Monthly Archives: August 2013

the controversial castor bean plant

Ricinus communis, the castor bean/oil plant, is the freshest sight in this late-summer garden. Unlike the rest of us, the swampy heat of late August only improves its looks. The tree-like mother plant, a ‘New Zealand Purple,’ lived through our typically frostless winter, just as ricinus infamously naturalizes all over Southern California. By early summer it’s 6-foot presence had become woody and gawky, and to add to its aura of unwholesomeness, it had become beloved as a perch by evil-eyed grasshoppers. It was kept mainly as a support for some tweedia vining up its trunk. I finally pulled it out in July, when its sparsely leaved hideousness was too much to ignore, but of course seedlings keep popping up, just as they have been doing since early spring.

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In early August I let a few seedlings remain, and I’m very glad I did. The new growth is fresh and lush and everything the year-old mother plant was not. Like other tropicals, they’ve grown fast in the heat of August, several feet in a few weeks, especially those seedlings left to grow in situ. I’ve transplanted a few around the garden that are much slower to throw those big palmate leaves.

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Watching these castor bean plants grow lush and beet red this August nevertheless prompts a string of ambivalent musings. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s also a local pest that’s escaped cultivation. In my small, walled garden, the large seeds aren’t going anywhere, but then there’s always its sinister, non-garden applications to seize the imagination. It gets a chapter of its own in Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants, and by now we all know (or should know!) of the highly toxic and potentially lethal properties of its seeds. But processed correctly, the oil has long had many uses, both industrial and, however misguided, medicinal. In fact, it was castor oil that I mistakenly believed I had been given as a child. With vague memories stirred by these plants, I was all set to harangue my mom, who’s out of town for a couple weeks, on the still sensitive topic of childhood nutritional supplements in the form of castor oil, when I realized with a little research, and confirmed by a quick phone call, that it was tablespoons of cod liver oil she was giving us as kids, always accompanied by a couple saltine crackers to soak up the goo. Eventually, mercifully, we were given the cod fish oil in chewable tablets.

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Cod liver oil was yucky enough, but castor oil would have been an entirely different level of “taking your medicine.” Castor oil, too, had its heyday as a folk remedy and alleged nutritional supplement for children. As far as any real nutritional value, castor oil, unlike cod liver oil, offers none, but its infamous laxative properties made it an effective threat of punishment. And apart from its many industrial uses, it’s also been used as a form of torture: Wikipedia: “In Fascist Italy under the regime of Benito Mussolini…political dissidents were force-fed large quantities of castor oil by Fascist squads.”

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That’s a lot of baggage for any plant to carry.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, a member of the euphorbiaceae. If you didn’t make late summer seem as fresh as spring again, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

I’m linking this post to Loree’s blog Danger Garden, where other favorite plants are discussed weekly.

fall-blooming salvias and where to find some

I’ve been trying to scale the garden down, which means there will be no shed-sized, fall-blooming salvias this year like…

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Salvia involucrata, Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, the rosebud sage. Some of the salvias like a bit more moisture than I’m doling out lately, and this one would fall into that group.

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The bog sage, Salvia uliginosa, at Cornerstone Sonoma. As its name suggests, it doesn’t mind moist soil but can manage in surprisingly dry conditions too.

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Bog sage leaning into frame with potted Eucomis and Scotch moss, sedum, Japanese anenomes, Cornerstone Sonoma

Size or water constraints won’t stop me from having a look at salvia offerings at the fall plant sales. Out of an estimated 700 to 900 species, there’s one for every situation. Colors are always intense, stems always squared. Since hummingbirds are helpless before the tubular siren call of salvias, be sure to include a seat nearby to enjoy the air show.

Here’s a gallery of salvias from gardens past, fall bloomers and otherwise. My garden unless otherwise indicated.


Salvia africana-lutea, 2/26/13 (removed because it was crowding Phylica pubescens, which has since died. And so it goes…)


Salvia reptans ‘West Texas Form,’ slim and upright. September 2012


Salvia sclarea ‘Piemont.’ The biennial clary sage is famous for reseeding (in every garden but mine. And so it goes…) July 2012


Salvia canariensis var. candissima, June 2012. Outsized, shrub-like. Very drought tolerant.


May 2011


Salvia macrophylla, September 2010. Large, sprawling, always presentable, with leaves clothing stems down to the ground. Not the heaviest bloomer for me though.


Salvia littae, November 2011.


Salvia madrensis, November 2011


Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish,’ September 2011. Constant and dependable bloomer. We took this year off from each other so I could make room for something touchy and undependable. And so it goes…


Salvia ‘Waverly,’ July 2011. Utterly dependable. One of the best for Southern California.


