Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Jack Gottwig: "They had geraniums, they had poppies, they had narcissus, they had daffodils, you name it. But that’s when the crew had 20 people, and all they took care of was 163 from Interstate 8 to Interstate 5.”
Jack Gottwig swings his Plymouth sedan onto the transition road from eastbound Balboa Avenue and merges into the mid-morning traffic on 805 north. “Do you see those little trees coming up right there?” he asks craning his head forward and pointing to the roadside on the right. “Those are Brazilian peppers. They’re volunteers: nightmare plants. They just keep spreading and spreading and spreading.” Dressed in cowboy boots and jeans the black-bearded Gottwig is a district landscape specialist for Caltrans. He advises the crews on fertilizing, weed control, watering, and other lessons he’s learned in 27 years of freeway landscaping. Today he’s giving me a horticultural tour of San Diego’s freeways.
“The main trees on the freeway are these eucalyptus,” Gottwig says in a breathy voice reminiscent of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. “We plant them so much because they don’t use a lot of water. A lot of these eucalyptus if you never watered them would still survive.”
We pass a ten-foot tree with a knotted trunk and wide, three-lobed leaves. “This is Indian Hawthorn here. It has the pink flowers on it later in the year. Same thing with them, they don’t need a lot of water. There’s one of the nightmare plants — that graying stuff. It was done as an experiment. It’s a prostrate acacia. Acacia is from Australia, like the eucalyptus. They put them too close together. Rather than being 18- to 24-inches high, there are places in the South Bay where they’re 12 feet high because they’ve grown up on each other causing a bramble effect. What (Caltrans) wants to do eventually is just rip them out.”
The prostrate acacia—a low, sprawling plant with narrow leaves the grayish-green color of olive tree leaves—competes with ice plant as the most abundant ground cover alongside San Diego freeways. Its value? “Well, the idea was it’s real low, and after the second year you don’t have to water it. In fact, you see there’s no sprinklers in it.”
As Gottwig steers the car onto the ramp from 805 north to 52 west, the bank on the right gives way to a view of San Clemente Canyon and its tall sycamores. Tiny-leafed ice plant dotted with purple and magenta daisy-shaped flowers covers the left slope between the freeway and the ramp. “This is an old-time ice plant here. We haven’t planted it in years. I’m not sure what it’s called, but I always call it the small ice plant. Look over here: see how it’s getting light brown and dying out? Some of this is stressed out from lack of water. They tend to cut the water lines when they retrofit the bridges.”
As we merge into westbound 52, the chaparral of the canyon side looms to the north. “This is one of the things we’re looking at,” Gottwig sweeps his hand toward the hillside, “just letting the native stuff come back in. Nothing wrong with that. It’s got color, it doesn’t need any water, it’s green, and it holds the slope together.”
Gottwig glances back and forth between the tree-lined bank and the median. “That’s a Brazilian pepper,” he sounds annoyed, “that’s a Brazilian pepper...that’s a Brazilian pepper.... Those will be 50 feet across in a few years. Pretty soon they become the only plant. Then you end up having to shear them at the side of the road, and they are ugly as heck.”
Is it a native plant?
“Almost none of these are natives. There are no trees native to San Diego to speak of. San Diego was pretty much brush at one time, chaparral.” Pointing to a tree similar in leaf and size to the Brazilian pepper, he adds, “That’s California pepper with the lighter green leaves. That’s what was planted here. They don’t spread all over.”
One of the Brazilian peppers, a 20-foot umbrella of lacy foliage, blocks an exit sign for Genesee Avenue. “Look at that sign. Kind of hard to see what it says, isn’t it? You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of a tourist. You don’t know where you’re going, you need to see that sign. That’s why I carry a set of loppers. I was on 94 about three months ago, and there were two ‘School Bus Stop Ahead’ signs totally blocked. I didn’t see them until I went by. Those I cleared off. Just lopped off some branches and threw them in the ditch."
