Library Spotlight - Peacocks at the Arboretum

Surrounded!  I’m surrounded!  Any employee who works at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden has to work through figuring out what their relationship is to the peacocks.  We don’t have a peacock biologist on staff, so you can guess that all of us weren’t hired for our peacock expertise, but when you come to work here … hmmmm … the peacocks, in some way, dominate your thinking.
Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin brought them to us.  I’ve seen the original receipt for several birds written in the early part of the 20th century.  It is from an exotic bird farm.  From those humble beginnings the flock that resides in and near the Arboretum is presumed to be about 150 birds.  Baldwin’s original purchase has expanded to have territory throughout Arcadia, so much so, that it is a protected bird within the city.  Don’t harm and don’t feed, they say.
There is also a group that hangs around the buildings I work in.  We’ve had a graduate student, Roslyn Dakin, studying their mating behavior for the last 3 years, so we know that the alpha male peacock has his office, I mean, lek, directly north of our director’s office.
The first impression you get of our group is their extraordinary beauty.  It stops all the visitors on their way out of our entrance area.   The iridescence on their feathers is astonishing.  Now, Dr. Dakin, discovered that when the males are displaying to the females the males increase the effect of the iridescence by standing at a 45 degree angle to the sun.
When you live with them next to your office day in and day out, however, you learn to look away from the peacocks and keep your eyes on the ground, being careful where you step.
During mating season from December to early June their calls are a constant, very loud presence.  We have 12,000 different kinds of plants here in beautiful displays, 28,000 different titles in the Arboretum Library, world-renowned historic buildings here, but what we audibly hear “oohing and aahing” about, and crowds gathered, and cameras snapping, and questions after questions are all about the peacocks.
I could call that the “anger” phase.  Sometimes, some of us never go beyond that phase.  I’ll admit I was there awhile.  Then one day on my morning walk at the Arboretum, I saw a group of peacocks swirling around the base of a very large shrub.  It was mostly females or adolescents that have drab plumage to avoid predators.  There were about 30, maybe 40 of them.  I had assumed from watching their behavior around the building that peacocks aren’t very bright, that mostly what they do is beg and strut.  I had never seen them in such a large group.  This group at the shrub was swirling in a mass as a school of fish does in the ocean, moving as a group with orchestrated movements.
In front of the shrub with its back to the foliage, sitting on its haunches, surrounded by this swirling mass was one, very bewildered, adolescent coyote.  I provoked the situation a little just to see what would happen by clapping my hands.  The coyote came out of its trance, looked at me and dove into the shrub.  The seemingly, liquid group of peacocks flowed into the base of the shrub as well.   Wow!
The next time I stood up and took notice was when I saw two males in full mating plumage running at full tilt along the bamboo that borders our fence.  Why were they running?  They weren’t running away.  They were chasing another coyote.
After that was when I really started watching their behavior, studying their natural history, wondering, and watching.  That is when I started thinking about dinosaurs and how they became birds.  I watched as they scrabbled up the trees to roost in the evening.  How long that takes, how high they get, how they use the spurs on their feet to help them climb instead of flying up into the trees; how they glide out of those high roosts in the morning, knowing how hard it is for them to fly.  I can see the pterodactyl in them.
Next time you come to visit the Arboretum, really study their feet.  That is where the pterodactyl is.  This year I finally observed how carefully the mothers lead even their very small children into the trees to roost at night, away from the predators.  Trees that they have picked, because they know their tiny children, just hatched with perfect topknots, can climb them.
Ah, the peacocks.
“Peacocks At The Arboretum” in The Quarterly, (, (Spring 2011) p. 31, by Arboretum Librarian, Susan C. Eubank

Plate 452.  Illustration from Dictionnaire Pittoresque D’Histoire Naturelle et des Phénomènes de la Nature.  Editor F.-E Guérin. Published in Paris, 1833-34 from the Rare Book collection in the Arboretum Library.

Water on the mind?

