Me So Thorny and Other Tales of the California Drought

Who will survive and thrive in California's drought?

Wrangling drought-tolerant plants like this one is not for the thin-skinned.

On April 1, 2015, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order mandating a 25 per cent reduction in water use for all urban water users. Violating the mandate may result in a fine of $500 per day.

Xeriscaping is an obvious answer, replacing thirsty turf with retentive succulents, aloes, agaves, cacti and their cousins. My current backyard in the San Gabriel Valley is right in line with the Governor’s vision of replacing 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments. Instead of grass, I view a massive slab of cracking concrete and driveway-remnant asphalt that occasionally serves as a raggle-taggle dance-floor under a full moon. But in the scorching light of day, it’s a honkin’ huge pour of soul-deadening cement, walled by cinderblock and chain-link, that soaks up and holds the blowtorch heat of the Inland Empire long after nightfall.

When I moved in, I discovered a primordial, thorned thing that had been left to die a charred death on the blazing asphalt by the previous tenants (and now I know why). Even my weekly visits to The Huntington Library Desert Garden haven’t revealed anything so gnarly. I found it lying on its side, Cajun-blackened by a succession of 108F-degree days, during the Labor Day move-in that sent one of the cats off into the coyote twilight foothills, never to be seen again.

Mourning her departure, I took pity on this other barely-living thing and put it into the big red plastic tub I usually use for ice, to chill bienfrias for parties. I tenderly patted potting soil around its fanged trunk: it just needed a little love and kindness, right?

Sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have an ungrateful child, or plant. A few weeks ago, there was a rare patter of rain, leaving standing water in the red tub. It had attracted mosquito-love, and the inch or so of pooled water was twitching with their demonic nymphs. So, down on all fours, I heaved the 80-lb. tub to its side to drain off the primal ooze and twerking larvae.

When I righted the pot – Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!—the centrifugal force of the Thorned One nailed me right between the eyes. A claw snagged me hard, beside my right nostril. I reflexively pulled away, the thorn raking through my face, west to east, across my right cheekbone. Overhead, I was halo’ed by spinning orbits of winking stars and twittering birds, just like in an old Max Fleischer cartoon. There was such a rush of blood from the tiny puncture that I threw out the soaked towel used in the kitchen to sop up the catastrophe.

It’s sad that my grasp of medical emergency care is informed by the funny papers, but I kept wishing for a big, fat cartoon steak to slap over what turned into an incredible shiner. It’s still giving me a little Laserium action, turning from indigo to magenta to purple and now from yellow to green. The gashes have sealed into neat seams.

In this regard, I feel some twisted kinship with the recent mayhem in Fort Lauderdale, where a tree-hugger of sorts named Kenneth Crowder also bears bruising evidence of a close encounter with a botanical species—except that he claimed that he “got twiggy” with it.

I have learned that sporting a big black shiner, like the sight of a pregnant woman, seems to give people an odd sense of permission to just roll up on you. You’re suddenly fair game for a level of intimacy which would otherwise be unthinkable. Just as perfect strangers will often take the liberty of approaching a woman who’s expecting a baby and lay their hands upon her stirring bump, strangers are full of assumptions about my black eye which they feel free to voice. The other day at the market, a woman gawked, then hissed, “How could he?” Then later at a restaurant, a young man couldn’t help staring. When I turned to face him, he said, “That just looks so…realistic!”

Call me Scarface.

By the way, even though none of us will be dealing with a water excess anytime soon, standing water is a no-no, because it is skeeter-licious. The good news: if you have a water feature such as a small Koi pond or whiskey-barrel water garden on your property, the ominously named Vector Control will supply—at no charge to you—cute little mosquito-eating fish to munch mosquito nymphs. It’s worth doing, since the West Nile Virus positive mosquitoes are back in LA, and the water shortage means they are looking for any wet place to dump a load of young’uns. Even the trays under flowerpots, birdbaths, pet’s water bowls and wading pools can become seething nurseries of the spastically jerking, brainless, disease-riddled spawn.

And it’s also time to start exploring pebbles, gravel, sand and drought-resistant flora like mine. Just don’t make any sudden moves while the plant is watching.

Photo by Victoria Thomas

Victoria Thomas

About Victoria Thomas

Brooklyn-born Victoria Thomas loves writing about flora and fauna, although she chooses to do so in an urban setting. If she had it all to do over again, she might have become a forensic entomologist. She lives in Los Angeles.
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