Article : Living in White Light — Profile: Paul Comstock, ASLA, Managing Principal, Comstock LA

Living in White Light
Profile: Paul Comstock, ASLA, Managing Principal, Comstock LA

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Paul Comstock, ASLA, Managing Principal, Comstock LA
Cost of Wisconsin
Playworld Came America

Imagine, if you will, Mozart’s Mass in C minor (KV 4276), or Concerto No. 24 in C minor (K491), but instead of piano, and violins, bassoons and oboes, you have plants. An orchestra of plants. A composition which evolves into a complex but luminous fabric created from the interplay of rare plants, vines, rock and water. Like music, the serene magic of Paul Comstock’s landscapes provide not just a respite from surrounding turmoil, but an endless fascination for those who take the time to “listen” in depth.

At Disney, Comstock was in charge of creating innovative landscape designs and was responsible for maintaining show-quality standards at all Disney theme parks and resorts worldwide. To accomplish this, he made botanical expeditions to more than 80 countries across the globe. It has been said of Comstock, “Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s landscaping (seen here) alone is worth the price of admission.”
Images courtesy of Paul Comstock

Paul Comstock, Managing Principal at Comstock LA, is a man of vision, creativity and spirituality of global proportions. He has designed gardens, habitats, amusement parks, museums and sports arenas all over the world. He has traveled five million air miles looking for just the right plant to be looked at, eaten, shaded by, listened to, or simply be energized and refreshed by. He has overseen the planting of more then 20 million trees and shrubs during his career. And they are all part of the many “sonatas” and “choral masses” he has composed.

Paul Comstock loves landscapes of all kinds, including the extravagant undersea vistas which, though anchored on the sea floor, are continuously exquisite in their wave-driven motion. A horticultural genius, he worked for 16 years at Disney Imagineering as Director of Landscape Design, creating the landscapes surrounding many of the Disney theme parks, resort hotels and retail dining and entertainment venues worldwide, including the Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It is in the many habitats Comstock has designed that his sublime artistry for weaving form and content is seen. He points out in appreciation, “that ‘little mouse’ and Disney made it possible for me to just go all over this beautiful world seeking knowledge and getting the trees I needed.”

This snowy, temperate high plains landscape with “Rainbow Arch” in winter morning light, is in Disneyland, Paris. The featured plants are Fagus sylvatica purpurea, Amelanchier lamarckii and Cedrus atlantica. On the day he was first taken to the site, Comstock remembers Bill Evans saying to him, ‘OK, now this is what you’re going to do here. You’re going to play Mother Nature and create a completely natural landscape that nobody else but her would have thought of creating. It has to work with seasonality, too.’ So I did. In winter, I hope you can hear Wolfie’s Requiem-style emotions coming through your eyes.”

Paul Comstock’s small beach cottage in Malibu was originally built in 1924, at the point where the Jefferson Highway, now known as Pacific Coast Highway, ended and a ranch’s dirt road began. When I opened the gate, it was to be met by a jungle of wild vegetation that packed the brick patio, climbed the walls of the house and the fence, and tangled all together in a sculpture of vines, fragrant flowers, leaves and twisting twigs. Inside the cottage, I was mesmerized by Thai prints, Indian statues, South African wall hangings, Chinese prints, Japanese woodcuts, an Abalone and gold leaf inlaid surfboard, wooden carvings and statues hanging on walls, tucked in corners, resting on shelves, and placed on countertops and coffee tables. A canary, named Bob, was joyously singing in a large, ornate cage overlooking a narrow, rock strewn beach, and past that, the diamond blue sparkle of the Pacific Ocean.

Comstock designed and constructed this subtropical landscape while at Disney Imagineering. “The composition makes me think of the Mozart’s Coronation,” he says, “because the vines and delicate, airy waterfall play off the base foundation as if those are ascending angels. The big main movement of the bassoons are keyed to the rock foundation and the choirs of angel voices are floating on top. Those light angelic threads of water are set inside the musical foundation of base note rocks.”