Leigh Adams, artist-in-residence at the Arboretum, and John Lyons, a designer and lecturer well known to Arboretum fans, teamed up to test and implement techniques to harvest water. The article is a fun and an informative read at

Book Review - “The Romance of Gardening”

by Judith M. Taylor
Members [of the San Francisco Gardening Club] may wonder why I devote a lot of attention to books written many years ago. There are several reasons, but the principal one is that they are in the majority on our shelves. The library was created in the earliest days of the club, during the 1930s and 1940s. The honorary librarian at that time, Miss Willard, took her responsibilities very seriously. She purchased each important horticultural text as it appeared.
Frank Kingdon Ward's work is a case in point. He was one of the most remarkable of the great plant explorers of the inter-war generation. Ward was a driven man. He alienated his first wife by unintentional but nonetheless hurtful neglect. She did not wish to spend her life climbing icy cold mountains in an inhospitabable region and waited for him to go back to England at some reasonable intervals. This seldom happened. His second wife was herself a botanist and scientist. She accompanied him on his expeditions gamely.
Ward was the son of a professor of botany at Cambridge University and decided he wanted to collect plants in the Orient at the age of eighteen. No other career appealed to him or even occurred to him as an option. As soon as he had finished college he took the first post which allowed him to go to China.
Not only did he find and send back many of the most wonderful plants we now grow in our gardens but he also wrote extensively. There are seventeen magnificent books outlining his exhausting journeys and horticultural observations, of which the one above is a sample.
This book came at the end of his career. He dwelled lovingly on the contents of the English garden and on English wildflowers rather than solely on the exotics from the Orient. About 12000 species of foreign plants were cultivated in England in his day, among which which he had introduced the Tibetan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) and the Giant Cowslip Primula (P. florindae).
Ward expressed himself with some pungency, eg ” perpetual warfare against the Bolshevik menace of encroaching weeds.” Hybrid or “improved” flowers might look pretty in a flower show but in his opinion they were sick plants. He compares them negatively to the force-fed geese which provide foie gras. Ward's opinion of the extravagant phraseology of nurserynmen, if not downright falsehoods, was not much better. You always knew where you stood with him.
Ward never retired. He died at the age of seventy two as he was preparing to go to Vietnam for yet another expedition.
Ward, Frank Kingdon. The Romance of Gardening. London: Jonathan Cape, 1935.
Find this book in the Arboretum Library catalog here.
We're fortunate to be featuring book reviews by horticultural history author Judith M. Taylor. After a career in neurology she retired to northern California and now “practices history without a license.”  She is currently working on her forth book and is the honorary librarian and book editor for the San Francisco Garden Club. Her website is Horthistoria.

Fun, fun, fun at the Environmental Education Fair

It was the 32nd annual Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair but judging from all the excitement and activity it could have been the first.  By 9 am on Saturday animals and their handlers were ready to do their show and tell.  There was a giant gopher snake, a wise-looking owl, a desert fox with giant ears, a tortoise nibbling on strawberries and other critters waiting for the busloads of kids and other children and parents. All day visitors enjoyed educational exhibits, crafts and live entertainment.  The highlights of the day were an Eco-Tour and an Ecological Treasure Hunt.  

Reading the Western Landscape March/April 2011

The Reading the Western Landscape Book Group met March 2, 2011, to discuss In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects. Below is a summary of the questions that were brought up for that book and a preview of the book that will be discussed on April 6 at 7:00pm.

Previous book selections can be found here and future selections here.
Previous Book
March 2011 – In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects

In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects, by John Alcock; New York: W.W. Norton ©1997.  Find it at your local library.
From Booklist: Biologist Alcock calls Arizona home, and that is where he tends a desert garden that provides a working laboratory for observing and appreciating insect behavior. Alcock's limitless curiosity about all manner of bugs propels his latest book–beginning with the story of how he converted an unappealing front lawn area into a minidesert environment. Although Alcock makes no bones about mosquitoes that cause malaria and other dreaded pests that color the way most of us see insects, he nevertheless has written an ode celebrating those small creatures. Whether commenting on the fascinating mating rituals of various mantids, spiders, and beetles, or wondering at the camouflagic accomplishments of grasshoppers, butterfly larvae, and caterpillars, Alcock writes with a wry humor that appears as well in reflections on growing vegetables and cultivating compost. Graced with lively line drawings and color photographs, Alcock's engaging, illuminating text offers delightful reading for all who appreciate the natural world. Alice Joyce
Specific questions for this book include:

Which of his insects made the biggest impression on you?  Why?

Did the insects make you think anything differently about humans?  What?

There seemed to be an emphasis on procreation in the book.  Do you think that was just the author’s point of view or is that the overriding question of insect behavior? And does that reflect on other animal life? 

He seemed inordinately interested in his vegetable-insect interactions.  Did that draw in the city or accentuate the lost of the desert? Or show how desert insects can adapt to vegetable production even in the desert?

After reading this book have you paid more attention to the insects that surround us? What have you noticed?

What about his writing helped tell the stories?

After reading this book have you paid more attention to the insects that surround us? What have you noticed?

