Monthly Archives: November 2010

Studies in Tetrapanax

Blooms in the classic rosette or composite shape would seem to be selected by many humans as the ideal flower, but gardens throughout the seasons reveal a much more complicated diversity of inflorescence.

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Though it may not cause one to reflexively reach for a vase and shears, in morning light the otherworldly tetrapanax blooms conjure galactic explosions, crystalline comet tails, smoky nebulae. And I’m generally not one to rob the garden much for vases anyway.

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(I see tetrapanax spelled a multitude of ways, but my Hortus Third uses the spelling “papyriferus” rather than, for example, “papyrifera,” so I’m going with the former.
Hortus describes the flowers “in small, globose umbels arranged in large, terminal woolly panicles.” And it lists a cultivar ‘Variegata,’ which does not appear to be widely available. I would think one could retire on the proceeds from selling nothing but variegated tetrapanax, so it must be a beast to propagate. Isn’t that where tissue culture comes in and saves the day?)

The Montezuma Cypress

Wandering a botanical garden such as the Huntington, one cannot but give thanks to rich industrialists for their interest in botany, whatever their sins. We can only hope the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or George Soros will follow in their footsteps.

Thanks to Henry Huntington, I finally made the proper acquaintance of this tree, Taxodium mucronatum, the Montezuma Cypress. I snapped the photo last Saturday as an afterthought, mainly to remember its placement next to the Temple of Love.

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I’ve never found a name tag for this giant, a tree I’ve walked by at the garden many times, and Saturday I overheard the familiar murmuring by those sitting near it or walking its enormous perimeter: “What is it? Do you know its name?” I can and do walk by many trees destined to forever remain anonymous, but any tree that can induce a physical reaction similar to being punched in the stomach deserves to have its name acknowledged. Maybe I’d bump into a docent later on in the day.

For me botanical gardens are increasingly a setting to see trees allowed to unfurl in height and width to their full potential. When such conditions are granted, trees present a face that is both familiar and other. If street trees are tabbies, botanical gardens house the tigers of the arboreal world. This cypress hadn’t been limbed up at all, branches sweeping down to the lawn, ferny dissected leaves within strokable reach.

The Huntington’s excellent bookstore would probably offer a clue, but we didn’t stop there this time, and I never found a docent to ask. And I was sure a quick search on the Internet would quickly churn up a name. This magnificent specimen had to be world famous.

My first guess was metasequoia, but never having met one before I needed confirmation. I started search strings like “metasequoia near Temple of Love.” Nothing. And the images for metasequoia just didn’t fit. “Giant tree Huntington Botanical Temple of Love.” Endless search string variations were tried, all dead ends. I’ve become spoiled, accustomed to having any fact at my keyboard, and being stymied was an exasperating surprise. I did learn that the Temple of Love is of French origin (18th century, Louis XVI period, attributed to Louis Simon Boizot, purchase price $7,824), that Huntington’s railroad fortune included establishing Los Angeles’ first public transportation system, the Red Car, which my great-aunts have such fond memories of, dismantled after WWII to make way for automobiles and freeways (See Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), but no identity for the tree. It was unthinkable that such a patrician of a tree would go nameless.

My head cold made me pretty much unfit for anything else, so I kept up with the search off and on all day yesterday until the name Taxodium mucronatum surfaced, mentioned in a description of the rose garden, which is just adjacent to this tree and the temple. A quick image search confirmed that this might be the answer. Coincidentally, I’d been enjoying reading about the native bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, on southern blogs like Pam’s Digging. I know the Huntington has lost mature oaks to excess irrigation, but this moisture-loving tree must be having no difficulty with the irrigation required for the lawn and nearby rose garden.

It is the girth of the Montezuma cypress that is most remarkable. Many trees easily surpass it in height. From The Ancient Giant of Oaxaca: “The Mexican bald cypress is a member of the Taxodiacea, the family of giant sequoias, California redwoods, and bald cypresses, which, excluding tropical species, has the greatest potential of all tree families for achieving both great age and enormous size.”

