Monthly Archives: February 2012

poppies, a minor obsession

Newt is taking time out of her busy day to helpfully point out where the poppies will be blooming this year.

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Last year’s runnel of poppies was in the crevice along the back porch, but this year they’ve jumped a few feet over and have self-sown into crevices in the dry-laid bricks. These are again the Poppy of Troy, Papaver setigerum, which is a nicely compact, breadseed-type poppy, a single with pale lilac-colored petals surrounding a central dark blotch. There are scads of species and breadseed varieties to try that improvise on the timeless poppy theme, a performance that never grows stale. A solitary bud peeps out of the leaves, dangles demurely as the slim stalk elongates, until all pretense of shyness is abandoned as sepals burst and fall, revealing impossibly silky, translucent petals. It always strikes me as a sly wink of nature to imbue a plant with such captivating drama and energy as well as deadly soporific properties. (Annie’s Annuals & Perennials has by far the best selection known to mankind and is the original source of my self-sowing poppies.)

While visiting the Bay Area a couple weeks ago, I was introduced to a marvelous source of salvage and cast-offs, a huge warehouse devoted to recycling and repurposing in Berkeley called Urban Ore, where I found a pair of botanical prints, one of plants from the malvaceae family and this one of papaveraceae, both now hanging in the bath house. Botanical prints can lead one down a chintzy path I generally try to avoid, but I just couldn’t walk away from these poppies.

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If I lived nearby, I’d check out Urban Ore frequently. The best stuff disappears within hours of arrival.

the children’s garden at the Huntington


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The last time I visited the Huntington Botanical Garden a few weeks ago, the prevailing theme for the day was kids in the garden. Moms with toddlers and strollers were everywhere. Field-trip kids in the cactus garden trudged along the paths like it was the Bataan Death March. I couldn’t tell if these young elementary school kids were being sarcastic or not, but they were pleading, “Water! Water!” as they shuffled chain-gang style past barrel cactus, and I also heard a lot of, “Where’s the bus?!” Their teachers always maintained that amazingly chipper tone of encouragement, “Just a bit further! Look, here’s a bench where we can rest.” I know that relentlessly chipper tone well, having used it myself with my kids when visiting public gardens.

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As I was coming up a steep path out of the Australian garden, a young mother with a toddler in one hand and pushing a stroller in the other was heading down the path, which immediately aroused deep sympathy. She looked lost, and sure enough, as we passed each other, she asked, “Where’s the Children’s Garden?” I pointed her in the general direction, which was quite a distance away, but told her the trek would be worth it, that it shouldn’t be missed. As soon as I spoke those words, an older woman marched up to us and demanded to know what’s not to be missed. Possibly she thought the amorphophallus was in bloom or some other momentous botanical happening. I told her we were talking about the Children’s Garden, at which point she said witheringly, “Oh, the Children’s Garden,” waved her hand dismissively, and marched off in search of more rarified botanical pursuits. Which is a shame, because the Children’s Garden is a marvelously enjoyable, fairly new addition to the Huntington. Watching people and especially families explore this garden has become a not-to-be-missed part of my trips to the Huntington.

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On this last visit, I spent a lot of time peering through the windows of the teaching greenhouse that anchors one side of the Children’s Garden. Aside from being naturally drawn to any greenhouse, the space was unusually animated with personal touches and vignettes, like in this photo from The Los Angeles Times. There was a strong, idiosyncratic presence that animated the greenhouse.

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I have since learned that the animating force in the teaching greenhouse and creator of those vignettes was Jeff Karsner, the director of the Children’s Garden, who passed away on January 30, 2012.

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Past vice president of the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society, board member of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry, Mr. Karsner’s legacy includes one of the busiest, noisiest gardens at the Huntington, well worth a visit by all who attend the HBG, whatever their age.

Hazel White: Aesthetics of Inundation

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden’s symposium “Natural Discourse” held February 10, 2012, has been constantly in my thoughts this past week, whether riding the train, driving freeways, staring at the garden. I’d never visited UCBG before and found the physical location enthralling. I’ve been starved for rain, and a small rainstorm obligingly followed me up the coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and rained off and on most of the weekend. For me, mist and rain always increases a place’s allure, and that day the canyon with its meandering creek and trails was magical.

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Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture Chris Carmichael described this contemplated collaboration with artists as a new direction for this predominantly teaching-based botanical garden in an effort to broaden its appeal as part of an ongoing struggle to attract and connect with new visitors. This is an entirely new direction for UCBG, which dates its inception as a teaching adjunct to the university back to 1890. This “living museum” is a member of the Berkeley Natural History Museums Consortium and has only been open to the public since the 1960s. Bringing artists into this hallowed botanical garden to render site-specific works has not been accomplished without some gnashing of teeth by all involved, but like all of us, new survival strategies must be pursued in these tumultuous times, and botanical gardens are no exception. Despite the joking and joshing, deep affection and respect was readily apparent among all involved. A brief interlude to present Richard Turner with a Monkey Puzzle Tree, Auricaria araucana, in honor of his retirement from Pacific Horticulture, was a wickedly funny touch.

