Natural La Jolla: Pink-ball and pickled kelp


It’s been a pretty perfect January, weather-wise, with some light rains now and again, and a sprinkling of sunny hot days mixed with cool foggy mornings — we’ve had just about everything. The rain, more than we’ve had in recent memory, should make for great wildflowers in a couple of months.

Already the prickly pears and other succulents are looking plumped and healthy. Another tree (or big shrub) that I’ve noticed lately in La Jolla Shores is the pink-ball tree (Dombeya wallichii) or tropical hydrangea. During most of the year, the pink-ball looks like a regular hedge plant with rather large leaves. But now in the peak of the blooming season, it’s a different story.

Pretty clusters of soft pink flowers hang straight down from the branch, attracting bees and giving off a sweet fragrance – some say it’s a bit like buttery frosted cake. This tree is native to Madagascar, but grows well here.

On walks along La Jolla Shores beach at low tide in the late afternoons, I’ve been seeing lots of shorebirds, mainly sanderlings but also black turnstones, western gulls and royal terns. One afternoon, I noticed that a lot of elkhorn kelp (Pelagophycus porra) had washed up. My friend Jon had asked me to keep an eye out for it, because he wanted to try pickling it. He soon collected some and set to work.

Pickled kelp is delicious apparently! Elkhorn kelp is one of the most common brown seaweeds that washes up on local beaches, and may be recognized by the large float (bulb), thick stipe (stem) and branches coming off the top of the bulb. It is often called bull kelp, but it isn’t! Bull kelp only grows north of Point Conception.

— Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation, working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Her column about the floral and fauna of La Jolla appears second Thursdays in La Jolla Light. She may be reached at