July 2010


Salvia cacaliifolia, June 2011. The agave now resides in my neighbor’s garden.


August 2010


Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ at the Huntington June 2011


Salvia wagneriana, April 2011. If you have the space, this salvia is known for blooming during Southern California’s winter


Salvia leucantha, Longwood Gardens, November 2010



Salvia van houttei, Longwood Gardens, November 2010


Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ Longwood Gardens, November 2010


Salvia ‘Limelight,’ October 2010


Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain,’ June 2010, blooms most of the summer

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Salvia clevelandii, June 2013, a California native, in a local hellstrip

In Southern California, a good place to find salvias is at Fullerton Arboretum’s salvia sale, September 21 and 22, 2013.

when art and gardens collide

Those of us who chase gardens and plants seem to divide into two camps: Those who enjoy art works in the garden and those who don’t. Oftentimes, leaving out ostentatious decorative pieces is as bold a statement as their inclusion.

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No need for any distractions from the muscular trunks of this tree in Connie Cross’ garden on Long Island.

But because they are intended specifically as outdoor settings where artists can develop work in response to the site, places like Longhouse on Long Island, New York, and Cornerstone, Sonoma, California, can give the viewer an experience impossible for indoor museums to duplicate. Another example would be what the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley is doing with its ongoing exhibit “Natural Discourse.”

Being a simple creature, always ready to be dazzled by anything that sparkles, what I unreservedly admire is the work at Cornerstone Sonoma of Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot. Whatever the theme, such as the harsh life of Chinese migrants working on railroads in 19th century America, these two never underestimate the seduction of glittering surfaces. I love the gleam, the reflectivity, the shimmer, the swirl, the sensual results achieved with simple industrial materials — heck, I love everything I’ve seen by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot.

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“Red Lantern,” Cornerstone, Sonoma, California

But not all artists choose the glittery approach. At Longhouse, a sculpture garden on Long Island, New York, Yue Minjun’s “Chinese Contemporary Warriors” stayed with me long after the visit. I don’t keep up with contemporary art, so hadn’t heard of this Chinese artist famous for his “laughing man” series. From what I’ve read since the visit, laughing maniacally seems to be the only response left for this artist after the heartbreak of Tiananmen Square. All I sensed at the time from the figures was a forced and disjointed communal gathering that resulted in an eerie isolation, which the enclosed setting of hedges on an austere groundwork of gravel reinforced. Very spooky and very sad.

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Yue Minjun’s ‘Chinese Contemporary Warriors,’ a cynical riff on the terracotta warriors

Two very different approaches, one that attracts and one that repels, yet both had me wanting to know more about these artists and their work.

tithonia and zinnias

The last week temperatures have hovered mostly around 90 degrees, by far the warmest days we’ve seen all summer.
Even though I’m none too pleased with the change, tomatoes, zucchini, tithonia and zinnias obviously are thrilled.
I’m linking this post to the Seasonal Bouquet Project, where the house rules are: “All the ingredients in the bouquet must be sourced within 25 miles of your home, ideally including flowers you grew yourself.”

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gaillardia, zinnias, tithonia, senecio, eryngium, chasmanthium

anatomy of a late-summer road trip

Is there a tinge of desperation in the road trips of late summer? By the end of summer are we stuffing itineraries with an absurd number of places to see in the dwindling opportunities to experience daylight until 8 p.m.? Guilty here. I’ll give a recent example from just this last weekend. And for the similarly desperate, there will be a trail of bread crumbs to follow for potential future road trips for the fall season. By fall I’ll be reconciled to the inevitability of autumn’s shortened days, and any road trips then will undoubtedly be washed in a golden haze of acquiescence to the rhythms of the seasons.

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image courtesy of Thread and Bones

It all began with a 63-foot-long hall in an apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco that could use the services of our 9-foot-long Turkish rug. The one we can’t use at home because of the prodigious shedding capabilities of the corgi. (Even the thinnest pretense for a late-summer road trip will do.) Los Angeles to San Francisco, roughly six hours. I’ve made this trip many, many times and have lived in a couple of the trip’s stops, like Petaluma and San Francisco. Familiarity increases the speed factor, another important consideration for late-summer road trips. My workload was fairly light, so Thursday to Monday were clear. Marty has been working all summer weekends, so it would just be me and my smart phone, a formidable traveling companion that can read to me How The Irish Saved Civilization in between navigating duties. The only question left was:

Before delivering the rug, where would I like to go?