I love what the authors write under “Our First Encounter”: “Having seen giant sequoias and redwoods…we were accustomed to the drama of large specimens. However, when engulfed by [its] spreading arms…we experienced a totally different degree of awe, not comparable to anything we had previously encountered. While the big trees of California are majestic, like the skyscrapers of downtown New York they are out of reach. [Here] is an accessible ‘seated giant,’ welcoming us with broad, sweeping branches.”

Without finding a name, I would never have learned that another Taxodium mucronatum, the legendary Cypress-of-Tule known as ‘El Gigante,’ grows in the churchyard of Santa Maria del Tule in the village of Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico, and is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years of age, considered to be among the oldest and most massive of all living things.

If anyone can verify whether the ID of this tree at the Huntington depicted in the above photo is either correct or incorrect, I’d love to hear from you.
(Epilogue: I called the Huntington this morning and had verification from a botanist in less than a minute. Montezuma Cypress it is.)

Glasshouse Dreams

With the cold snap on in the western U.S., and the heat temporarily off in our home pending repairs, the Saturday after Thanksgiving found us heading for the warmth of conservatories. Last night’s temp inside the house was 57 (Fahrenheit), so it’s not that cold, but it’s not that comfortable either.

When I stepped through the doors of the Huntington’s conservatory, where their most exquisitely sensitive specimens are housed, it felt as though we were on the heels of Rousseau.

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Henri Rousseau never set foot in a jungle, but he did spend many afternoons in Paris’ botanical gardens and conservatories. He described his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes: “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.”

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I usually rush by the cactus tables, but not this time. It was warm inside, so I lingered, circling the tables again and again.

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One Smooth Agave

Not just one but a regiment of smooth agaves, A. desmettiana in bloom, a dynamic but also hauntingly melancholy sight.

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As we agavephiles know all too well, flowering heralds their death, the definition of monocarpic.
I wonder if the Museum of Latin American Art knows that the jig is up on a large percentage of their fairly new landscaping.

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“Smooth” refers to this agave’s lack of barbed leaves, having just the one terminal central spike.

I’ve been watching these blooming agaves at this nearby museum since before summer, scanning for signs of their inevitable descent into decrepitude, which can take up to a year once flowering begins. Knowing their days are numbered, I asked MB Maher to swing by MOLAA earlier in the week to grab some photos while they still radiated vigor, piercing the sky with bloom spikes over 6 feet in height. This landscaping was installed approximately 2007, and the smooth agave blooms after approximately ten years of age, so it seems pretty clear that large, mature agaves were chosen for maximal visual impact. There’s also cactus and aloes, Aloe striata just visible in this photo.

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Due to a pressing pre-holiday workload, I wasn’t able to physically leave the office to gadabout taking photos of agaves in their death spiral, but that doesn’t preclude extended bouts of procrastination at my desk, hitting on nearly every A. desmettiana link in cyberspace. I tumbled into cyber rabbit hole after spider hole after rat hole, found some truly odd home videos people made about their agaves, discovered some astounding Dutch agave porn, but little useful content and much of it contradictory.

But I am now in possession of the following facts (and sharing them makes me less a procrastinator and more a researcher, doesn’t it?):

1) Agaves striata and bracteosa are some of the few agaves that don’t die after flowering. A relief to learn my little A. bracteosa may have a long life still ahead of him. I say may because it’s also reputed to be monocarpic by many sites. (Typical of Internet research, gathering information is like building on quicksand.)

2) Agave desmettiana, one “t,” is the preferred but less widely used spelling, in that the agave is named for Louis De Smet (1813-1887), a Belgian horticulturist and nurseryman.

3) Agave desmettiana cannot be reproduced from seed, only offsets. (On this blog’s All My Agaves post, I erroneously referred to mine as seed-grown, which is how they were labeled at the nursery.)

4) A study on nectar-feeding bats in Colombia found that this agave produced more pollen and 10 times more nectar than other plants visited, so its flowering is a feast for wildlife.

5) A. desmettiana may be an ancient cultivar, possibly derived from A. sisalana or A. kewensis Jacobi (the Flora of North America). Possibly originated in tropical and subtropical Mexico. There are no sightings of this agave in the wild but it has been in cultivation for centuries. The canard persists about all specimens coming from only Pre-Columbian sites. Personally, I’d love to believe Chichen Itza was once studded with this agave.

