particularly for new members and visitors – the very people that you would like to return on a regular basis – great plants in attractive pots with attention paid to their display are the perfect way to persuade them back. The perfect show window for the hobby.

Jim Hannah was there again, selling plants. This was the fourth time that he had seen my talk as all Societies have chosen the FOG talk from the subjects on offer. We would meet again in the week to come at the meeting of the San Gabriel CSS and I suggested that I’d bring the images while he could present the commentary. Only joking, Jim!

Eunice and I left the meeting early while the members continued with regular club business.

The South Coast CSS meet on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in LA County, a wealthy suburb right out on the Ocean shore, opposite Santa Catalina Island, where in February 2008 Eunice had introduced me to Dudleya, a genus in the Family Crassulaceae that are found all along the Californian coast, right up to (and across) the border with Oregon and south into Baja California. I planned to see these plants again, hoping that, with different cameras and lenses, I could improve on the pictures taken back in 2008. It turned out that a sunny Sunday afternoon was not the best time for this exercise with the car parks along the boulevard were full up, with more cars waiting. Eventually we found a slot to park, but a group of ten young guys hanging around made us a little concerned about leaving our car with computer laptops and, most importantly, the data stored on them. So we took some scenic pictures in front of the car before going home to pick up Eunice’s dog, Bosco for an outing to the Dogspark at Seals Beach. My visit had distracted Eunice from taking Bosco for regular visits where both dogs and humans meet for a bit of socialising – a wonderful community atmosphere, without the mess that I had anticipated, due to the conscientious tidying up of dog litter by their owners. The sun was about to set as we arrived and had gone altogether by the time we left – it had gotten so dark that we could no longer see the dogs!

We’ll return to Palos Verdes during a weekday, when there will be fewer visitors.

To end the day we went to the Naples Rib Company. It was my first experience of a car park with Valet service where a member of staff takes your car for safe parking. Bosco stayed in the car. After a great meal of Prime Rib, a proper Chilean Pisco Sour as a starter and no space left for a sweet it was back to the car park where Bosco showed that he was a good guard dog, needing Eunice to reassure him that it was OK for the valet to get into the car and pull it forward for us to get in.

Saturday 7 February 2015 – Las Vegas to Bellflower

Sorry for the temporary gap in the Diaries – I’ll fill them in later.

We left our hosts, Pete & Rhonda Duncombe, early in the morning so we could fit in a busy day of desert sighteeing before the four hour plus drive back to Bellflower.

Today our goal was the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, to the west of Las Vegas. As the name suggests, there were lots of wonderful red rock formations to point our cameras at, with interesting cacti and Agave as well. Being a Saturday, we were not the only visitors, with the designated parking spaces in the pull-overs filled to over flowing. We had a simpler strategy: stop if there is a space, go on if there is not – later changing to ‘stop if we have to – thefre is still a long drive ahead’.

I recorded four stops – some just for the scenery, others for plants. I still have to allocated the ‘formal S numbers’ so for now will call them Stop #1 etc.

S#1 were actually the first two pull-overs on the loop, with images of rocks and hills. S#2 was for the first cactus photographed today – a for the record shot of battered green Opuntia pads growing in chains along the ground – resembling trains. Then lots of Agave utahensis, right along the path – quite different to locations in California in 2009 when we travelled for hours on unpaved roads, looking for stalks that would take us to dead plants – these plants flower and then they die. From memory, where as here the plants formed clumps of up to a dozen rosettes, those in California were often solitary plants and so easier to photograph. Clumps of Echinocereus engelmannii were in bud but no flowers seen yet, just like for Opuntia basilaris yesterday.And then there were fist sized balls of white spined that at first glance looked like Mammillaria but turned out to be Escobaria / Coryphantha vivipara subsp desertii. Again, a shame that we were here before the flowering season.

More of the same at S#3, with a different Opuntia added to the list – small pads, low growing, long fine, light spines; better looking than the green padded plant reported from S#1, but still present here as well.

By S#4 the clock started to play a role – Sat Nav warned that we’d be home after 18:00 hrs – in the dark and dark clouds loomed over the hill. The cactus worth stopping for was Ferocactus cylindraceus, to add to the thousands of plants of this species taken since 2008 ranging from Baja Norte in Mexico and many from Anza Borrego State Park in southern California. Still, it’s good to photograph a species across its huge range, if only as a record of its distribution.