There was Paul Comstock, sitting at a wrought iron table on the back deck with a set of plans laid out in front of him and beautiful view spread out to the horizon. It was the most perfect work setting anyone could imagine. At that moment, a harbor seal stuck his head out of the water, then another one, and shortly was followed by two dolphins and a gaggle of pelicans. “The disturbance on the surface probably means there are fish out there,” said Comstock.

And at that moment, a pelican plunged, beak-first, into the water causing an explosion of spray which arched into the air.

He recalled, “One day I was sitting here working, when a Gray whale stuck straight up in the water less than 50 feet out. It was right where those kelp beds are. She must have been sticking up at least 15 feet, and she turned her head to eye me with one huge, single eye. Then she dropped down, came up again, and watched her calf come nibbling the kelp around the cove rocks, right there!” He pointed to a spot in the cove perhaps 20 feet from the shore.”

The “Space Garden” landscape, at Epcot, in Walt Disney World, Florida, is an exercise in blending analog and digital. Comstock’s designs reflect the multiple layers of his myriad cross-cultural, pan-geographic influences, his artistry, his music and most of all, his creativity.

Because of all his experience creating habitats for animals from all around the world, Comstock has a special sensitivity for who needs to eat what. His backyard just happens to be a sea creature habitat, but rather than being designed by him, it’s been designed by Mother Nature.

This conceptual landscape study was done for HKS Sports Group, Dallas for Dodger Stadium and it’s “Top of the Park” gardens and entertainment plaza overlooking downtown Los Angeles. The plantings include California Native Oaks and North American Fan Palms.

A Magnetic Journey
Comstock’s journey to landscape architecture started after college where he’d majored in mathematics, physics and fine arts. He was also a classically trained professional musician which, of course, led directly to being a surfer. “I had an El Camino a surfboard and a Saluki hound,” says Comstock. “But I didn’t have a plan or a clue of what kind of work I wanted to do. I just wanted to have fun. At one point I did a favor for a girlfriend’s parents and put in their landscaping. That launched me onto three or four years of solid referrals.”

“The real challenge is, can you build an environment that will
make any sentient being feel lucky to be alive.”

At the time, Comstock’s father worked for Monrovia Nursery “One day,” Comstock recalls, “My father said, ‘Why don’t you take a couple of weeks off and build a small waterfall for the Los Angeles Arboretum show?’ Well, I had never done anything my father told me to do. But this once, I did.”

Comstock’s father suggested that he call Rock & Waterscapes and there he was connected to Frank Manwarren. “Frank was so supportive. He set me up and taught me exactly what to do and how to build a waterfall.”

That set in motion a series of events that changed Comstock’s life. “So many stars lined up around that waterfall,” he recalls. “My little waterfall was pictured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, but I also got noticed by Bill Evans, the iconic horticulturist at Disney, and Joe Linesch from Universal Studios. Joe Linesch said, ‘You built this with off-the-shelf stuff?’ Then Bill Evans said, ‘Are you licensed? You need an education!’”

Paul Comstock at the Disney site in France, being mentored by his most important inspirational career guide Bill Evans, the iconic director of Disney Imagineering’s Landscapes. Evan’s favorite quote, and Comstock’s guiding principal is “God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks. And a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection. —Sir Francis Bacon

Evans introduced Comstock to Pat Allen who was at UCLA’s School of Landscape Architecture. Comstock got in, and the rest is history. That one landscape and waterfall got Comstock clients all over—“I became, ‘The Waterfall Guy.’ Frank Manwarren introduced me to Phillip di Giacomo, the rock and waterfall artist, and then Bill Evans sent me over to intern with Joe Linesch . There, Bill and Joe assigned and guided my design work at Universal Studios, LACMA, Wilshire Boulevard Corridor, Shin En Kan, Cantor and Calder Gardens.

