(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I am fascinated by abandoned places. I can't pass up a ghost town or cliff dwelling, but I also enjoy minor, little-known places that you won't find in a guide book or on a map. I feel almost like an archaeologist discovering a lost civilization. Sometimes the human artifacts like foundations, fences, or bits of metal give away the site, but sometimes the first things to be noticed are the plants.
One of my favorite small abandoned places is the Serrano home site. I first saw it around 1990. Out in the wild, in the middle of a bowl-shaped valley was a farm or ranch with a couple barns, some scattered machinery, a house, and a lot of fencing. I checked out the machinery, the barns were locked, but the house was open. It was just a simple, one-storey, front-gabled wooden house, probably built some time between 1920 and 1945. I went inside. It was empty but looked completely intact. There were the things you would expect - living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom. I looked in the medicine cabinet and there was a bottle of vitamins that expired in 1975. It has been a while since anyone had lived there. Because of the needle-like seeds in the tall grass, we didn't poke around outside the house much, but there was something very interesting by the front door - a geranium! What was so amazing was that no one had lived here for 15 years or so but the plant was still alive. There was no one to water it during the annual dry season and no one to cover it during a cold snap, but there it was, about knee high and alive as myself. Geraniums (Pelargoniums) are more rugged than I ever expected.
Domesticated plants are most likely to survive in the wild when they are native to climates and conditions roughly similar to what they find in their new home. In southern California where I live, a lot of the survivors are native to the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, and South Africa where they have the same type of wet winter and dry summer climate as I do. Also, these landscaping and food plants were cared for by people during the most vulnerable stage in their lives, as germinating seeds, seedlings, or transplants. Still, I find it amazing that the native California plants, let alone the "exotics", can survive the brutal dry season.
In 1993, there was a fierce brush fire over a large area that included the Serrano home site. It was all firefighters could do to save inhabited houses. They weren't going to bother with an abandoned house and the house and barns were lost. We went there a few days after the fire and nothing wooden remained of the house. The geranium was gone, too.
Soon other things were happening in my life and we didn't get back to the Serrano home site until 2007. The concrete and metal ruins were still there. It has been a very dry year and the nasty grass seeds were not a problem so we poked around a bit. The remains of the house were pretty subtle - a number of concrete piers, some corrugated metal that had been around the crawlspace, shattered ceramics, the heat-warped and rusty remains of the refrigerator, and some nails. What was much more noticeable were the landscaping plants. There were several patches of bearded iris, a very healthy clump of variegated century plants, some aloes, and what looked like resurrection lily (Lycoris). It was a window, or rather a peephole, into the past. I don't know anything about the Serranos, but I do know that they grew some of the same kinds of plants that I do. I felt a little bit of kinship with them and I think that's what good history does. It helps you relate to the past.
The next time you are out and find an abandoned garden, try to take the time to explore it. See what landscaping and food plants were important to the prior residents. If you're fortunate, you might even find some information on those residents in a park visitor center, a local library, or from a local historical society. Enjoy your peephole into the past.
Safety tip: Watch out for snakes, scorpions, spiders, ticks, open wells or mine shafts, rusty metal, nails, and broken glass. In other words, watch where you put your hands and feet and where your children put their hands and feet.
Legal tip: In some parks, the abandoned plants may be considered cultural resources and if so, it is illegal to remove them. Also be sure to heed "no trespassing" signs.
The pictures in this article, from top to bottom and left to right are of variegated century plant (Agave americana), chasmanthe, apricot, bearded iris, aloe (species unknown) with native laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), and an agave (species unknown). All pictures were taken at various abandoned home sites in the Santa Monica Mountains of California.