Tarzan in the Garden

Jungle Dreams: Cultivating a Tropical Haven in Colorado

Read by Matilda Longbottom


I had what I thought was a normal childhood, much like everyone else. I thought it was completely ordinary to come home from school to our bougainvillea-draped hillside garden where spiny plants like yucca and bird-of-paradise reigned supreme. And just like everyone else in our California neighborhood, we had a swimming pool; ours was no different. Except that Tarzan was in ours. Yes, well, not actually Tarzan but the current actor playing Tarzan on the big screen. You see, we were a family with ties to the movie industry, which was booming in the late 1950s and 60s. A well-known composer lived just across the street, a high-powered agent on the corner (representing said Tarzan actor), and a person who would grow up to be a world-renowned art dealer was just a few doors away. Our Tarzan thrilled all of the children by standing in the shallow end and allowing us to swarm up his body, stand on his shoulders, and dive off into the deep end, while he would obligingly give his best Tarzan yell. (The only one who ever did it better is Carol Burnett.) But he seemed out of place without the thick tropical jungle setting.

All of the houses on this street had similar landscaping to ours, some of it a bit tropical looking, including palm trees and even citrus. The art dealer-to-be even had avocados in his backyard. But no one had a jungle. I wanted a jungle, a deeply forested one with flowery vines hanging down to swing on. I longed to wander through a dense, mysterious landscape populated by a whole slew of creatures (including Tarzan, of course). The landscape in the San Fernando Valley seemed unsatisfying to me.

When I was about eight years old, my mother informed me that we were going to take the overnight train out of Union Station from Los Angeles to San Francisco because our neighbor (a singer on an afternoon show beamed live from there) had invited me to be an “extra” on their annual holiday show. I was to be decked out in holiday finery with a snowy muff and a furry hat (even though the outside temperature was 74 degrees). We boarded the train and until it got dark, I had pressed my nose against the glass, watching the rugged coastline go past. When I woke the next morning, we were in San Francisco, and since we had a few hours to spend until we were needed on the set, my mother decided to take me to the world-famous arboretum in Golden Gate Park.

As we walked through the park, we were treated to vast swaths of perfectly matched poinsettias banked in rows, masses of sweet-scented gardenias and red-berried pyracantha. I was enthralled, but when we entered the glass-domed structure, I became enchanted. My dreams of forests of plants, vines hanging down, water flowing were right there in front of me, and everything was warm, moist, and wonderful. I saw many orchids, huge ferns, clivias, ginger, banana plants. Lovely colors of green and gold, reds and yellows burst into my dazzled eyes. As we walked the paths, we had to push pulsatingly alive greenery out of our way. And that wasn’t all. There was the gift shop still to be visited where my mother bought me seed packets with illustrations on the front that rivaled artwork and several botanical books to take home. Thus began my period of attempts at bringing a jungle to life in my backyard.

My first attempts were rather pathetic but made with a lot of eager hope. I pushed aside the white rocks that covered most of the open ground between the birds-of-paradise and palms in my parent’s garden and scraped determinedly at the dry-as-dust ground before sprinkling the seeds and then covering them. I dutifully kept them watered and was rewarded (eventually) with signs of green things pushing up from the soil. It took only one scorching hot day when I was away at school to burn them all to a crisp. Undeterred, I tried again and yet again. Failure after failure. Until I finally figured out that I was trying to grow the wrong kinds of things in a manufactured climate that consisted of a lot of concrete, white rock, brick walls, and the water from the pool itself reflecting way too much sun and heat back onto my dream of a lush jungle space.

I gave this up for a while, preoccupied with growing up, going to school and college, marrying and then moving to a variety of locales and climates where I, once again, exercised my green thumb back into shape. This time I began to be more and more successful as my expertise grew. I designed many gardens from English style to foursquare German but never a one that came close to that old dreamy idea of a jungle.

Until I finally hit upon the idea of creating the look without using the actual plants that grow in a jungle. I began to plant many trees, both majestic and understory, bushes that cuddled close together, creeping ground covers that left no bare spots. And vines … many vines to climb up the structures I built to give them lift in their eagerness to reach the sunlight. I made mysterious paths with destinations one could not see from the beginning to the end. And as the shade began to replace the hot burning sun, many birds began to populate my new jungle, as well as butterflies and other creatures whose presence was often heard but not seen. Admittedly, I had to use a lot of native material because this is, after all, Colorado and not the tropics, but I brought in seasonal things like canna lilies, clivias, bougainvilliea and jasmine that I kept in pots and Wintered over in my sunroom. And slowly, magically, it began to happen. Just a little at a time.

One morning in early June last year, I stepped out of my sunroom and walked the path into my garden, which was now a jungle. The screech of some jays became the screech of monkeys, the morning mist cast a blur on the foliage, an elephant trumpeted (or it might have been my elderly neighbor) and far off in the distance, I heard something—something familiar. It might have been my imagination but I could swear I heard again that famous Tarzan yell, as he swung through the jungle that I had made for him here in Colorado.

About the Author: Cheryl L. Davison resides in Colorado where she restores old houses and old gardens. Her work has appeared in many GreenPrints issues throughout the years.



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