A photo of cacti near modern sculptures

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Retired UCLA professor Park Nobel ’60, BEP ’61, turned a derelict plot of land into a suburban showpiece

Amid the tony mansions and manicured lawns of Bel Air, one property stands out. In this storied Los Angeles neighborhood—home to movie stars and captains of industry—the 1.6-acre plot is a bona fide horticultural celebrity: a vast, sloping, meticulously maintained garden of succulent plants, tended by the world’s leading expert on the biology of cacti and agaves.

The man behind the garden is Park Nobel ’60, BEP ’61—and the property is his yard, located about a mile north of the campus of UCLA, where he’s a distinguished professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology.

A photo of Park Nobel standing in his backyard cactus garden
Nobel in his backyard garden.

It contains thousands of plants and dozens of species, from the intimidatingly pointy Eve’s needle cactus (Austrocylondriaopuntia subulata), native to the Peruvian Andes, to the paddle-shaped, appealingly cartoonish “bunny ears” cactus (Opuntia microdasys), which hails from Mexico. There are flowering cacti; cacti towering more than 20 feet tall; clutches of miniature cacti surrounded by modern sculptures; and much, much more.

Nobel’s unlikely oasis has been featured in UCLA’s alumni magazine; a decade ago, it even got a photo spread in the L.A. Times. Admits Nobel: “There are people who walk up my little street just to see my garden.”

But the property wasn’t always like this—not even close. When Nobel first encountered it in 1993, it had languished under the ownership of a developer who’d gone bust. Not only was the yard (then home to just a few random cacti at the periphery) scraggly and overgrown, but the 1950s-era house had been abandoned for years.

“Neighborhood teenagers had used it as a den of iniquity,” Nobel recalls with a laugh. “The windows were broken. The toilets were broken. There was spaghetti splattered on the ceilings. It was very, very derelict.”

A photo of a hillside filled with cacti
Nobel chose the property, in part, for its south-facing slope—a plus for growing succulents.

It was so bad, in fact, that realtors refused to enter the house, which Nobel—then in the process of an amicable divorce—bought sight unseen. “I liked the fact that it had a south-facing slope,” he explains, “which is good for succulent plants.”

Nobel worked side by side with a contractor to restore the home, and turned the yard—which now also features winding pathways and benches for taking in the view—into a succulent showpiece.

In addition to being ahead of its time in swapping out thirsty grass for drought-tolerant plantings, Nobel’s opus boasts many species that are native to far-flung locales, which he obtained by special import permit over the years through his academic work.

Plant biology, with an engineer’s eye

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In the middle generation of a Cornellian family, Nobel is the son of James Nobel ’26, MA ’29, and Ruth Uetz Nobel ’29, and the father of Catherine Nobel ’91. (He endowed the planting of a sugar maple tree in the Botanic Gardens Arboretum in honor of his three Cornellian relatives; he’s also a supporter of undergraduate scholarships and the planned Asian Summer Garden.)

After majoring in engineering physics on the Hill, Nobel went on to earn a master’s in physics from Cal Tech and a PhD in biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He began focusing on the biophysics of succulent plants in the mid-1970s, after a sabbatical in Australia piqued his interest.

A photo of cacti near a modern sculpture
In the garden, cacti and agaves share the landscape with modern art.

He launched into fieldwork in the California desert, taking trips there every other week for two years. “The special thing was that I had an engineering background, so I was taking engineering principles into biology,” he explains. “I was already a tenured faculty member, but I basically began acting like a graduate student again.”

Nobel dubbed his Bel Air house “Casa de CAM” in honor of his area of expertise: “crassulacean acid metabolism,” the moisture-conserving method by which succulent plants photosynthesize during the day, while exchanging gases only at night, when it’s cooler.

He has authored numerous textbooks in the field (including Environmental Biology of Agaves and Cacti and Physicochemical and Environmental Plant Physiology) and co-authored some 375 scholarly articles.

For a decade, he also served as a consultant to José Cuervo, the famed tequila company—advising it on such issues as how to space its agave plants in the field, and how to orient the rows to get the best reception of sunlight.

I was already a tenured faculty member, but I basically began acting like a graduate student again.

Retired since 1994, Nobel long tended his backyard garden more or less singlehandedly—weeding, nipping buds off the agaves (which die after they flower, but can live for years if they don’t), and replacing dead plants, among other tasks.

Now 83, he’s had some hired help in the yard for the past five years. But, he notes, compared to a conventional lawn, his property is fairly low maintenance to begin with.

“I don’t have to water; I don’t have to mow. And I happen to like the appearance of succulent plants,” he says. “So to me, it's attractive.”

All photos by Elizabeth Gillett / Cornell University

Published December 6, 2021

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