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I’ve been gardening in Orange County for a long time and I’ve been hiking and exploring our local wild areas for even longer.

 Ron Vanderhoff

I enjoy plants of any sort, wild or cultivated. Occasionally, this distinction blurs, and plants from gardens wind up in the wild – not a good thing. More commonly and certainly more preferable, California’s wild plants sometimes find their way to our urban gardens.

Last week I grabbed my daypack, a bottle of water, my camera and hat and went for a hike. For years I had heard about a natural, free-flowing spring somewhere in the foothills of The Santa Ana Mountains that offered a year-round supply of water to local plants and animals. I wasn’t exactly certain where the spring was, but I had a general idea. It would be a six mile venture in the hot, dry July sun; not a popular time for a local hike. But by 9:00 am I was on my way.

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While walking, I paused occasionally to capture a portrait of a few remnant wildflower friends; wild morning glory, fleabane, clarkia, grindelia and bush penstemon. I was relieved upon arriving at my destination and I had located the spring. The temperature dropped at least ten degrees as I entered this shaded, moist, green little oasis; a refuge within the miles of parched, dry landscape surrounding it.

Being the plant enthusiast that I am, I immediately began taking inventory of the exceptional wild plants at this damp little paradise; huge Maidenhair ferns, lush nettles and stachys, rambling gooseberries and California blackberries, mosses and others. But higher up, on the damp limestone cliffs just out of reach, was a plant I was certain I had never seen before. I fretted over it, snapped two pictures of the stranger and wondered what to call it.

I didn’t know this plants’ identity. I didn’t even know where to begin. Usually, I can at least identify the family a plant belongs to, if not its genus and species, but this one was an alien.

One plant that has eluded me all my life in the wild is a particular orchid. Perhaps surprising to most, Orange County is indeed home to a native orchid. Sometimes called a Stream Orchid, its proper name is Epipactis gigantea, and although I have grown it in my garden for several years, finding one in the wilds of Orange County has been a goal for many years. I’ve searched for this little gem in places in San Juan Canyon, Hot Springs Canyon, Holy Jim Canyon, around Blue Jay Campground; places where this little native treasure might turn up. But I’ve never found a wild one, just my little Epipactis imprisoned in its pot at home.

Epipactis gigantea is a modest plant. Not as showy as its more familiar flowery cousins. Its small flowers, although beautiful upon close inspection, barely span an inch in diameter. It is also a rare plant, occurring only in a few isolated places along canyon streams and seeps.

I can’t necessarily explain my fascination or pursuit of this plant. Perhaps it is simply the odd thought of an orchid somewhere in the arid wilds of Orange County that tantalizes me. Having grown Epipactis gigantea for several years in a pot I figured that I new this plant pretty well. A smallish, weak growing plant, barely 12 inches tall with pale yellow-brown flowers, two or three to a stalk, each with delicate purple veins.

A couple of days after my encounter with this strange plant at the end of my 90 degree July hike, one of my pictures was shown to a botanical friend. Dr. Harold Koopowitz is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of California at Irvine and has traveled extensively to study orchids and other plants in the wild. He is the author of numerous scientific papers and books about numerous plants, as well as the issues of endangered plants and ecosystems, deforestation, plant extinctions, etc. He is a long-standing member of the conservation committee of the American Orchid Society, a member of the Species Survival Commission and the editor-in-chief of the leading orchid publication, Orchid Digest.

Dr. Koopowitz quickly identified my unfamiliar plant. The subject in my photograph was the same plant I have been in search of for ten years, Epipactis gigantea. Three days earlier I was standing five feet from fifty of these plants and had not the faintest idea of what I was looking at. These wild and free orchids were completely happy in their location; lush, with huge perfect leaves, long stems and strong growth, although past their blooming period. Like a wild animal in a cage, my poor, weak little potted Epipactis prisoner at home appeared nothing like its wild Orange County cousins. My mystery had been solved. Thank you Dr. Koopowitz.

I suppose some plants just don’t belong in urban city gardens, they need their freedom. (The exact location of this natural spring will need to remain a mystery due to the sensitivity of its local ecology.)

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Questions from Readers July 18, 2009

Question: A while back you wrote about how to read our water bill, but I can’t relocate the article. My bill measures my water use in HCF’s. What’s an HCF again and how many gallons is it equal to? Ernie, Newport Beach

Answer: Water agencies measure and bill water in a unit called a HCF or a CCF. They are the same thing and equal 100 cubic feet. Since there are 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot of water all you need to do is multiply the HCF or CCF total by 748. Say you were billed for 15 units of water last month (about the average during the summer for single family homes in OC). That would be 15 units times 748, or 11,220 gallons of water.


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