Continue reading anatomy of a late-summer road trip

Folly Bowl Presents

Saturday, August 24, 2013, 7:30 p.m. $5 donation suggested.

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Part of a summer-long, outdoor concert series at the Folly Bowl, the hand-made amphitheater in Altadena, California, created by artists Sue Dadd and James Griffith.





This just might be the night you’ll never forget from summer 2013: tucked in against the foothills under balmy, starlit skies for outdoor movies.


Come a few minutes early to choose your seat and get your picnic things arranged.


And to have a peek at the garden.

all photos by MB Maher

the packrat king

If you’ve ever visited Lotusland, you’ll instantly know why I was drawn to these clamshells.

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Set up temporarily on a bird bath stand. I was hoping they’d hold a lot more water than they do.

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Sitting on the stand at these awkward angles, the only stable arrangement, leaves just a very shallow pool. Possibly enough to slake a bird’s thirst, if not enough for a Botticelli bath.


The real deal at Lotusland.

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When one of my high school buddies called to ask if I knew of someone who would be interested in sorting and pricing the contents of his father’s garage, I immediately grasped the enormity he faced. This garage was mythic. I had visited it once, maybe twice as a teenager, and the endless drawers of rocks and gemstones, the shelves filled with the corruscated shapes of geodes, had left an indelible impression. There was also a hazy impression of a typical, post-WWII suburban garage divided into cramped rooms stuffed to the gunwhales with whatever had aroused his dad’s magpie tendencies, which were epic by any magpie standards. As a teenager, I couldn’t help but compare it to the garage at my parents’ home, which most disappointingly housed a car and tidy laundry facilities. I had to see it again, if only to test the soundness of adolescent memories that had burnished that garage into a cave of wonders. Was it just a junk pile? I needed an impartial third eye to soberly assess this storehouse of dreams. Marty agreed to come along.

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Clams just aren’t growing them like this anymore.

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My buddy figured two years would be needed to get the job done, the contents sorted and priced, destined for collectors or sold as scrap. Two years now seems an optimistic number to me. Inching sideways through the packed shelves, a new question pops up with each step: How long does Kodachrome film last? Why all the boxes of pencils? Is this Life magazine with Paul and Linda on the cover worth anything? And then there’s the big question that looms over everything: How could he leave all this stuff for his family to sort through? It is an overwhelming, Herculean task. My buddy will be living with what is essentially a physical manifestation of the dusty nooks and crannies of his father’s imagination for years to come….oh, wait a minute. Is that really such a bad thing? Looking at my buddy’s haggard face, I wasn’t sure.

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I grabbed my Lotsuland clamshells, a set of cocktail glasses sporting the pirate ship logo of the old Tasman Sea, now closed, and made a clean getaway. Marty fully corroborated my impressions, that this man had collected his way into something extraordinary. Bizarre and of dubious value, but extraordinary.

I can’t wait to go back.

Echeveria agavoides ‘Ebony’

Seen at the 2013 Inter-City Cactus & Succulent Show held at the Los Angeles County Arboretum over the weekend.

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Once again, on the show table, not the sales table. Echeveria agavoides ‘Ebony,’ intensely desirable and chronically unavailable. Is it going to take a Kickstarter campaign to get this propagated and into general circulation?

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Another arresting sight at the show was Boophone disticha.

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A South African bulb with a spectacular bloom that I covet more for those seductively twisted leaves. I brought a small one home from the sales tables.

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The sea squill, Urginea maritima. Being a mile from the ocean, I doubt I could go far wrong in making a garden just with plants that included the descriptor “maritima” or “maritimum.” Sturdy plants like Crithmum maritimum and the sea kale that filled Derek Jarman’s garden, Crambe maritima. I’d love to try the sea squill in the gravel garden, but it’s really not large enough an area to hold sufficient numbers of these massive bulbs for a good effect. Anyway, the bulbs are pricey. None for sale that I saw at the show.

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The sea squill with adjacent boophone leaves. By the time the sea squill blooms late summer, its leaves have died down.

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The arboretum’s unofficial mascot, its image found on coffee cups for sale in the gift shop. He hung out with me while I admired a hedge of Grevillea ‘Moonlight.’
The national bird of India seems to feel right at home in the intense summer heat of the San Gabriel Valley.

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I’ve decided that Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ has to be my next big shrub purchase. Tolerates pruning? Check. Attracts wildlife? Check. Low water needs? And check.