Continue reading Hazel White: Aesthetics of Inundation

Foliage Followup February 2012

Pam at Digging hosts this sequel to Bloom Day on the 16th of each month, a chance to stand up for photosynthesis and plead a case for the slighted leaf, doomed in most gardens to forever playing second fiddle to the alluring procreative strategies of plants.
The adaptive strategies of leaves are equally compelling, and I offer Exhibit A, Portulaca molokiniensis, a Hawaiian succulent, which has the distinction of being my first smart-phone purchase. Being one of the gazillions that got an iPhone for Christmas, I was able to check my blog to confirm this portulaca’s desirable status as a Future Plant Purchase, which seemed weirdly momentous at the time.

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A strong Exhibit B would be the spiral aloe, A. polyphylla, photo taken at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden by MB Maher.

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Note the setting for a happy spiral aloe, grown at an angle for perfect drainage. Summer moisture, light shade.
(I’ve only killed two so far. )

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Leaves or flowers? Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis? Harpo or Groucho? Holmes or Watson? No need for false choices — it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. UCBG was selling one of my favorite daisies, attractive in leaf and flower, Argyranthemum haouarytheum, which I haven’t seen on offer in many years, surprising since it’s so easy from cuttings. Very similar to A. foeniculaceum, which is probably what I’ve grown in the past. From the Canary Islands, part of Macronesia (Greek for “islands of the fortunate”).

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Bloom Day February 2012

February is a very exciting month. So much to take note of, I rarely make it through a hot cup of coffee on a February morning. The anigozanthos is growing in leaps, now almost chin-high. This is ‘Yellow Gem.’

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Tulips started to bloom over the past couple days. But tulips don’t impress Evie; birds impress Evie.

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Love having the pots of tulips sited next to Sedum nussbaumerianum, now blooming too, with pearly white broccoli florets.

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The six-pack of linaria was a solid winter investment. Ditto Pelargonium echinatum for intense pink.
Not as much of a craving for pink in summer as in winter, though.

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Red-flower Russelia equisetiformis continues in bloom, though a yellow variety took the winter off.

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Lots of other odds and ends in bloom, including aeoniums, euphorbias, salvias, S. macrophylla, chiapensis, karwinskii, wagneriana. This silvery-leaved Lotus jacobaeus from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials continues to impress. Its cascading habit would be seen to great advantage draped over a retaining wall. Here it leans on an aeonium.

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For spring bulbs, snowdrops and crocuses, camellias, and who knows what else this warmish winter, check Bloom Day’s host site, Carol’s blog May Dreams Gardens, for a peek at what February brings to gardens all over the world. The new hardiness map should make this Bloom Day interesting, as more gardens are carved off into alphabetical subgroups. Over and out from zone 10b.

long weekend in San Francisco

I took precious few photos over the long weekend I spent in the Bay area.
And not because there wasn’t the usual excess of riches to see and do.
There were acacias in bloom, these cutleaf acacias seen at Flora Grubb Gardens.

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The UCBG symposium “Natural Discourse” on Friday had the unintended effect of decoupling the camera journaling habit I’ve acquired. I managed only a single photo at UCBG, of these cat tail aloes, Aloe castanea, as we were leaving.

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It was a heady day. I admit to sometimes wondering if an obsession with gardens and plants might be too narrow a path upon which to fully explore and engage the world. Now I wish every spring could begin with a symposium like this, not the how-to’s but the whys and wherefores of the ongoing discourse among people, plants, and site that is a garden. Poets, artists, and scientists have quite a lot to say on the matter, and thanks to UCBG and curators Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel for giving them this opportunity to let us know what’s on their minds. I have no doubt that it will be a very exciting year at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden as this discourse continues.

“Natural Discourse” 2/10/12 UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

The kick-off symposium to the year-long collaboration between UCBG and invited artists and writers will be held Friday, February 10, 2012, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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“Natural Discourse” co-curators are Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel.

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Any attendees of 2009’s “Late Show” garden festival held at Cornerstone in Sonoma, California, will remember Shirley Watts’ “The Garden of Mouthings,” which has now been installed at UCBG for “Natural Discourse.” The undulating structure inspired by a natural beehive is made of Nomex and reclaimed redwood and has been sited at UCBG on the hill above the garden of old roses.

The Garden of Mouthings at The Late Show Gardens 2009

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Reassembled at UCBG September 2011

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Settling in at UCBG

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photo from UCBG promotional materials

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(Unless otherwise noted, all photos by MB Maher.)

garden of flowing fragrance in miniature

The architectural scale model of the Huntington’s Garden of Flowing Fragrance, Phase One completed and opened to the pubic in February 2008. The scale model was mesmerizing. A miniaturized, perfect world unto itself. I haven’t seen Phase I yet of the actual garden. I am such a philistine when it comes to Asian gardens and get none of the symbolism and associations.

From the handout:

“The Huntington’s new Chinese garden currently covers five of the allotted 12 acres and includes a lake, seven pavilions, and five stone bridges, built by more than 60 Suzhou artisans from authentic materials shipped from China. The garden includes ‘poetic views,’ and natural and architectural features set amid plants native to China and rich in literary associations.”