When San Clemente Canyon and 52 meet Rose Canyon and I-5, we take 5 south. Newspaper reports from the 1950s tell of a woman killed while crossing a freeway to pick a pomegranate in the center median. According to the story, the incident resulted in a Caltrans policy against planting fruit trees alongside freeways. “I hadn’t heard that story,” Gottwig says, “but they don’t put any fruit crops out here at all (because of all the toxic dust). We are wearing out millions of tires, brakes, and clutches every year. Where do you think all of that stuff goes? It goes into the first ten feet of the side of the freeway. And it used to be asbestos and lots of lead."
“Here’s an Adopt-A-Highway area,” Gottwig says as we fly by a blue sign. Why, I ask Gottwig, do people adopt highways? “Well," he gives me a just-between-you-and-me smile, “we don’t call it advertising, but they do get their name up on the sign. You call it anything you want, we call it a ‘recognition panel.’ But it’s not only businesses that do it. If you go out into the back country, you’ll see ‘Bob Smith’ or ‘The Mike Jones Family.’ I can’t praise these people highly enough. They get out there on their own time, and they’re proud of it.”
How does one adopt a stretch of highway? “They have to go through a formal permit process to work on a highway,” Gottwig says. “You can’t legally be out there to do anything without a permit. On the Adopt -A-Highway, the permit process is free, whereas other people, like SDG&E, have to go through the permit process and pay for it. And there’s a safety thing we go through with them as to what they’re supposed to do. We give them the safety helmets and tell them what to watch for, tell them places they shouldn’t work based on what we know. There are Caltrans people who the volunteers work with on a schedule — every two weeks, every three weeks. In the cities, it’s almost all done by businesses, and they usually hire companies like Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corporation or Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance of America that do nothing but Adopt-A-Highway work. That’s strictly between the adopter and the company, the Department of Transportation has nothing to do with that.”
Does the program save Caltrans money? “That depends,” he says. “If you like the program, it saves millions. If you don’t like it, it still saves a lot of money. Different people in the department have different feelings, but it’s strongly supported in headquarters in Sacramento.”
Passing Mission Bay, we switch from 5 south to 8 east Got-twig moves the Plymouth into the right lane, complaining under his breath about unyielding drivers. A chain-link fence separating the freeway from Taylor Street and Presidio Park sags under the weight of bright-red bougainvillea.
“The landscape architects used to put a lot of vines on fences,” he explains, “and we’ve gotten them to quit doing that because they’re real high-maintenance items. You’ve got to come through here a couple times a year and edge that off. There are some real good people in the architectural department. But our pet peeve is they 11 get somebody new, just out of school, and they really try to express themselves in their design, and sometimes it causes a lot of problems. For example, bougainvillea on fences; we hate them. They’ve got spines. I remember we used to cut those things, and you’d go home looking like you’d been dealing with gamecocks. You’re all ripped to shreds.”
We get off at Taylor and head back toward Old Town to Cal-trans headquarters at Juan and Taylor Streets. After tilling up with gas at a pump behind the building, we retrace our path on Taylor Street back to 8 east. A stand of eucalyptus trees lining a section of highway by Hotel Circle reminds Gottwig of a story.
“About five years ago, we had a eucalyptus borer that killed a lot of trees. It’s a beetle that gets underneath the bark. We were really worried about it, but three years ago we found out it wasn’t so bad. It turns out, it doesn’t really bother healthy trees and it only affects certain varieties. So one of our biggest problems went away on its own.”
“That’s just plain old ice plant,” Gottwig says as we pass a yellow-and-white flowered bank while heading south on 163 toward Balboa Park. “The one that’s got the white flowers on it, it’s called alba, but the common name is Disneyland White. It was actually developed for Disney to put around Mickey Mouse in front of Disneyland. But I noticed, last time I was up there, it’s not there anymore.”