“It’s thrilling to create a radical contrast between a busy scene with mountains rocks and forest and it’s a lot like an orchestration,” says Comstock.” My landscapes, like music, should make people feel excited, or be in love, or be at total peace, or afraid, or meditative.” This shot was taken in China during one of Comstock’s plant searches.

A Familial Passion
Laced through all these magnetic events was his tremendous love of plants and his deep knowledge of horticulture. And it is that passion which his grandmother engendered and nurtured whenever he visited her in Corona Del Mar, California. “Not only did my grandmother love plants, she was a night owl,” says Comstock. “I would surf during the day, and then take a nap. We’d eat dinner late, at around 9:30 or 10:00 o’clock at night and then go for midnight walks around town. By that time, everyone was in bed, and no one was around but the two of us. She would take walks during the day, noticing interesting plants, and which ones had shoots or branches sticking through the fences.

Late at night on our walks, when it was dark, we would take cuttings of everything that we liked that was over the sidewalk. My grandmother’s view was that, if it was over the sidewalk it didn’t belong to anybody. We would take the cuttings home, stick them in water to get their roots growing, and then plant them.”

“This is a Deciduous Mopane Forest, in the Okavango Delta in Africa,” says Comstock. “But this was designed by Mother Nature.” The trees go into dormancy, or an energy conservation or collecting type of mode, every now and then. During the summer there is no rain so the plants drop all their leaves. Precious seasonal rain in the Congo makes the Okovango’s plains flood and the Mopane go into their verdant green cycle. The process is not driven by cold, but by the hot seasons and rain hundreds of miles away.”

During these travels in search of plants and seeds, he located, collected and brought back live, stunning, rare and hidden wonders of the plant kingdom for the purpose of authenticating the environments he was charged with creating. From the peaks of the Himalayan mountains to the equatorial oceans, to desert oases and lush jungles, Comstock’s exploration of varied temperate, sub-tropical and tropical environments has made him widely admired as one of the most renowned horticulturalists in the world.

This is a shot of an extremely rare tree—Amherstia nobilis considered the Holy Grail by many horticulturalists. Comstock went to the source place in Myanmar to find this one. “Here look at this Erythrina corallodendron inflorescence. Look at the deepness of the red! I’ve heard people say they didn’t like red in their garden,” said Comstock. “I love red! Look at the light coming through the petals! Someone once said to me, ‘I hate red geraniums. They’re so common!’ Hate! What kind of word is that when talking of gardens? Red is beautiful!”

Learning Habitat from the Inhabitants
“The first time I went to Nepal, I was part of a creative team to see what we could find. We went to this forest to put together the concept,” he recalls. “Five years later, the concept was approved. I realized we’d have elephants and we needed to have the plants from the natural environments which supported those large animals.”

“I returned to the Chitwan Forest with cameras and collection equipment to begin the actual collecting. The reserve also had tigers and Indian uni-horned rhinos in addition to elephants. As I climbed up the ladder to the howdah, the mahout was handing up the cameras. I felt a warm feeling on my thigh, the elephant standing next to the elephant I was sitting on had her trunk in my lap and was making low, deep rumbling sounds. With a twinkle in his eyes the Mahout asked , have you ever been here before?’ I said I had, and he replied, ‘Well, this elephant remembers you and she likes you. She’s very happy you’ve come back to visit her.”

The “Home Garden” for the Silverback Lowland Gorilla at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was planted with an overabundance of Tetrastigma voinierianum Bambusa ‘Alphone Karr’, Quercus glauca, Tabebuia avellanedae, Michelia champaca ‘alba’, and 60 different grasses including Setaria palmifolia. Says Paul of these gorillas, “They’re very well fed. Actually, they have better health plans than we do. The gorillas have dieticians and are given a diverse diet of their favorite foods. The habitat is designed to be a smorgasbord of garden delights in addition to their scientific diet, and a way of making them feel at home. The gorillas could eat every plant in the habitat if they happen to want a snack, but in addition, machines spray their favorite treats such as raisins and nuts, shooting them into the landscape so they can find them on the ground.