The first raindrops fell as we drove out of the park and the windscreenwipers worked overtime once we were on the Highway south. As we crossed one of the Sierra’s we ran into clouds, i.e. fog as well but nothing to slow us down too much. It was dry by the time we arrived in the LA area and we celebrated an enjoyable few days in Nevada with a Margarita and Bison Burger in BJ’s where they also have a huge selection of Belgium beers! But very noisy with numerous huge screens showing basketball, icehockey and boxing matches simultaniously. Crazy!

Apologies if there are more typos than usual – with the sunshine comes pollen so I’ll be looking for my hayfever pills!


Friday 6 February 2015 – around Las Vegas

Our heads were still spinning from last night’s sights in Las Vegas! Wow, how do we beat that?

Well, after breakfast (thanks Pete!) we visited Stephenie again, this time at work at the Moon Sun Koi and Cactus Garden (http://www.moon-sunlandscapes.com/Greenhouses.html). (S3229).  A substantial part of her collection is grown in one of the greenhouses, so she and Eunice indulged in a bit more swap-shop activity while I looked in frustration at the cacti, some of which I would love to have taken home. The formal documentation to legally export the plants to England are complicated, expensive and time consuming so do not encourage those in the hobby to use them, making reluctant criminals out of those who ‘must’. I would have loved to have taken a clump of Echinocactus polycephalus, complete with a tied on label to prove that it had been collected legally during a plant rescue from a development to create new homes. But in reality, these plants would be unlikely to thrive and survive in UK climatic conditions. Plants raised from seed in the UK would stand a better chance but are still often grafted to increase their chance of survival.

Tagged Echinocactus polycephalus, a rescue plant from a housing development project.

Tagged Echinocactus polycephalus, a rescue plant from a housing development project.

We drove to the Hoover Dam (S3230) for a bit of ‘normal tourist’ (if there is such a beast) sightseeing. The scenery, together with some very nice clouds of Lake Mead and the impressive bridge near the dam itself made some nice targets for my camera. There were also some nice cars in the car park, evidence that we are very close to Las Vegas and the money it attracts.

A McClaren in the desert - not a common sight!

A McClaren in the desert – not a common sight!

S3231, along the North Shore Road along Lake Mead, on the way to the Valley of Fire State Park, finally provided me with an opportunity to point the lens of some cacti in habitat, consisting of Opuntia basilaris, in bud, and a Cylindropuntia sp,  Another stop along the road (S3232) provided that last night’s meeting as the Pygmy Barrel Cactus, Echinomastus johnsonii, but with a list of synonyms that this is a well travelled plant, at least taxonomically, having been placed in the genera Sclerocactus, Echinocactus, Thelocactus, Neolloydia and Pediocactus. No wonder that the locals prefer to use the common name, it avoids lots of arguments.

Pygmy Barrel Cactus - you may select your preferred botanical name from the list above.

Pygmy Barrel Cactus – you may select your preferred botanical name from the list above.

Last stop of the day was in the Valley of Fire State Park where the setting sun accentuated the red rocks even more. We caught the sun shining in to one side of a rock and out the other. This is my picture Eunice, I know that you’ve got one the same!

Sun setting in the Valley of Fire State Park - S3233

Sun setting in the Valley of Fire State Park – S3233


Thursday 5 February 2015 – Bellflower to Las Vegas

For some reason that I can’t put my finger on, I have never been to Las Vegas. Most of my travel destinations and experiences are aimed at observing cacti and other succulent plants in nature and to share those experiences with other people. The ethos of Las Vegas seemed far removed from these aims and so, given the choice, as in 2009’s visit to Death Valley, CA, or in Spring 2012 while visiting Zion State Park, UT, there were signs to Las Vegas, indicating that a small detour would enable us to take a quick look there. We had always taken the alternative options to look for more cacti.

So when Eunice contacted me a few weeks before my departure from the UK and asked if I was interested in giving a presentation to the Cactus and Succulent Society of Southern Nevada during my mini speaking tour of California, I said ‘Why not? Where do they meet?’ Las Vegas!

Well, if it was good enough for Elvis to appear there …..Viva Las Vegas!   Of course Elvis never appeared at The Garden Center in Lorenzi Park, so no competition for me!

And so it came to be that we set out for the 4:15 hour journey, perhaps a little later than I had hoped for, but understandably Eunice had to make some arrangements including preparing her home for her friend Melissa to look after Bosco.