As moving as this spectacle of dying agaves is, I’m already wondering what they’ll plant in their place. For a replacement, high-impact agave, maybe the salmiana hybrid ‘Mr. Ripple,’ which doesn’t offset too obnoxiously and grows large enough to be effective in this huge space. But it does lack variegation. The variegated americanas, though large, produce way too many offsets. Maybe a variegated attenuata? More procrastinating research is in order to find the perfect landscape agave.

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Veltheimia bracteata

Yes, Joseph, this one will be a slow grower, so settle in.

My system for summer-dormant bulbs is fairly lackadaisical, as in if I’m lucky I just might trip over the pot tucked in an out-of-the-way spot and notice the new green growth. Which is pretty much what happened in early September with this South African bulb, veltheimia, lying above ground all summer in a clump of dry potting soil in the shade. I was jolted into action at the sight of the healthy green tip and promptly repotted the bulb for its winter growth cycle, keeping it above soil level and watering it in thoroughly.

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This is what we’re hoping for, V. bracteata in flower from the Pacific Bulb Society page. Its hyacinth family lineage is easy to see in the shape of its flowers.

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Progress as of today:

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In my zone 10 veltheimia may be semi-dormant and not need complete drying off in summer. If I can bring this one to flower sometime late this winter, I’m going to reward myself with a serious perusal of the Telos Rare Bulb catalogue.

Flea Market Sunday

Yesterday was the third Sunday of November. When we first moved into this 1919 California bungalow, the third Sunday was kept holy each month for a huge local flea market. But once we found all the necessary vintage hinges and drawer pulls and school house lights and had filled this tiny bungalow to the rafters with all the other great stuff one invariably finds at flea markets then has to later give away for lack of space, we began to actively avoid the flea market and strove to forget the significance of the third Sunday and erase it from consciousness. The house was too small, the garage had long been turned into an office, and the temptation was too great.

If you follow the blog at Rancho Reubidoux, you’ll know they are flea market fiends. Reading the blog, the long-suppressed third-Sunday timetable was bubbling up again from the depths. I was ready for it this November.

And I had a specific goal, always a good idea with flea markets, which was to find a receptacle of some sort to set potted tropicals in for next summer, so runoff from frequent watering would pool at the bottom to be reabsorbed. Not a water garden per se, but a means to water more efficiently, and the tropicals would flourish in a couple inches of standing water.

The third Sunday dawned amidst a rainstorm that threw the entire plan into doubt. The early departure we had planned was scrapped, but when the rain abated late in the morning we decided to drive by, since it’s close. The flea market was open but with very light attendance, which made us giddy with excitement. On a busy day, it’s sometimes impossible to gain access to the vendors’ goods, ringed in by rows and rows of buyers.

I was open to any and all possibilities the flea market had to offer, saw a couple things of interest, but settled on this for its color and corrugation:

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Serendipity and kismet is a big part of the allure of flea marketing, as in: If it hadn’t rained and the crowds of buyers had come, or if we had stayed home due to the rain…but it did rain and we didn’t stay home, and now this gorgeous hunk of verdigrised scrap metal is all mine!

I am a timid flea marketer, so indulge my boasting over the negotiating technique I used:

Me: I would like to make you an offer on this (pointing).
Vendor: Okay.
Me: You won’t like this offer, because it’s half of what you’re asking.
Vendor: Okay. And I’ll loan you a hand cart to haul it away.

More serendipity in a vendor who was a pushover. And so the deal was done.

There was also a vendor selling plants, a wonderful assortment of succulents, many of which I didn’t know. I bought an unnamed cotyledon from him I’d never seen before, a chalk fingery looking plant with a chartreuse cast to the leaves, whose identity he said had eluded the experts at the Huntington Cactus Garden. “You stumped the Huntington?” I gushed incredulously. What a savvy purveyor of plants, who may have played me like a fiddle, but it’s all part of the fun.

The next third Sunday is December 19th, rain or shine.

Pennisetum spathiolatum

This pennisetum, the Slender Veldt Grass from South Africa, has been on my mind for some time. The form of it has, at least. I didn’t know its name until last week.

