The cactus stretches against the garden wall like a 10-foot-tall green visitor from outer space.
Robert and Maria Ryan had to buy leather gloves to pick the prickly pear tunas (fruit) from this cactus. They boiled them and separated out the seeds to make a special liquid treat. Folk medics suggest the unusually flavored liquid treats arthritis and diabetes. Locals say it lends great flavor to tequila. Lucky for visitors, it quenches thirst on a hot afternoon.
The Ryans bought a country club fixer-upper when they moved to San Luis Obispo in 2006 and have discovered many things about their home. The most unusual was a tree covered in so much twisted vinca major they didn’t realize a lovely oak with low spreading branches lived alongside the fence. Now it is home to a number of bird houses and feathered residents.
Maria is named for her grandmother, who died at age 102. She explained that Maria Ramirez of Lerdo, Mexico, inspired the entire family. Her husband was a miner who died from black lung at age 27.
The young widow with four small boys was good with plants and accustomed to growing a vegetable garden. She added flowering plants, succulents and cactus and developed a nursery with the help of neighbors who saved their coffee cans so she had containers. Everyone bought their plants from her, and that was how she supported herself and her sons.
Maria loved visiting her grandmother in Mexico during Christmas. It was a very special time, even though the drive through Texas to get there was long.
Visitors parking along the roadway by the Ryans’ home immediately see evidence of water conservation and enormous plant variety.
Red-flowering fan aloe, orange-red-flowering aloe saponaria, Coral Aloe (Aloe striata), echeveria “Afterglow” with pinkish-lavender leaves, blue-green Agave “Mr. Ripple,” Variegated Century Plant and Euphorbia grandicornis with its spikes all compete for attention along with a lovely lemon tree. The recent addition of Australian proteas also adds spring color along with black bearded iris.
Walking the sloping drive to the front door takes you past a large purple sage, African Candelabra Euphorbia ammak, a lovely pink rose bush and an assortment of aeoniums including copper pinwheel, kiwi, black, purple and even dinner plate aeonium. “The weather here is perfect for succulents,” Maria says. The front entrance features three varieties of mother-in-law’s tongue (Sanseviera trifasciata) and a colorful pink begonia. Robert tiled the rectangular planter near the entrance to provide colorful Latin American emphasis.
Many Mexican and Mediterranean homes have interior courtyards, and this home expands its living space with several.
The courtyard off the living room features colorful singing canaries. Maria’s grandmother in Fresno, Frances Gonzalez, is also a garden and bird lover, and canaries are her great favorite.
Ferns are considered lucky, and many Mexican homes have them. Maria has two large sword fern plants that stand almost 4 feet tall in their pots. A sculpture of the Madonna and a sandstone water purifier from a mission, along with distinctive rocks and a Hawaiian plumeria in a thumb print pot, add interest to this courtyard. Wicker chairs with red cushions beckon.
A second courtyard off the master bedroom features a fountain with shells and a gate from Sextant Wines in Old Edna. A Crown of Thorns in a thumb print pot has pink flowers year round. The Japanese maple bonsai seems to thrive here.
“We get a big pop of color when the camellias bloom,” Maria says. “Hummingbirds love coming in here.” The red camellia stretched far overhead, although it isn’t ready to bloom yet.
White Mexican sage blooms in a side garden and, although unusual, it isn’t as spectacular as the giant bird of paradise that bloomed for the first time this year. That plant stretches to the eaves of the roof. Smaller varieties of bird of paradise live alongside by the low wall enclosing the courtyard.
The family has space enough to host large parties here and also grow vegetables in three raised beds. Textured walls hold a collection of wrought iron crosses and lights from Luna Rustica in San Luis Obispo.
Although this garden is water-wise with so many plants in pots, and cactus and succulents that simply drink morning dew, the family plans to install large vessels to hold rain water that will be located under a deck off the living room.
The Ryans generously share plants with family and friends. The nursery is near the kitchen courtyard.
“Succulents are easy to grow and love it here. Pieces just break off and we plant them so they can get large enough to move to new homes,” Maria says.
The loveliest of legacies appears to be the gift of a green thumb and generous hospitality.