Eunice was driving and did her best to make up some of the lost time by breaking various land speed records, and possibly a few speed limits as well so that we could fit in my first Cactus-in-habitat stop, one week after landing at LAX. My shutter finger was itching as we left the highway at the turning to Zzyzx Road for stop S3225. I had been here before in 2009 but this time we carried on a bit farther as Echinocactus polycephalus and Opuntia basilaris appeared alongside the road. This was also the first time for me to try out the Nikon D750 in a habitat environment and for the newly purchased 18-35 mm wide angle zoom lens. I was not disappointed, as the combination gave me crystal clear pictures from a perspective for which in the past I had used the Nikon Coolpix S10 with its wonderful lens twisting independent from the body. I dislike changing lenses in the field with the great potential of dust particles entering the delicate parts inside the camera. The only flaws in the pictures were my shadow becoming included in the picture, due to the wide angle and the low light casting long shadows – user error; lessons learned!

And so on to Las Vegas where we followed a by-pass towards Henderson to arrive at the home of the Programme Organiser, Stephenie Thomas to take a look at her small collection in the yard – all these plants overwinter outside, impossible in England! Their real challenge is the heat of summer. Eunice had brought along some trays of sales plants for the meeting so a bit of a car-boot sale ensued or was it two way traffic, a car-boot swap shop?

The clock ticked on and Eunice contacted our host for the night Pete Duncombe, who, like Stephenie, is listed on the Society’s website as a ‘large Board Member’ or was that ‘at large’?  In the UK they would be Branch Officials. We arranged to meet Pete at Applebee’s, an eatery near the hall, but got stuck in traffic. When Eunice informed Pete we learned that there were actually four Applebee restaurants around Vegas and of course we were heading for the wrong one. A quick course correction and we finally arrived to meet our host, slightly stressed as we were close to being late for the meeting. We ordered fish & chips and a pint of locally brewed beer while we waited for the food to be served in take-away boxes. Excellent, just what the doctor ordered!

I was introduced to numerous people and my poor memory struggled to remember the right name for the right face. Regardless, thank you all for making me very welcome. One person I do remember was Victor who had travelled with Eunice and my friend Alain Buffel from Belgium on a 2012 trip in Baja California and is therefore featured in Alain’s Diary and their photo’s. As he is some 2 m tall, he is easily remembered!

The evening ended around 21:00 hrs, as the presentations last only 45 – 60 minutes rather than the 2 x 45 minutes in the UK. So what would we like to do? Would it be possible to drive through Las Vegas and see The Strip? Of course! But first to Pete’s home to meet his wife Rhonda and son, John, where we left our car and where Pete took on his nth role of the day: tourist guide.

It was amazing to see the bright lights with many sights that I recognised from movies, adverts and from Ian Woolnough’s presentations of trips to the USA. We drove past the Bellagio Hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, described as the ultimate hotel experience, just as a spectacular performance of water fountains accompanied by loud rock music was in full flow. Wow, can we stop to photograph this? Sure, as Pete took a left into the Hotel car park. We walked through the hotel voyer that has to be seen to be believed with a Chinese Garden display, presumably to help celebrations of the Chinese New Year later this month. Pete told us that these displays last one month and then are replaced in their entirity in just three days. Of course we were particularly impressed by the huge amounts of plants involved in these colourful displays. What a challenge!

Eventually we reached the outside and found a place at the man made lake (remember, we’re in the middle of a desert!) and wondered when the next show would start when the loudspeakers next to us started beating out Billy Jean by Michael Jackson and the water fountains started their dance. Fortunately the Nikon D750 has excellent video capability so that the whole performance was recorded, in stereo! We were still enthusing of what we had seen and busy taking still pictures as we walked back towards the car park when another piece of (unfamiliar to me) rock music started up, with another performance by the fountain-dancers. Double Wow!!! Angie, you’d love this, so start packing for a future trip to include Vegas!

Back at Pete’s home there was just time for a brief chat before I was glad to drop into bed. But what a small world! It turned out that Pete had spent a spell at Kew Gardens in London and that we both knew a number of people from Kew! I explained that I used to live in Dorking in Surrey, which always brings a smile to the face of Americans, as the word Dork has quite a different meaning here. ‘I know Dorking’, said Pete, ‘my cousin Max has bought a small cottage there, the Watermill’. Wow, I used to live at Millcroft, at the end of Leslie Road and the Watermill, then, in the 1990’s, was in need of some repairs, along the footpath alongside the River Mole, some three doors away!   Yes, it’s a small world indeed!

We are unsure what we will do tomorrow. Eunice’s car is due to be released by the garage where it has undergone repairs after being rear-ended about a week before I arrived. But the garage closes at 13:00 so we would need to leave early as she did not want to pay storage fees and be charged for extended use of the rental car that the insurance company had provided. But that is tomorrow’s problem!

Wednesday 4 February 2015 – Gates CSS

Resting my eyes after lunch on the beach - it's a hard life!

