Weird & Wonderful
A Del Mar gardener treasures exotic natural elements, including a plant that bears only two leaves in its 1,000-year lifespan
Candace Kohl likes rocks. Not ordinary rocks. Meteorites. The retired University of California, San Diego research chemist traveled the world studying them for more than three decades. Hundreds of space rocks she collected mingle with travel mementos displayed around her Del Mar home. Candace also likes plants. But, as expected, not ordinary plants. “I like cool, weird, wonderful plants — plants with amazing backstories, plants no one else has, rare plants,” she says. Her eclectic finds dazzled visitors on this spring’s San Diego Horticultural Society garden tour as they explored her 3/4-acre, oceanview garden. Many snapped photos of a pincushion border in full bloom, the orange thistle-like flowers aglow in the dappled shade of towering Torrey pines. Others marveled at hundreds of potted rare succulents displayed on a balcony ledge or gazed at a bromeliad collection that sparkled like jewels in the afternoon sun.
Greeting everyone was “the guardian”: a terra-cotta warrior that Candace bought in China for the Asian garden at the top of her sweeping driveway. Sculpted black pines, pink camellias and prostrate junipers keep him company, along with a jadeite bench she found at a favorite shopping haunt: the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show. High above, a long Torrey pine branch supports a swing that lifts kids — and the young at heart — toward the blue horizon. “We had a swing in the house where I grew up,” says Candace, who uses hers occasionally. “It’s especially magical in the moonlight.” That childhood in St. Louis sparked her passion for extraordinary plants. “My grandmother had greenhouses and a full-time gardener who lived over the garage,” she recalls. “He tended the frilly cattleya orchids that were her signature corsage. I loved them. I loved all the exotic plants.” Memories of tending peonies and poring over bulb catalogs with her mother influenced the lush rose and flower garden she planted around her former home, a Solana Beach cottage behind a white picket fence. There she also nurtured a night-blooming cereus cactus grown by way of a cutting from her grandmother’s greenhouse. Now in Del Mar, the leggy succulent sprawls contentedly against a purple wall.
Two other cacti from that previous garden — slow-growing saguaros purchased 32 years ago — anchor her succulent collection (plant equivalents of her meteor finds). One prize, Africa’s Welwitschia mirabilis, grows only two strappy leaves in a lifetime that can span more than 1,000 years. Another, an exotic bursera, is considered — for its use in incense and medicine — the New World equivalent of frankincense.
“Aren’t they just so cool?” Candace asks rhetorically.
Steps away, shady nooks pamper some of her cycads, primitive conifer relatives that date back to the dinosaur era, and the growing number of silvery tillandsias clinging to a stacked-stone wall. Creeping rosemary fits among these oddities, thanks to deft pruning by Candace’s long-time landscape consultant, Howard Vieweg, who transforms it into a stiff, lacy scrim. East of the house, a quadrangle of grass and a cutting garden accented with large amethyst geodes are nods to tradition. A narrow bed of roses here previews a more extensive rose garden on the terrace below. There — among modern favorites like ‘Lavaglut,’ ‘Fame!’ and ‘Julia Child’ — is an old garden rose with dull green blooms. “Some find it odd,” Candace says, “but I like it.”
Nearby brick steps descend to the newest garden destination: a secluded patio at the base of a boulder-studded terrace. Around it are exotic Australia and South Africa natives such as spidery-flowered grevilleas, protea with blossoms of feathery petals, leucadendrons tipped with fiery bracts, and eye-popping banksias with flower spikes that linger as arm-thick seed cones. While not as showy as fellow Aussies, melaleucas with their bottlebrush flowers star here and throughout the garden. In the mix are upright and prostrate ghostly gray honey myrtles (M. incana) and a striking green honey myrtle (M. diosmifolia) with needle leaves and lime flowers that stand at the edge of a pet memory garden. Just past the garage, beneath an enormous staghorn fern mounted on a Torrey pine, Candace tends potting benches where sick plants recover and cymbidium and other orchids rest after blooming. Ongoing travel and entertaining regularly compete for her time. But, she admits, “I know that if I’m not careful, I’ll spend whole days just messing around in the garden.”