Ranunculus fires California's fields

Every spring, dun-colored hillsides become a sea of vibrant flowers when giant ranunculus transform slopes of Carlsbad, Calif., into a floral tapestry.

From mid-March to mid-May more than 50 acres of rolling hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean and adjacent Interstate 5 are ablaze with 200 million vivid yellow, orange, salmon, pink, red, and pure white ranunculus flowers.

This spectacular sight - the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch - attracted approximately 150,000 visitors last year.

But the Flower Fields are more than just a tourist attraction. From early March through fall, they offer an ever-changing palette of more than 300 cultivars of the latest flowers and opportunities to learn more about them.

"The Flower Fields is a working farm, one of a few in North America that allow visitors to stroll the fields and commune with nature," explains Michael Cordosa, general manager.

"We also want to create a broader horticultural experience where people can see different flower species and learn how to incorporate them into their own gardens."

This time of year, visitors can stroll through plantings of Babiana stricta, blazing star, Sparaxis (harlequin or star flower), Oxalis (blooming shamrock), Watsonia pyamidata, and gladiolus, although their display is overshadowed by the dramatic ranunculus.

Artists in the garden

Two local artists are also interpreting this floral beauty and displaying their creations.

Patricia Patterson, a noted San Diego artist and professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has created "An Enclosed Garden," a 5,000-square-foot interpretation of a Medieval contemplative garden.

Paths lead visitors past raised beds to its center, which contains two dovecotes and a reflecting pool filled with waterlilies.

"In Medieval times, cloistered monks and nuns meditated as they strolled in their walled gardens," Ms. Patterson explains while conducting a visitor on a garden tour.

"This garden is a contained, contemplative space, a strolling garden for meditation. Paths are meant to encourage a person to reflect on their life's path, and when paths intersect, the visitor can meditate on choices and crossroads in his or her own life."

Raised beds contain delphiniums, foxgloves, Iceland poppies, and larkspur. Some are accented by Sicilian sweet peas and nasturtiums fastened to tripods.

The heart of the garden contains dovecotes and the reflecting pond. Trellises supporting vines of sweet-smelling jasmine, and vibrant purple morning glories frame its perimeter.

"I selected soothing flower colors of yellows and blues because the ranunculus fields are so vibrant," Patterson adds. "My intent is for people to experience this tranquillity and observe the brilliant fields in close proximity, listen to the sound of the doves, and notice the intricacies of the flowers."

Another local artist has created a different type of floral artwork nearby. Called "Circles and Cycles, a Color Study for Chance," it's the work of Gary Lang, known for handcrafted geometric paintings. His landscape, on a slope just below the ranunculus, is a spiral of flowers and colors.

"Visitors walk along a path from the outside to the center so the viewer can experience flowers at various heights rather than only looking down," Mr. Lang says. "At the end of the path, the participant is in the center of the bouquet."

Amateur gardeners can find ideas for their home landscapes in several theme gardens featuring perennial plants selected for sun, shade, or fragrance.

Beginning in May and continuing through the remainder of the year, rose lovers can stroll through a 3,000-square-foot All-America Rose Selection (AARS) garden containing each of the 173 AARS winners since 1940, plus an AARS test garden where 50 new rose varieties are tested during a two-year evaluation.

At an adjacent Armstrong Garden Center, visitors who want a souvenir of their experience can buy packaged ranunculus bulbs, fresh-cut ranunculus bouquets, and a line of more than 300 annual and perennial flowers being marketed under the Flower Fields name.

Although the site has been expanded to attract tourists, it's been a working ranch for the past 65 years. Only 1 percent of the ranunculus plants are harvested for flowers.

Their real value is for the bulbs (technically known as tuberous roots). During the height of the bloom season, workers observe each plant and tag the healthiest plants, ones with the largest flowers and the brightest colors. These are hand-dug after they've finished blooming and replanted in what's known as "The Mother Block" the following year.

7 million bulbs go around the world

When the floral beauty of the spring bloom ends, the growing fields are no longer watered and the rest of the plants are allowed to die.

In June and July, after their foliage has withered, a machine harvests the bulbs. The harvest yields approximately 6.8 million. After they're hand-rolled, dried, and graded for size, they're sent to Los Angeles where Davids & Royston Bulb Co. packages and ships them around the world.

Ranunculus is a member of the buttercup family of flowers and is also known as Persian buttercup. But these fields contain flowers vastly different from their earlier relatives, which produced single petals in shades of red or yellow.

These ranunculus were developed by Edwin Frazee, who's regarded as the father of The Flower Fields. He first worked with ranunculus in 1932 while helping his father, Frank, in his fields where he grew freesias and ranunculus commercially. He was given the job of seeding.

His knowledge and skill increased over the years, and in the 1950s, he created a superior ranunculus bulb with an unprecedented infusion of petals, known as a "double" flower.

His success inspired him to expand his crop to a coastal slope of Carlsbad, where the fields of vibrant seasonal color began to attract motorists.

When he retired, sons John and Jim took over the business and moved the fields to their current location, on land owned by Carltas Co., the land division of the Paul Ecke family, of poinsettia fame. Several years ago, the farming operation was assumed by Carltas in partnership with Mellano & Co., a prominent California grower.

The Flower Fields are located near Palomar Airport Road and Legoland in Carlsbad, about a 30-minute drive north of San Diego, via Interstate 5. They are open daily from March through fall from 10 a.m. to one hour before dusk.

The entrance fee ranges from $3 to $5 per person (no charge for children 5 and under), and guided tours are also available. There's also a picnic area and special activities for children.

For information, call (760) 930-9123 or visit the website at www.theflowerfields.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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