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mid-week garden jaunt

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There is a beloved, family-owned nursery in Pasadena that, over the past couple years, has become breathtakingly expensive. My now-20-foot Chinese fringe tree was bought here as a sapling they raised from seed. Many of my agaves were found here, long before succulents were superstars. A dazzling, crinkly, undulating, golden-leaved verbascum was found here and never seen again anywhere else after it died in my garden (Verbascum undulatum? This verbascum is close in color, but without the wavy leaves.) This nursery was in on so many garden secrets years before anyone else, for example, being the first to offer for sale many of the South African bulbs that thrive in our similar winter wet/summer dormant conditions like this veltheimia, almost in full bloom in the Huntington cactus garden.

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Now their forbidding prices have the odd effect of making me feel like a millionaire when I window-shop, imagining similar price tags on the plants in my garden. Along with the high prices has come a general disorder. No longer is there any attempt to make tasty displays. I’ve often worried that the business is in decline. Just as plausible is that they’ve turned their back on the home gardener and are focusing their business on big-ticket projects like garden installations and landscaping, because there’s always a hustle and bustle of large deliveries, just not much attention paid anymore to the “retail experience.” I also theorize that they are quite possibly “flipping the bird” to big-box-store prices and those who’ve come to expect them.

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I’m more intrigued than ever by this nursery and always stop by when business takes me up to the foothills, like yesterday. Perhaps I’m expecting a miraculous turnaround by this nursery to the old days. I pretty much had the place to myself yesterday, so was surprised to be crowded by one other shopper among the succulent benches. An elderly woman in a jaunty, striped T-shirt and a lovely blue-green scarf. Immediately I thought, That will be me very soon, shuffling through nursery aisles… when her sweet voice interrupted this self-absorbed reverie. She was astonished at the prices. She had been given a $25 gift certificate and thought a nice hanging basket would just do. We looked at a limp hanging geranium. $30. Her happy windfall was meaningless at these Tiffany prices. We chatted a bit further, but the whole situation made me so sad that I beat a cowardly retreat as soon as was politely possible. There had been a delivery of ‘Romagna Purple’ artichokes in 4-inch pots, at a fairly reasonable $6 each. I would grab two and then head over to the Huntington Botanical Gardens a couple miles down the street, see the gardens and the Sam Maloof/Pacific Standard Time exhibit.

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Paying for the chokes, I could see my friend still shuffling in the background, checking prices, but after petting the shop dog I made a dash for the car, to get to the Huntington and home again before heavy, late-afternoon traffic.

Halfway to the car, artichoke in either hand, I turned back and ran up to my friend.

Me: See these lovely artichokes? They will have purple heads! Imagine that! Purple with these gorgeous, silvery leaves!
Friend: Oh, will they?!!
Me: Yes! This is what this nursery still does affordably well — unusual vegetables you can’t find anywhere else.
Friend: Can I put three in this pot? (indicating a 10-inch pot)
Me: No! Just one. They’re huge plants Do you like artichokes?
Friend: Yes, I do! Do they have flowers?
Me: Yes, it’s a thistle, on a long stalk. The flower is what we eat. California is one of the few places that can grow them well, so we should! It’s a magnificent thing. Do you have sun on your balcony? I’ll probably put mine in pots too.
Friend: Yes, I have some sun. Will it have lots of flowers?

We went on in that fashion for a little while longer, and she became increasingly excited about this strange beast, a purple artichoke, and bought at least one. Feeling less like a coward, I headed to the Huntington, and discovered it was a Free Thursday, the first Thursday of every month. I had no idea. To participate, reservations have to be made, which I hadn’t done, but the nice man at the parking kiosk handed me a ticket to get in.

One of the most gorgeous days I’ve spent at the HBG. Camera battery expired in the cactus garden, but the magnolias were in full bloom, as were many acacias, scenting the warm air. Of course, the aloes were in spectacular bloom too. Damage from the savage autumn windstorm was evident but cleaned up. The giant Montezuma cypresses near the rose garden were spared, though some limbs had to be cut. I was told the worst damage was to a massive stone pine which had to be removed.

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Hybrid Agave ‘Blue Flame’ and Aloe vanbalenii

I’ve never seen the Huntington so crowded. Unfortunately, the Sam Maloof exhibit was closed, as was the Japanese Garden.

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Kalanchoe and Aloe dolomitica

What a bargain! (Wish I could tell my friend about Free Thursdays.)

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Occasional Daily Weather Report 2/1/12


Sunny, summer-dormant, South African bulb Lachenalia ‘Romaud’

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Dry, balmy weather continues. Daytime in the 70s, nighttime in the mid-40s.
Just don’t tell a gardener how “nice” the weather is for February.
It’s not nice. It’s a cloud rebellion, a cumulus abdication of duty.
Nice is puddles and mud, umbrellas by the door, dripping eaves and barrels full of rain water.
Hope you’re having a decidedly un-nice first week of February.