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Funk Zone: Where Hip Culture Meets Horticulture
updated: Sep 19, 2015, 12:00 PM

By Billy Goodnick

Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is known for its microbrews, wine-tasting, scrumptious bites and live music. But just east of State Street, sandwiched between the 101 and the train tracks are some horticultural treats equally worthy of a sampling. Granted, no one’s going to mistake this former industrial zone for Lotusland. And the growing conditions are less than ideal – trampled curbside strips, hard-packed soil – which is why I found this “Land of Survivors” such a surprising stroll.

Before the Funk Zone got its name and hip status, I met a burgundy-leafed plant I instantly fell in love with. It took a little while to figure out what it was, but with its smoldering foliage, graceful, wispy branches and brilliant hot pink flowers, the Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense varieties) told me I’d be adding it to my plant palette. Although the “pure” species of this bush has dark green leaves and white flowers, a cadre of ambitious plant breeders have cultivated a range of dark-leafed, pink flowered varieties that broaden the color palette of lots of local gardens. It doesn’t mind being gently pruned to maintain a tidy height, but some can achieve the size of a small tree. And it’s a lot tougher than it looks, tolerating a low water regimen once established.

(Semi-commercial interruption: Speaking of low water gardens, if you’re interested in expanding your landscaping chops, check out my adult education classes listed at the end of this post. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.)

My strongest personal connection with the Zone is via Red’s Bar & Tapas, on Yanonali at Helena, where my band, King Bee has contributed to the funk factor on many evenings. And adorning the parking lot are a number of brilliant, yellow-flowered Gold Medallion Trees (Cassia leptophylla), hailing from Brazil. This well-behaved tree tops out between 15 and 25 feet, making it perfect for the average garden in search of a tropical look. The compound leaves are made up of a mid-rib and pairs of cool, dark green leaflets. And when the flowers end their show in late summer, long, woody bean-like seed pods emerge, giving the tree another conversation piece. Give them full sun and you can cut way back on the water once they’re established in a few years.


Just across the street is another nite life hot spot – Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, home of locally named beers and ales, like Lizard’s Mouth IPA, Paradise Road Pilsner and Stage Coach Stout. But what caught my photographer’s eye was this killer combo of rich, purple Sea Foam Statice (Limonium perezii) with a blazing hot orange Flame Vine (Pyrostigia venusta) twining and harmonizing with the rusted, rebar fence. These are a couple of truly tough plants, as evidenced by the constrained space and heavy foot traffic they endure from thirsty patrons lining up to get in.

On the same side of the street, just a block east, is a narrow curbside strip with one of my favorite, but not frequently seen, stunners. The Caribbean Copper Tree (Euphorbia cotinifolia) is a striking plant, grown either as a small tree or large shrub. In the same genus as Poinsettia and Crown of Thorns, it gets its name from the coppery reddish purple foliage that makes it a stand-out in any garden. Though not thought of as super drought resistant, this one seems to be thriving on neglect. Expect it to top out around 15 feet high and about half as wide, give it plenty of sun, and avoid heavy, slow-draining soils. I use it two ways: either surrounded by similarly colored New Zealand Flax (like ‘Sundowner’ or ‘Dark Delight’), or shaking things up with highly contrasting chartreuse foliage from Agave ‘Joe Hoak’.

If you’re familiar with old school suburban turf (remember that?), you know rye grass as the seed you sprinkle on your dormant winter lawn to green it up quickly. But those bright green, fine textured blades have a burly cousin in the form of Canyon Prince Wild Rye (Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’). This patch has filled a series of narrow beds along the frontage of the Lark and Lucky Penny Restaurants on Anacapa Street. The dusty blue-grey foliage gradually spreads by runners, so don’t crowd it with a lot of fussy little plants. It makes a great bank cover and can be a bit of a thug if it’s watered too much, which could also encourage it to grow well beyond its usual 2-3 foot height. It can be controlled by severing the rhizomes with a flat shovel around the edges once in a while. It really looks best if you give it a heavy haircut in early spring and allow it to come surging back.

Some of the funkiest Funk Zone flora festoons the south-facing wall of the Glidden Paint Center on E. Montecito at Santa Barbara St. These towering Variegated African Candelabra Trees (Euphorbia ammak variegata) hail from Saudi Arabia and North Africa and fill the same niche as the New World’s cactus family. They can reach heights of 30 to 40 feet in time and somehow manage to balance their multiple arms on a single narrow, four-sided trunk.  

Somebody at the Lafond Winery Tasting Room did some sampling of their own, concocting a tight, silky, complex, dense, refined, juicy, crisp, fleshy, flamboyant, sometimes angular blend of succulents to adorn the narrow brick planter along their E. Yanonali frontage. (Clever of me to look up all these “wine words”, eh?) These would pair well with either a smoky, oak grilled rib- eye or possibly a sardine-carob smoothie. (See what I just did, again?)

A short hop from the Mexican fan palms that line Cabrillo Blvd. is a fabulous palm that also originates from south of the border. The Blue Hesper Palm (Brahea armata) is named for its silvery-blue leaves and takes its time getting to a height of 20 to 30 feet. In summer, spectacular 15- foot long creamy-colored flower stalks transform the plant into the star of the garden. From a design point of view, which is somewhat subjective, I think of Brahea as more of a Mediterranean, arid style palm than the tropical looking ones you’d expect to see at Disneyland’s jungle boat ride.

Imagine my frustration not bringing at 30-foot ladder with me on my funky foray! I happened to look up while walking across the street from the Lucky Penny Restaurant on 100 block of Anacapa. Topping off this fanciful layer cake of a building (yes, those are real pennies tiling the main walls of the building, the handiwork of local high school students) is a rusted Corten steel planter with a few sun-drenched “Sally Hansen Hard as Nails” succulents. I couldn’t get close enough to be sure but it looks like the danglers are String of Bananas (Senecio radicans) and the remnants of Elephant’s Food (Portulacaria afra), the start of a fanciful starter course.

A few years ago I researched an article for 805 Living about aeroponic gardens, those tidy white, water- efficient, cylinder gardens that look like something from a  Jetson’s cartoon. Now there’s a farm of them sitting atop a former parking lot on Gray Street called Gray Avenue Farm, growing luscious, living greens, herbs and edible flowers destined for restaurants around Southern California. The brainchild of Todd Mehl, who founded Montecito Urban Farms in Summerland, this asphalt jungle features about 100 tower gardens. Add one to your home garden and you can expect to churn out enough produce to feed a family of four year- round.   


At the eastern edge, where hip meets light industrial, sits a surprise – a simple old wood cottage surrounded by a bountiful garden of edibles. The chain link fence that separates this pastoral residence from the Yanonali sidewalk is low enough to be neighborly, but substantial enough to keep it private. Planted in half-barrels and raised beds, ripe tomatoes made my mouth water and smoldering red peppers added a bit of imaginary burn. I lingered, hoping to see the urban farmer come out to attend to the crops. No dice. But given the modest table setting bathed in morning sun, I’ll bet this productive, unassuming space is well loved and well used.  

That’s almost it. I hope you’ll take a daylight trip through this hidden treasure and see it through a fresh pair of eyes. And you might find a few new plants that are a perfect fit for your own yard.

Now, about those classes. I’ve got two offerings: “Water Wise, Dollar Wise Landscape Solutions”, taught on two consecutive Saturday mornings at the Schott Campus (September 26 and October 3) and a companion class, “Learning from Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden”, a guided walkabout using Santa Barbara’s jewel in the crown of city parks as an outdoor classroom. Class descriptions and registration information here


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