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Stunningly beautiful? Double check.

a garden with a roof

I miss when Sundays were neatly divided by the sections of a thick Sunday newspaper that sprawled across tables, beds, and couches. The travel section might include articles like this one on the Buenos Aires home of Mercedes Hernáez and Alejandro Sticotti, which they describe as “a garden with a roof.”

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“Alejandro: It is wonderful to arrive here and see the garden, the trees, the birds. This place seems even greener than the neighbourhood actually is, and since the house has a lot of windows in the ground floor, the garden almost gets inside. We like plants very much and work a lot in the garden during weekends. We don’t have a gardener so we do all the work ourselves. We’ve both always had a lot of potted plants in the places we’ve lived in, and over the years we took them with us when we moved.
Mercedes: Books and plants are always the first things we pack.”

Found at Miluccia, via Freunde von Freunden, which has the full interview.

driveby garden; LAPD headquarters, Downtown Los Angeles

The first five months of this year were the driest on record in California, with reservoirs in the state at 20 percent below normal levels.” – Arid Southwest Cities’ Plea: Lose the Lawn, The New York Times, August 11, 2013

I stumbled onto another forward-looking example of civic landscaping in Downtown Los Angeles this week. Little did I know that in attempting to communicate my simple admiration for this landscape, I was also stumbling into an LA Confidential-style quagmire. The more I read, the more complicated this landscape became. Briefly, for reasons explained in depth in links* at the end of this post, the plantings at the Los Angeles Police Department’s new headquarters have been beset by controversy over maintenance failures since unveiling in 2009. This side of the building seems to be either a later or revised planting that appears to be in beautiful shape. So putting all that aside for now, here’s what’s visible today on the Spring Street side of LAPD’s new HQ.

I know architects love sweeps of lawn to show off the lines of their work (and thereby obstruct views of it as little as possible), but if you want that shiny LEED certification for your new building, the lawn has to go. I find it ironic that it took restrictive water supply issues to finally shake up staid and predictable plant choices. There’s no way this landscape would be as visually arresting had the new LAPD HQ’s clean lines and alabaster, horizontal planes been complemented by the standard repertoire of plants in use even ten years ago. Which means a glass-half-empty problem has been transmuted into an exciting landscape brimming with form and color.

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It was these colors, deep burgundy and icy blue, that prompted the detour from my intended destination, the Metro Rail station, heading home yesterday.
Dark red aeoniums dotted through the blue chalk sticks, Senecio mandraliscae. I swung around quick for a closer look.

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The aeonium will need some help getting established, to gain some height, or the senecio will handily win the space-invader competition. But it’s doable if anyone pays the slightest bit of attention.*
Bees were all over the senecio’s modest blooms. In this case, modest blooms are a good thing. Nothing to interrupt the strong shapes and colors, and much less upkeep too.

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Decomposed granite walkways weave in and out of a repeating grid of low-walled planters that also serve as benches, each punctuated with a dark-leaved Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’

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Which pick up the aeoniums’ deep color and send it skyward to contrast with and warm the building’s creamy facade

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The cercis are planted in a double row, seen when standing at the back of one of the low walls/benches.
The pork and beans plant, Sedum rubrotinctum, fills the back of the planters. Blue Dianella tasmanica are massed behind the chalk sticks.

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Some of the trees may have been the straight species, since they don’t have the deep coloration of ‘Forest Pansy’

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Beyond the planters, what I first thought were Beschorneria yuccoides ‘Flamingo’ turned out to be furcraeas massed amongst silvery Cerastium tomentosum.
Dianella tasmanica in the foreground

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Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ or Beschorneria yuccoides ‘Flamingo,’ either one is a great choice here, though the beschorneria’s exotic bloom spikes would require more upkeep.
Sedum rubrotinctum can be seen behind the furcraea, a warm-colored ground cover anchoring the building.

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The sedum is filling in slowly.

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While the cerastium romps and will need to be regularly kept in check.

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*As I mentioned above, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. All human interventions in ecosystems, be it a potted plant or a civic landscape, have to be looked after and maintained. And please don’t roll your eyes at this absurdly obvious fact, because it seems to escape some reasonably intelligent folks and therefore needs repeating. It’s obvious to us, the garden makers, but apparently maintenance wasn’t budgeted and appropriate funding allocated when this landscape was installed in 2009. I think my photos may depict a more recent installation or possibly a revision. Not long after the 2009 install, trees were collapsing, literally caving in because the soil mix was all wrong. More on the LAPD HQ’s landscape controversy can be read here and here. Reuben at Rancho Reubidoux has posted on the LAPD HQ several times, not including the above planting, which has me wondering if it’s possibly a revision of an earlier problem area.