Jacaranda trees: Invasion of the purple flowers bring peace, beauty (and some mess) to SoCal
Like many of their human counterparts, they are transplants to Los Angeles, trying to make it in a town of newcomers.
For two weeks in late spring, they burst forth in their fancy best, shedding their leaves to make way for a dazzling display of unimpeded purple haze.
Just as countless others came here to be seen, they haven’t missed their chance, nudging out iconic palms and briefly taking their place as the most colorful trees in Southern California — until their petals fade quickly in the summer heat.
Spring stars of the tree world — jacaranda mimosifolia — are on the scene, ready for their close-ups. From Long Beach to Santa Barbara, Pasadena to Santa Ana and all points inland, these immigrants from South America and Africa are sending up blue blossoms like nature’s fireworks. Heads turn upwards, then eyes follow the slow descent of the trumpet-shaped flowers back to earth, leaving puddles of purple rain, messy lawns and slippery sidewalks in their wake.
Timing is everything
“They seem to be right on schedule, starting to show their color now, around late May,” said Frank McDonough, botanist at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia. “They are not completely out yet: Usually by the first week of June, they will have all their leaves gone and showing mostly flowers.”
If the cooler weather continues, the flowers on the jacaranda trees will stay longer, he said. Or, you might say in sing-song: If the June Gloom is strong, the purple blooms last long.
What impact has this year’s particularly wet rainy season had? McDonough and others said it’s not a huge factor either way for the jacaranda.
But other flowering trees, such as the pink trumpet trees expected in March, did not bloom until late April because of a cool February, said Jerry Turney, senior biologist and plant pathologist with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
The jacarandas are blooming in Aldrich Park! pic.twitter.com/4CukBSkCnt
— UC Irvine (@UCIrvine) May 22, 2019
In 1989, a tree survey in Pasadena listed 119 jacaranda trees on Del Mar Boulevard, where the trees line both sides of the street from Arroyo Parkway to Hill Street, and most were in full bloom this week. Paloma Street in East Pasadena often has a startling display, but on Wednesday, less than half were in bloom.
Part of the culture
Like the infamous Santa Ana Winds mentioned in Raymond Chandler’s noir writings, the jacaranda trees have taken their place in Southern California ethos. Turney said many pit the purple onslaught against Washington D.C.’s cherry blossoms, squaring the two in a friendly East-West tussle.
In its punk hit “Los Angeles Is Burning,” Bad Religion takes a darker view. About increasingly common SoCal wildfires, the song describes palm trees becoming “candles in the murder wind,” juxtaposing the haze of the violet trees with thickets of gray ash in an apocalyptic mashup: A placard reads the end of days/Jacaranda boughs are bending in the haze.
A 1945 Pasadena Star-News article quotes colonialist Dorothea Fairbridge’s “Gardens of South Africa,” describing the jacarandas in Pretoria that “trail a purple cloud of glory” and beautify the city.
For most, nationalistic expressions are a bit much. Well, maybe not too much.
Greta Pangborn, visiting Pasadena, was capturing images of the purple trees on her phone Tuesday afternoon to make her friends jealous. “I want to send these back to my friends in Vermont, you know, to show them what Pasadena looks like this time of year,” she said.
“This is not a tree I would see in Vermont,” she said.
In Long Beach, jacaranda trees are thick with flowers in the Los Altos neighborhood near Cal State Long Beach. A recent study shows that there are nearly 7,000 jacarandas in Long Beach. In Santa Ana, Concord Street gets the purple push this time of year. At UC Irvine, the idyllic campus is punctuated by canopies of lavender trees amid ordinary green foliage.
Beautiful Jacarandas all over the streets in Beverly Hills. #landscapephotography #jacarandas #trees #naturephotography #BeverlyHills #MemorialDay19 #Purple pic.twitter.com/zm1cLTnDWZ
— Sharon Persovski (@PersovskiSharon) May 28, 2019
Select neighborhoods of Ontario and Upland are turning purple — as leaves are dropped and replaced by what the 1945 newspaper article described as “misty-blue tubular flowers.”
While they’re showing their colors in Beverly Hills and Westwood, the San Fernando Valley’s purple hot spots have been disappointing so far. At Stansbury Road in Sherman Oaks, the jacaranda trees were mostly green, their blooms barely peeking through Wednesday. Turney said the trees need the right amount of light, water and cool temperatures, elements that vary in vast Southern California.
“Its (blooms) fluctuate by temperature. So cool weather and late rains could slow them down a bit,” he said.
So where did they come from?
Southern California horticulturalists most likely introduced jacaranda trees because they liked the colors. They were imported from Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, experts said. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy landowners wanted flowering trees.
“Blue is an unusual flower color,” Turney said. “There are not a lot of blue flowering plants. It is not so common.”
Most likely, the Henry Huntingtons and Andrew Carnegies had them shipped to Los Angeles because they saw them on trips and wanted them for their lavish gardens in California. The L.A. County Arboretum also may have played a hand in bringing them to local shores.
The trees thrived for two reasons: They like a warm climate, and sunshine is plentiful here. Also, they needed supplemental water. In the 1920s through 1950s, L.A. had plenty of imported water, thanks to William Mulholland and the State Water Project engineers, so irrigation was not a problem, McDonough said.
Famous horticulturalist Kate Sessions, who started Balboa Park in San Diego, is also credited by many with bringing the jacaranda trees to the region.
Gold rushers bring in plants
But McDonough theorizes that the trees made their way to California much earlier, during the Gold Rush era. As boats traveled from the East Coast around Cape Horn of South America they were smitten by the exotic jacaranda trees. “They would see these beautiful trees, take the seeds and bring them to California,” he said.
Today, whether one describes the blooms as purple, lavender, lilac or blue, they are loved by residents and cities alike. But they’re not perfect.
“They are a little messy. Especially when the flowers are on the sidewalk in the morning and they get a little slimy,” said Germaine Nesbitt, who lives in Chino Hills. “I like them, as long as they are not around my house, and I don’t have to clean up the mess.”
But after looking at the boughs of purple flowers tussling in the wind, she added: “It is picturesque. It brings some serenity to your life.”