Resting my eyes after lunch on the beach – it’s a hard life! Image by ET.

After a morning in front of the BBC World News again – actually, it is more like BBC American News, complete with adverts – Eunice took me to The End of the World Café for lunch, lazing in the sun, but wearing my jacket as protection from a chilling wind.

We left in plenty of time for the Gates Cactus & Succulent Society, but ran into heavy traffic and arrived with only minutes to spare.

Tuesday 3 February 2015 – Sunset Cactus and Succulent Society meeting

I woke up this morning to thick fog! I wish that I had gone out to record it on video! But of course here it is not the only source of water for plants. It does perhaps explain why all Societies have elected to go for my FOG talk rather than different talks at different Societies, as people in California often belong to and attend more than one Society meeting per month. By about 10:30 the sun had burnt the fog away for another warm sunny day.
Eunice had signed up for a number of photo and video courses at the local college, including a 5 week, 1 day per week course on Photoshop. So after breakfast at Denny’s I settled down in front of her huge TV, tuned in to BBC World News which forecasts temperatures of 21 C today, rising to 23 on Thursday.
After lunch, I set off early for tonight’s meeting at Sunset CSS at Marina del Rey. I hoped that the Marina would provide some subjects for my camera. I was not looking forward too much to my first drive back in the dark on my own after the meeting, buit all was well. Eunice confirmed the nick-name that Rudolf Schulz gave me during a visit in the UK of ‘the Prozac Driver’ as I drive slower than others, particularly in the dark. In the US I tend to sit in lane 1 or 2 so I don’t have to worry about reaching the exit where my SatNav tells me to turn off. Of course, I have two SatNavs – Eunice’s Garmin, a different model to the one I forgot to bring from the UK and, when she is there, Eunice herself, who often suggests alternative routes based on experience. If we use the car pool lane, one left from the fast lane, I tend to drift back to the slowest lane at least a mile before the exit I have to take. Eunice, and many other drivers around us, often leave it to the last minute so that I have seen some frightening near misses as cars cut across traffic of 6 to 8 lanes in some places, to make the exit.

Monday 2 February 2015 – drive to Orange County

We started the day with breakfast at Polly’s whose speciality is gigantic cinnamon rolls and free coffee. When I say ‘gigantic’, I mean HUGE! – last time Eunice and I had to share one between us, couldn’t eat a whole one by myself.
When we went to Nikon’s Services in Beverly Hills last Friday it struck me that the D600 would make an excellent 2nd camera. While I had the D300 as my main camera, I would also carry my ‘previous main’, the D200, equiped with a wide angle zoom lens. This enabled me to take those low angled shots of cacti making them really stand out in the landscape. It’s a style that I first saw done very successfully by Leo van der Hoeven and while he did not want to tell me explicitly how he made those images, you don’t have to be a genius by looking at what he has in his kit bag and by observing what he did on our past trips. My first digital camera was the Nikon Coolpx 950 in 2001 for my first trip to Chile. At the time it was the favourite ‘pro-sumer’ digital camera. It was such a liberating experience to be released of the self imposed limit of 1 roll – 36 exposures per day for cactus trips – more would have taken up too much bagage space, too much package weight and too much cost in developing once we had returned home. And if not one roll as a limit, what would be right? 2 per day? 3 per day? The camera was loaned to me by Nikon to test the camera in some extreme conditions and the Atacame Desert, the driest desert on earth, is about as extreme as can be. With tears in my eyes I returned the camera on my return, only to be rewarded by an improved model, the Coolpix 990 as a gift for my trouble. My teenage son then lost contact with his work colleague at the local Burger King franchise whose father was a manager at Nikon Europe. Still, I was converted and subsequently bought the D70, D200, D300, D600 ast December, the D750. For me they are simply the best cameras that I can afford.  If Nikon put in a built-in GPS then they have another sale. For me it is important to know fairly exactly where I photograph my cacti to disprove claims from friends back home that it can’t be a specific species ‘because it does not grow there’. Seeing is believing.
Moving up to the D600 meant that I had bought into a new lens system – the FX series rather than the DX series for earlier Nikon DSLRs and still used on the lower spec DSLRs. At the Nikon Service Department I saw some very nice wide angle lenses, some with eye-watering price tags and some, with bulging front lens, unable to take a cheaper UV or clear filter to protect the expensive optics. Also, due to the number of lenses inside the lens housing, they were very heavy and I value light weight add ons as I hike in the heat over difficult terrain. And so I was pleased to find a recent addition that did not have the VR (Vibration Reduction) System and so was lighter than the others while still getting excellent reviews.
I wanted to visit a Fry’s to buy an adaptor to connect my Surface Pro3 to a VGA socket on a digital projector. At home, I use a HDMI rather than VGA connection, but VGA is still the most common connection, in case I need to use a borrowed projector, such as when I am on tour. Eunice suggested the Fry’s in Orange County, where we could also visit another Samy’s Cameras for a hands on look at the lens lens on my own camera. It was a dream, and much cheaper than in the UK.
Eunice suggested a visit to Gary James, who I had met again at the Long Beach meeting and who lives in Orange County, and so we managed to kill three birds with one stone, if you pardon the expression, Gary.  Gary has a detailed collection of African Euphorbias and bulbs and claims not to be able to grow cacti very well. I have the reverse problem where my cactus regime does not always coincide with the rainfall seasons expected by succulents in their natural environments. If you enjoy and are successful with what you grow, then don’t change a thing! Or move house, preferably to the area where your favourite plants grow naturally, so that you just walk into the field to enjoy them. So often we seem hell bend on growing – often killing – plants that are at home in quite different conditions to what we are prepared to offere them. These plants are often said to be ‘difficult’ or ‘impossible’ when in nature they have no problem. We just need to understand habitat conditions better and decide if we are prepared to try to create these conditions at home. Cacti and other succulents are extremely flexible in the conditions that they will tollerate. I am always surprised to see plants from the high Andes happily growing alongside plants that I have seen growing at sea level. Another fascinating aspect of our hobby!