As the Plymouth carries us through Balboa Park, Gottwig’s eyes dart back and forth, up and down the banks on either side of the freeway. Every few seconds, he calls out the name of a tree or plant. “Lots of Mexican fan palms—the tall, skinny ones with the small top — marguerite daisies. At one time, they had flowering shrub beds through here. They had geraniums, they had poppies, they had narcissus they had daffodils, you name it. But that’s when the crew had 20 people, and all they took care of was 163 from Interstate 8 to Interstate 5.” We pass a lollipop-shaped tree halfway up the slope on the right. Tiny bunches of white blossoms cover the tree, making it look like a cumulus cloud. “That’s an Australian tea tree,” Gottwig says. “It’s the tree (Captain Cook supposedly used as a cure for scurvy by boiling the leaves.”
A strip of green grass acts as divider between opposing lanes of traffic in the park. Tall California sycamores spaced every 100 feet grow out of the grass. “These sycamores are still doing pretty well,” Gottwig says, “but there are plans to eventually phase out that lawn under them. It’s hard to keep it looking even an average green. And it’s incredibly dangerous to put somebody out there with a mower. Only two [Caltrans] workers have been killed in San Diego over the last 30 years. One of them was killed here (in Balboa Park) on a lawn mower in the late ’60s. The other was killed last year on the Strand. He was fixing a sign and was hit by a [driver] who fell asleep.”
The connector road from 163 south to 5 south skirts Balboa Stadium and meets I-5 as it ends its westward swerve around Cortez Hill and turns south at Golden Hill. A thick-trunked palm growing in the ice plant on the right dangles its long, spiky fronds over pavement. “Here’s a big tree you see all over—that’s a date palm. Date palms are a problem because the seeds are spread by birds, and they end up in places you don’t want them. They spread so wide that they block traffic. So you can either dig them up when they’re little, or you’ve got a nightmare for the rest of its life.”
At the end of the viaduct, the bank on the right, crowned with bushes, levels off. “This is an interesting place right here,” Gottwig chuckles. “These places have names given them by the landscapers who worked them.” He points to the top of the bank. “That’s called Panty Flats. City College is right over here, and that area was overgrown with trees and shrubs, and there was a nice, thick carpet of leaves. So there were a lot of extracurricular activities going on, and I guess they left their panties behind them.”
On 5 south now, eucalyptus trees grow on both sides of the freeway. “There are different kinds of eucalyptus here,” Gottwig says. “That one is globulous (also known as blue gum] — the tall bushy one. The shorter one with a dark trunk is an iron-bark. There’s a citriodora with the long, thin leaves and smooth, white bark.”
Past the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, white-flowering oleander accents the otherwise sparse landscape. “ [ Oleander] are excellent plants,” Gottwig explains. “We used to put them in the middle, but they don’t plant as many as they used to. There was kind of a scare for a while because [oleanders] have poison stalks. I nicked one once 20 years ago to see what it tasted like. It’s pretty bitter. You’d have a hard time eating enough of it to be dangerous."
Driving south on 5 through National City and Chula Vista, landscaping becomes more sparse and less colorful. In some spots, it’s only bare dirt every few feet with knee-high bushes. “See that bare dirt?” Gottwig asks. “That’s low-cost. They want to eliminate ground cover, but then you’ve got to take care of all that hare ground. We’re getting down to some of the cheaper landscaping. Now we’ve gone through three major kinds of layouts.” Gottwig extends his right thumb in a counting gesture. “Balboa Park, that’s the epitome of what used to be: total landscaping. And that’s not even what it used to be. We’ve gone through simpler stuff like ice plant and scattered trees. Then we get down here, and it’s just trees and shrubs with no ground cover at all.”
What approach to landscaping does Gottwig prefer?