That elephant, named Durgha Kali, was then assigned as his guide elephant. He started out by pointing out the plants he wanted. “Durgha would pick the seeds with her trunk and hand them up to me,” Comstock explained.

‘However, what followed was, for me, an incredible epiphany. Durgha kept stopping and eating little snacks along the way. But she never attempted to eat any of the plants I was collecting. I suddenly realized, we should collect the plants she’s eating! Those are the ones elephants would love to find in their habitat! After that we changed all the design criteria and started collecting only the plants she wanted to eat, not the ones I liked. Durgha also liked chasing tigers and every now and then would take off after them. Elephants are definitely the best off-road vehicles around. We had a fantastic relationship.”

This is a picture Comstock took of the shadow of himself riding a 40-year-old female elephant named Durgha Kali in the Chitwan Forest in India which is tiger country—hence the elephants—looking for specific kinds of elephant grass and plantings. “This shot was taken of the shadow Durgha and I cast on the ground. She became a driving force for changing the design criteria, as well as the source of my epiphany.”

Balancing Process and Sequence
“I was the youngest person to play in the Glendale Burbank Symphony—I was 14, and was studying overall musical composition as well as studying conducting. The Hungarian conductor, Naomi Fischer, who was head of all the orchestras for MGM, taught me how to read orchestral scores and conducting notes. At the time, I was also studying organ, playing drums and listening to surf music. Naomi played every instrument, and he owned a Stradivarius. I’d never even heard of a Stradivarius. I knew what a Fender was, of course. But when Naomi picked up the violin, in 30 seconds he made tears stream uncontrollably down my face. It was the most dramatic example of the power of music to pour ethos into my ears and into my heart. The orchestra performed the Requiem by Mozart and I’ll never forget sitting in a large dark rehearsal hall reading his words, ‘Throughout earth’s sepulchers death and nature will be astounded when all creation rises again’!”

“The thing that got to me as a 14-year-old rock and roll kid, was that the whole key is to manipulate people’s emotions and use music as the tool. With these habitat designs,” explains Comstock, “the real job is balancing the ethos of the conceived environment against the epistemology of building the thing. It a question of balancing vision, process and sequence. An exquisite landscape will do this. When people look at it, they will feel alive. The real challenge is, can you build an environment that will make any sentient being feel lucky to be alive.”

This conceptual landscape study is the artist’s proof depicting the renovated Maracana Football Stadium, Rio de Janiero with Corcovado and Ipanema Beaches in the distance. The primary skeleton plants are Brazilian Baobabs, Monkey Puzzle Trees, Flowering Trumpet Trees and Roberto Burle Marxian aroid water gardens. The client was HKS Sports Group, Dallas, John Brooks Architect.

Prior to his work at Disney Imagineering, Comstock was also soaking up experiences on a more intimate and familial level, designing gardens for private residences across the country and around the world. He has also consulted on landscapes for the Los Angeles Arboretum, Universal Studios in both California and Florida, as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Rodin Garden and Japanese Pavilion, including his current collaborations with artist Robert Irwin and architect Renzo Piano.

Every experience, both good and bad, has brought him closer to another level of connection with the universal principal. And each experience goes into his extensive mental catalog of colors, the feelings they engender and how, along with the shapes, he can make visual musical compositions out of living plants. Comstock is, in fact, “the Mozart” of horticulturalists.

The Grand Entry Boulevard (known as the Magic Road) into Hong Kong Disneyland Resort is seen here on Opening Day with 60-year-old Phoenix canariensis and Ficus macrophyllas collected in Queensland, Australia, then shipped to China, every fig or palm tree in it’s own 40-foot shipping container.


Paul's Orphans

Paul Comstock sent LASN a partial plant list of the rare and beautiful plants he has collected over the years. These are the plants who now live in his side patio in Casita del Mar, in Malibu. The images were not taken of his collection, because the plants bloom at all different times of year. But they give an idea of what excites this landscape architect who is a musician and horticulturist of immense proportions.