Sunday 1 February 2015 – Long Beach Cactus & Succulent Society

I gave my first talk to a US Cactus & Succulent Society on the first Sunday in March 2008 with ten days to kill between my Baja trip with Alain Buffel in February and another Baja trip with Cliff Thompson and Ian Woolnough to the end of the peninsula and back in March. Long Beach’s then President Eunice Thompson, was my hostess and showed me around plant sights in California Alto and told me how much she wanted to see the Succulent plants in Baja. As we had a spare space in the car she came along for the March trip.

The folks at Long Beach again made me very welcome. They had moved from the 2009 location to a new venue, where they never knew in advance in which room they would actually meet in the Community Centre of a gated community. Today we were shown into a huge gazebo, very unusual given my experience of February weather in the UK. Angie and I normally attend meetings at the Southampton Branch of the British Cactus & Succulent Society on the (relatively) warm UK South Coast. To put things into perspective, their February meeting on 3 February was cancelled due to snow and ice that would have made it difficult for the speaker to get to the hall and which would also have greatly reduced the number of members who could have attended.

But in sunny Long Beach this was not a problem, with temperatures touching 20 C. I was a little worried about the amount of day light for this afternoon meeting. Although it was not possible to black out the gazebo completely, the digital projector was good enough to allow a reasonable picture to be projected.

I recognised many faces and even managed a few names for what was either my third or fourth presentation here. I won’t mention any names here in case I overlook somebody. The meeting was well attended and as usual there were lots of plant and pots sales and a nice buffet of snacks provided by this month’s catering team from the membership list in advance to make sure that everyone takes a turn. There was an excellent table show, here called a mini show.

Eunice and I have taken some pictures of plants and their owners, after all they are all part of What I Saw Last Winter and will therefore feature in my 2015 talks in the UK. There are still some pictures on Eunice’s stick from some of the meetings and I will spend some time in March in the UK to add pictures to these pages. Please be patient!

Saturday 31 January 2015 – around LA

Yes, I dropped the reference to ‘sightseeing’ from today’s subject line as we did little more than laze around, shopping at Wallmart and two hours at the Seal Beach dog park with Bosco.

The dog park was something that I’m not familiar with in the UK. It’s a fenced off piece of parkland with parking to allow a large number of dogs and their owners to enjoy some safe time in the Californian sunshine. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Eunice asked one of her friends for a recommendation of a good steak house, not too expensive and not too far away. We ended up with about one hundred suggestions, some contradictory. ‘We’ll probably finish up eating at a Chinese’ I added helpfully. That just gave rise to more suggestions for good Chinese restaurants.

By the time we left, after all the talk of Prime Ribs and thick juicy steaks, we were all starving. Even the dogs seemed to be hungry, crowding round Eunice who had a pocket full of dog biscuits.

We finished up at Bruce’s where I had a large New Yorker with, believe it or not, a salad, that I ate all of (OK, after passing the brocolli to Eunice).

Tomorrow I visit the Long Beach Cactus & Succulent Society for my first talk of 2015 – FOG.