“I like ground covering. I like ice plant. Somebody along the way said ice plant uses too much water. Well, it doesn’t use too much water if you maintain it right. If you want to pump water to it, you can, but it will build up so thick that the roots aren’t even in the ground; the roots are living in the thatch. What happens is when you do cut that water back, the roots don’t go down into the ground, and the ice plant dies out, so then they come up with this idea that ice plant takes too much water. When we go up the Strand, I’ll show you some ice plant that’s never been watered, and it looks fine.”
We continue south through Chula Vista. Round-headed carob trees with lustrous, dark green leaves dot the roadsides. Next to off ramps, cacti and spiny yuccas grow amidst bare dirt and rocks. “We’re getting close to the border here,” Gottwig says. “These plants are part of a Mexican theme.”
In the Nestor area, we exit the freeway onto Palm Avenue and head west. Palm Avenue is landscaped by Caltrans because it is officially State Highway 75. All streets marked with the small green state highway signs — Balboa Avenue (274) in Clairemont Mesa and Rosecrans Street (209) in Point Loma — are serviced by Caltrans. County highways like Poway Road (S8) and Via De La Valle (S6) in Rancho Santa Fe are also cared for by Caltrans. At a stoplight on Palm in Imperial Beach, two multi-branched trees have been pruned so severely that only stems and a few budding leaves remain. “These are coral trees,” Gottwig tells me while waiting for the light to change. “They were a great decision, but the variety they chose grows so fast, the only way to prune them is to do it the way these were done,” he points to the two shorn coral trees.
“Usually we try not to change the basic structure of a tree; we don’t take big cuts. But if you prune coral trees that way, it just forces the growth out the end of the limbs and they break off.”
When the light turns green, we continue through Imperial Beach, the town where Gottwig, 50, was born and raised. We follow 75 up the Strand, noticing the unwatered-yet-healthy ice plant, cut through Coronado by the golf course, and take the bridge to 5 north and onto 94 east Traveling through Golden Hill on 94, and then south on 805,I spot yellow and white wildflowers near most freeway offramps. They owe their existence, at least in part, to Gottwig. “Well, kind of,” he says. “I don’t want to take loo much credit for it In 1986 we were out spraying chemicals around trees down in the South Bay on the 905 because we had so many fires that were burning the trees. We put rings of bare dirt around the trees so when the hillside bums, there is no grass under the tree and it doesn’t burn. Come the following spring, all of those circles were full of bright orange and yellow flowers — the seeds had been put out by the contractors who built the freeway, yet I’d never seen any of the flowers before. They’d never been able to grow because of the grasses. Well, obviously, this particular flower is resistant to the chemical we were using]. So we started spraying all over, and it worked great."
The orange and yellow flower is wild African daisy, and the herbicide Gottwig used to kill the grasses is called Surflan. Since Gottwig’s discovery on 905, Cal-trans has been spreading wild-flower seed and spraying herbicides to kill competing weeds. Every year, Gottwig tells me, in late winter or early spring, if we get “two or three consistent rains—if it rains, dries out, and then rains again — then they’ll come up. But we don’t want to make a major thing out of that,” he adds. "It’s not funded, we don’t get a nickel for that. We do get money from somewhere in our budget to buy seeds, but it’s not something we get extra money for. It’s something the people in landscape do in the winter months on their own. We have the most successful wildflower program in the state, without a doubt.”
After meandering around the county for another couple of hours, we drive hack to the Kearny Mesa Caltrans office. As we pull into the parking lot, Gottwig turns to me. “Well, that’s it. I wish things looked a little better, but we just don’t have the manpower anymore. When I was working on the Pacific Highway crew in the ’70s, we had between 14 and 20 people all of the time. Now that crew has 5 people and three times the territory we had. So things here are starting to not look as good as they used to.”
Gottwig parks the car. We get out and shake the long drive out of our legs. He continues, “What we work for on the freeway is an acceptable level of service. At one time we tried to make it look good, like you were walking through a park. We don’t do that anymore; it’s just impossible. We’re trying to make things look good for people going by at 60 miles per hour.”