My excuse to visit the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles has nothing to do with the inside of the recently renovated museum. I wanted to see the new Nature Gardens now that they were filling in.
My friend Carol Bornstein is the Director of the Nature Gardens and her love of California native plants helped inform the plant choices for the the architects at Mia Lehrer + Associates. Carol had hinted it might be a good year to visit, even though it has been another year of drought, because the garden received some rains in early winter.
The light gets bright quickly in California. It burns out highlights and makes deep shadows within a couple hours of dawn, and then all day until a couple hours before sunset. If you don’t know a garden, I always advise photographers to work in the late afternoon. That way you can learn about the garden before the light is best.
So I began my visit one afternoon and walked the garden with Carol, lingering in the native plant pollinator garden, marveling that this garden is in the middle of a major city; and one, I confess I had assumed could support few wildflowers.
“The Nature Gardens will generate important research on the area’s rich biodiversity. It is the world’s first long-term, institutionally sponsored, urban biodiversity survey and monitoring project.” says Dr. Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology.
I was surprised to learn that there are more than 500 species of native bees in Southern California and that scientists at the Museum had already documented more than 200 different species visiting the garden. Native wildflowers are essential in supporting the native bees
And let’s not forget that grasses too are rich sources for pollinators.
And as a meadow lover, grasses are a key component of the ecology of meadows.
Here, the beautiful wild rye, ‘Canyon Prince’ lines a path through the Pollinator Garden toward the Museum.
The rest of the Nature Gardens are 3.5 acres (interactive map) around the museum building and include an Edible Garden, a Get Dirty Garden for kids, a Pond and Urban Water Feature, a Bird Viewing Platform in the riparian corridor, a Living Wall, all designed as learning opportunities.
Here Coyote Brush, the California native shrub was trained as a hedge. Everywhere I turned I saw marvelous uses of plants for summer-dry climates.
I had a lot more to photograph and was glad I planned to come back early the next morning.
First light is my favorite time to photograph a garden. The air is sweet and clean, the plants fresh, the light soft. Having walked the garden in the afternoon, I knew my way around and could get right to work. So I arranged to meet Richard Hayden, Head Gardener at dawn.
Indeed, the next morning was cloudless and it would soon be bright; but I had done my homework.
What I had not expected though, was the backlight glow of the Parkinsonia trees, a Palo Verde hybrid called ‘Desert Museum’ which is a three way cross between P. microphylla, P. florida, and P. aculeata. The big yellow flowers of this hybrid created walls of yellow to work with.
At first I had worried that the sun would rise so quickly that I would be limited to shots before the light hit the trees. Look closely at these next two pictures. This first one is taken at the very end of the previous day, in very quiet light.
Then, in the garden the next morning at dawn as the sun rose, I quickly realized there would be no quiet light, but instead the sun was giving me a special opportunity.
These are in the same part of the garden, The Living Wall. The first photo taken in the afternoon, the second one looking in the other direction, at dawn.
The backlight does create flare, but careful composition and a lens shade solve the problem. The Parkinsonia become wonderful blocks of yellow.
The light was now giving me double benefits. Not only was the back light giving the trees a translucent glow, the color of the bright sun was warm, leaving the shaded areas not yet in the sun, in a more bluish light that served to emphasize the color of the Agave and stones in The Living Wall.
Back light in trees can also work to open up shady areas, as in this shot of the boardwalk across the riparian area.
And light directly behind trees can be overexposed to brighten everything.
Using the trees for cover, even the pond area can be overexposed and glowing.
I think you can see why I like early morning light – and why I like this garden. It is an urban oasis for people, plants, and pollinators. It serves as an educational example of what gardeners can do in summer-dry climates. It uses lots of California native plants. And most selfishly for this garden photographer, in the right light, it photographs beautifully.