Next Book

April 2011 – A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories

Discussion on Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 7:00 p.m.
A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories, by Norman Maclean; Chicago: University of Chicago Press ©1976.  Find it at your local library.
From a review: “[Maclean] would go to his grave secure in the knowledge that anyone who'd fished with a fly in the Rockies and read his novella on the how and why of it believed it to be the best such manual on the art ever written–a remarkable feat for a piece of prose that also stands as a masterwork in the art of tragic writing.” (Philip Connors Nation)
For more information about the Reading the Western Landscape Book Group and to RSVP, please contact the Arboretum Librarian, Susan Eubank, at 626-821-3213 or via email.

Reading the Western Landscape: In a Desert Garden Bibliography

March’s Reading the Western Landscape book selection is In a Desert Garden: Love & Death Among the Insects, by John Alcock.  This book describes Alcock's observations and research into the insects that call his natively landscaped Arizona garden home.  
Since the plants and insects probably differ somewhat between John’s Arizona garden and what you’re likely to find in your Southern California garden, we’ve put together some resources if you’d like to find out more about our native insects and plants.
A bibliography of related books in the Arboretum Library collection is here. Click on the “In a Desert Garden Bibliography” list.
Another great resource for finding information is the WorldCat online library catalog.  When you select a title it will search for that resource at a library near you.  For example, next month’s Reading the Western Landscape book for discussion is A River Runs Through It and you can see where you can find the book near you on the WorldCat site here. 
Some more links for information related to In a Desert Garden in WorldCat include California insects and California native garden design.
Enjoy exploring these great resources!

Book Review - “The New Garden Paradise”

We're fortunate to be featuring book reviews by horticultural history author Judith M. Taylor. After a career in neurology she retired to northern California and now “practices history without a license.”  She is currently working on her forth book and is the honorary librarian and book editor for the San Francisco Garden Club. Her website is Horthistoria.
Understanding takes a long time to arrive, but something has at last crystallized. I have been reviewing our club's books for several years and without realizing it have developed a standard based on what I can learn from the author.
A book which teaches me something is a good book. The value of a book from which I learn very little or nothing at all should be questioned. It might be gorgeous to look at but at the end of the day what was the point of reading it? This may seem very draconian to some and is not meant to imply that some of these books are not worthwhile on their own terms. It is simply a personal point of view.
Superficial and ephemeral compilations are with us everywhere. The classical example is the campaign biography. After the great disaster of September 11, books of harrowing photographs of heroic firemen emerged to cash in on the unending interest and continued hunger for reminders of what took place.
Alas, cashing in are the operative words in many cases. The work of assembling the contents can be done by anyone without a strong authorial drive. An editorial assistant is given instructions, and lo & behold, a book emerges. No doubt there will soon be virtual editors who select images from a digital source without direct human intervention.
This is a very handsome book. Dominique Browning has edited House and Garden for many years. She has written columns for the magazine but has also published several other books on related themes. Her colleagues at the magazine assisted her on this occasion. The publishers have pampered her at every point along the way with the quality of the paper, quality of the images, scale of the pages and an elegant well-spaced typeface.
The primary goal of such a book is to spark envy. There is no way most of us could ever aspire to such properties. The book is meant to be displayed prominently, the so-called “coffee table” book.
Large opulent private gardens affect us at many levels. The owner of a large and thus important property needs to have a garden constructed which will complement its buildings and set them in context. One could hardly imagine a great house surrounded by untended scrub or few mousy little flower beds. Scale is everything.
If starting from scratch, the impetus may come from the owner or the architect he or she employs. If the owner buys a property with an old and dilapidated garden, then the pressure is on to restore it to greater glory. Either way the garden assumes immense significance very early in the person's tenure. Almost all the great garden designers or landscape architects worked for wealthy proprietors. In the Bay area of San Francisco, Filoli comes to mind but unless the property becomes a trust or is opened by the owner very few get to see it.
This book is all about photography of the highest order. We are glutted with rich images. It is hard to know whether all that we see actually represents the garden in question or how much is due to the art of the photographer. The ratio of images to text is about 60: 40.
Browning quite rightly gives great importance to the plantsmen among designers. The last section of her book is devoted to such major figures as Piet Oudolf, James van Sweden, Christopher Lloyd and others. Reading about them and their work is never a waste of time. I recently reviewed a book by Christopher Lloyd which displayed his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and the incredible energy he devoted to the garden he inherited from his parents. (SFGC Garden Gazette May 2007)
The value of a volume like this is access to the work of talented designers whose achievements might otherwise not be seen by the public. To that end it is useful and a good book.
Browning, Dominique. The New Garden Paradise: great private gardens of the world. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Find this book in the Arboretum Library catalog here.

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Phone: 626.821.3222

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects