Friday, October 3, 2014


No, this isn't a word that either you or I should necessarily have at the tip of our tongue. But it is one small piece of information I do retain from a visit my sister and our old friends paid to the Filoli Gardens last weekend. I had long heard of these gardens, which are located on what Northern Californians refer to as the Peninsula, meaning that they lie about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Although I'd never been there before, Filoli Gardens is a familiar type of place to me, reminding me somewhat of the Huntington Gardens down in Southern California, or the Getty Villa, which I visited just last fall. It doesn't have quite the same interest in either art or literary collections that the former do, but it does have an interesting house to walk around in, and some very beautiful and extensive gardens.

There was one odd thing for a world class garden, though, as one of the docents was referring to it a she spoke to some other visitors nearby. She said that interns come from all over the world to study there, and I don't find that surprising. But what was very strange to me in a place with such a mission is the scarcity of signage. Now don't get me wrong, the docents were very helpful and knowledgable about the plant specimens we were looking at, and they were out in force. But it wasn't like you could just carry the docent along with you wherever you happened to be, and so we saw many plants we wondered about for the moment we were looking at them without ever really finding out what they were.

Of course, there's something to be said for looking without classifying something. Me personally, I like to look at gardens, but have much less interest in doing the hard work of planting and caring for things. But you have to think that a high percentage of people who had come out of their way to visit a garden had some interest in doing some gardening of their own, and it seemed oddly, well, retro, in this age of information that you couldn't make note of names for future reference. In other respects, propagation does seem to be part of the Filoli mission--they have a nice website, for example-- and I'd think giving people access to this kind of more immediate access to knowledge would rate a little higher with them than it does.

There was one plant my friends had noticed and expressed interest in earlier, and so while I was standing around I happened to ask one of the docents later. She told me the plant was called cleome, sometimes known more commonly as spider plant. It doesn't look like the kind of spider plant that I grew up with, so I prefer to remember Cleome. I mentioned our earlier inability to discover what other plants were earlier. She said "Very few plants have signage here." She had that kind of look on her face that people get when explaining that this is the way it's been and this is the way it's going to stay. "That's why we're here," she said.

I suppose a more persistent person would have said, "Yes, but why?" Instead I just took away the name "Cleome".

And wrote a blog post about it.


  1. I'm glad to know the name(s) of this!

  2. Kathleen, I got a little off the topic of the flower here, and should have said that it is pronounced cleo-me, or at least that's what the docent said.

  3. A fascinating piece, Seana. And such lovely photos.

    Best regards from Dublin, as ever, Maria.

  4. Well, I just lifted the photos off the internet from wikimedia and the like, but it was pretty much like that. My sister did take a picture of a Monarch butterfly as it lifted off a flower which was pretty cool, though.

    As an Irishwoman, you may interested to know that Filoli was based on an Irish estate in County Kerry called Muckross that the original owner had bought for his daughter. As with the Getty and Huntington Gardens, I find the hankering after European style legitimacy fascinating in these Californian settlers.

  5. Muckross Gardens in County Kerry are world famous.

    You might enjoy this, Seana.

  6. Thanks, Maria. Yes, I see from the website that the last owners before Muckross became public land were the Bourn Vincents, who were the daughter and son in law of the California Bourns.

  7. I wanted it to be cleome, cleome on the range, not klee-Oh-mee. Of course, I also wanted it to be an ancient Greek minor goddess. I bet the docents wish there were more signs, too.

  8. Nancy, I finally bothered to look up the etymology, and I can at least say that it is Greek. It apparently comes from the word kleio, meaning 'to enclose'. We get it through the Latin, which as with many words, they borrowed from the Greeks. But the Greek word referred to an entirely different plant, or so my sources tell me.