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I was hoping to find this form in Stipa gigantea, low grassy growth, tall, waving inflorescences, which has been planted in the front gravel garden but has yet to flower.
It wasn’t until I saw this pennisetum at a nursery last week that I realized it was the one.
This grass, no more than 18 inches tall, grows as a low clump but is topped by tall, reedy inflorescences of over 3 feet beginning in early summer.
Digging Dog’s description conveys this unique habit, but other descriptions I’ve read fall short and leave it unclear as to whether you’ll be living with a 3-4 foot unmanageable beast, as stout in the middle as it is tall. The clump in the photo below is about a foot across, and Digging Dog lists mature size at 3’–4-1/2′ high x 2′ wide. (Bottom of the frame is a hesperaloe, not a grass, and one of the pennisetums is just adjacent to the hesperaloe.)

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I brought home three in gallon cans, in full bloom, and planted them last week. My fall-planting extravaganza. As can be seen from the photos, the Slender Veldt Grass doesn’t have an exceptionally notable leaf or bloom, but this habit of growth sets it apart and gives it a place near walkways, to stir into motion with an absent-minded wave of the hand when the wind is still. Its diaphanous habit will not obscure the plantings beyond, and its aerial grace releases the eye from the tyranny ground level sometimes exerts in a small garden. I often find myself stooped over, hands behind my back, examining the low grasses and succulents and other small treasures used for the edges at the front of the garden. This little grass seems perfect for adding another dimension, mixing it up at mid-level but without adding excessive bulk.

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(And, yes, that silly cat doesn’t seem to mind a bit of rain.)

Zoned to 7, maybe 6, evergreen in my zone 10, full sun, drought tolerant.

Edited 12/18/10 to add notes taken by My Back 40/Chuck B. from a John Greenlee lecture: “His favorite three grasses for the basic California meadow garden: Carex divulsa, Pennisetum spathiolatum, Festuca mairei. He identified three qualities important for a garden meadow grass. It should: 1) have a noticeable flower, 2) not drop seed, 3) be evergreen.”

Got Cranberries?

We stumbled into this sight, an impromptu cranberry bog, at Rockefeller Center this past October.

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Who on earth could be behind such a spectacle? Exquisitely appropriate seating for the occasion in the form of picnic tables and benches running down the center of the bog, and sturdy, sensible place settings. An army of attendants. Oh, of course…

Just today I found this press release describing the ultimate meaning of this event, and perhaps the show has already aired. At the time, through signage and excited whispers, we learned that Martha Stewart was behind it all somehow but didn’t stay for her arrival. I think we were heading for onion soup at the Waldorf-Astoria and could not be deterred. Watching those cranberries slosh and swirl in the wake of assistants shod in wellies was mesmerizing, though.

If cranberries and horseradish sounds like a good idea, give Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish Recipe a try. And give thanks your dinner table isn’t sitting in a cranberry bog.

Award-Winning Los Gatos Project

Jarrod R. Baumann of Zeterre Landscape Architecture designed this Los Gatos
residential landscape with Jim Everett of Evland LLC as his lead contractor.
Earlier this week it was announced that for his work as lead contractor on this project,
Mr. Everett has won the Stuart J. Sperber Sweepstakes Award for 2010.
That means that the project was judged best landscape installation for all projects,
commercial and residential, for the entire state.

Congratulations to Jim Everett for the well-deserved award. And a quick peek of the
project, which will no doubt be the centerfold of magazines in the coming months.

Hail To The Thief

Sub rosa footage taken through the kitchen door window late in the evening two nights ago.
We thought a possum might be responsible for what was becoming the nightly theft of cat food, and that was exciting enough to contemplate.

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I’ll have to explain that living solidly in urban Los Angeles as we do, our own neighborhood running a huge deficit of parks, with the surrounding fauna mostly dogs, cats, and birds, this thrills us no end.

Obviously, we’re just not staying up late enough to absorb the entirety of wildlife that visits the garden.

Awed whispers described his girth and beautiful coat. Someone murmured in appreciation, “How dexterous he is!”

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Dexter did manage to knock the container off the porch, open the lid, and eat the contents, which wasn’t much.
But still, we don’t want to turn Dexter into a dependent softie, so we’re bringing the cat food container in at night.
I’d prefer his appetite stay keen, omnivore that he is, for my garden snails.