Ficus Pseudopalma-fruits

Cryptocereus Anthonyanus var. ‘Sophia’


Erythrina Acanthocarpa

Colvillea racemosa

Hoya Imperialis

Platycerium ‘Grande Superbum’

Gmelina philippensis

Arrow Bamboo

Arrow Bamboo, Pseudosasa japonica, Japanese Arrow bamboo, used by Samurai to make arrows, and like us born in the ‘littorale of the pacific tides, it likes it here on the Pacific’s edge).

Schizolobium parahyba

Paul’s sapling was grown from the seed of a seedling tree he’d collected in South Africa and given to a friend. The friend’s Umbrella Tree is now 40 feet tall. The ‘son’ of the first seedling in Paul’s garden is about 3 feet tall in its first year.

Stemmadenia ‘soledad’

Those not pictured include:

  • Scaphosepalum verrucosum
  • Bursera simaruba ‘Butterball’
  • Epiphyllum elegantissimum ‘Mother of Maude’
  • Xygocactus x sekorii
  • Lopanthera lutens ‘Alice’
  • Theobroma Ate-cacao
  • Johannesteijmannia ‘Irwinii’
  • Begonia x NINFA
  • Alocasia ‘Pui’s Golden’
  • Alluaudia splendens ‘Spiny Forest’
  • Nepenthes natarajan

Older Comments
Name: Hal KeeneWrote in with general comment
Comment: One of the best articles I have seen in a long time! Very interesting! Thank you, Hal F. Keene Feature is from October, 2010 - Playgrounds issue. (To View the Original Article, CLICK HERE)

Name: Gina DavisWrote in with general comment
Comment: Everytime I am at Disneyland, I think to myself, \"wow, whoever has the job of picking these plants..they do an amazing job!\" Who knew that SO much goes into it, Thank you Paul for what you many of these plants we may never have otherwise had the opportunity to see. Much appreciated! Feature is from October, 2010 - Playgrounds issue. (To View the Original Article, CLICK HERE)

Name: William Garbo Sr.Wrote in with correction comment
Comment: Leslie McGuire\'s article I believe should be required reading for all students and professionals in Landscape Architecture. Feature from October, 2010 - Playgrounds issue. (To View the Original Article, CLICK HERE)
She has clearly outlined the necessary steps for becoming a successful Landscape Architect. I am in my 86th year of life and when I found the fine art of Garden Design, Landscape Architecture, I found the answer to the fulfillment of my lifelong dream. World War two took me all over the unknown lands of New Guinea, Borneo, Philippine Islands and Japan. My dream was reinforced every step of the way and when I returned to the USA I made sure to seek out and meet professionals like Thomas Church, Garret Ekbo and work in their gardens, with my summers working as a laborer in the Stanford University Gardens by Olmstead, all of which stoked my burning desire. My mentors have all contributed to my advancement in the fine art of landscape Design. This article was beautifully witten and I give thank Ms McGuire for not leaving out the details, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You. One of several important truths I see here is \" when opportunity presents itself one has to respond, and the prerequisite to all of this is just what Comstock had learned before he studied Landscape Architecture. Thanks, I have read every word, Bill Garbo

Name: Julianne CullWrote in with correction comment
Comment: I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written article. Feature from October, 2010 - Playgrounds issue. (To View the Original Article, CLICK HERE)
I love the analogies presented between notes and plants, gardens and symphonies. Indeed, Paul has lived a \"rich\" and quite ENRICHED life thus far. We need to find ways to inspire future musician/artists of this calibre and natural ability. Thank you for a most interesting article.

Name: Jack Schlosser SchlosserWrote in with comment
Comment: The article is excellent and does a fine job of providing a glimpse into Paul Comstock. I have known Paul for over 40 years and I can attest to the fact that he is the real deal. I think of him as the Indiana Jones of landscaping.


June 26, 2016, 3:07 pm EST

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