Monthly Archives: January 2014

just another acacia

At plant nurseries, I’m often a hapless Mr. Magoo, peering and squinting at new shapes and wildly filling in the blanks with extravagant theories.

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For example, the twisted, contorted stems of this mystery tree, or shrub grown on standard, reminded me of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

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But what about that weeping habit of growth? And those nubby protuberances, were they catkins?

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Okay, okay. Up close, I see they’re not catkins but tiny, bristly flower clusters. Long chains of yellow bloom. Could it be a diminutive laburnum? photo P1012068.jpg

Wrong again, Magoo. Not with spidery leaves like that, which bear the hallmarks of a denizen from Down Under, where thread-like leaves are a necessary adaptation to scorching temps.
The tag solved the mystery and stifled further speculation, as much fun as that was. Just another acacia. Acacia merinthophora, the Zigzag Wattle, from Australia.

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I have to say in my defense that keeping track of all the gorgeous acacias in the world would be a life’s work.

(Acacia merinthophora: Small, drought tolerant, evergreen tree, 8-12 feet, hardy to 25-30 F.)

cowboy corgi and the giant hesperaloe

The corgi got a bath, the hesperaloe got away.

Bathed and brushed and made to wear a silly bandana, which he bears with his usual dog grace. Just like cowboys, everybody gets a bath here for the weekend.

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A recent temptation, spotted earlier in the week, the giant Hesperaloe, H. funifera, to 6 feet high and wide.
Those dramatic curlicue fibers on the leaves had me crunching the numbers, garden square footage-wise. It’d be a crime to shoehorn this beauty into a tight spot, so I passed.
Spires of white flowers to 12 feet, and hardy to zone 6.

I know I’ll be spending the weekend prowling the garden for an available 6X6 feet of space I’ve somehow overlooked. May yours be just as productive!

Crassula ovata ‘Undulata’ (‘Jitters’)

I get acclimated to many of the plants I once just couldn’t live without. Novelty fades. Maybe living with splashy variegation turns out to be a bad idea, or the perfect focal point turns out to be too domineering, a visual bully. The wavy leaf jade plant has a contained exuberance that never grows tiresome. It’s slowly, neatly filled out its container like a one-scoop ice cream cone. (And then there’s that growing resemblance to Sideshow Bob.) It puts some serious spin on the ubiquitous jade plant. In climates too cold to grow outside, I think its slow growth and compact form would justify giving it a berth indoors for the winter. And then there’s that indomitable will to survive that all jade plants possess. You just can’t kill them.

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What would become exhausting in human form is endlessly charming in a plant. All that busy, wavy personality really grows on you.

a gift from Rancho Reubidoux

My flea market buddy, Reuben, stopped by recently to pick up some odds and ends left over from the flea, but very, very kindly left behind a few of them, including this wrought iron orb that I was particularly smitten with, which now hangs on a short chain under the pergola. The bromeliad perched on prongs welded to the base at the center is Aechmea recurvata ‘Aztec Gold,’ its roots mossed up in soil and tied with string. The orb is just as stunning left empty, lit with a candle, filled with tillandsias, draped in Spanish moss, etc., etc. It is so typical of Reuben’s restless, playful creativity to source objects that can take on a number of guises and functions.

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(Thank you again for your big-hearted generosity, Reuben.)

Cinema Botanica Pick: More Than Honey

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I’ve been enthusiastically recommending the documentary More Than Honey whenever the subject of what to watch comes up, and I’ve been getting a lot of “Oh, I noticed that in the queue” as the limp but polite response (streams on Netflix). My youngest son, who’s made a career out of deflecting my advice and interests, recommended it to me, knowing nothing about colony collapse disorder. I was certain the documentary would get to the bottom of the neonicotinoid debate, the pesticide thought to be primarily responsible for the scary decline in bee numbers, which has been banned in Europe but not yet in the U.S. The documentary never even mentions the word. Instead, it suggests that what’s taking out the bees is a complex system failure that’s grounded in the nature of our relationship with bees, our breeding them for docility, our industrialization of bees to keep up with our industrialization of agriculture. Instead of dryly ticking off possible culprits responsible for the decline in bee health and numbers, the film travels the world to interview current practitioners of bee keeping, whether in the Swiss Alps or the almond orchards of California. Rather than a polemic, it is a portrait of the domestication of bees and what that means for the bees and us. It depicts the commercial exploitation of bees as well as the intense love and respect generational beekeepers have for their domesticated charges, and the heartbreak they feel when the hives are checked in spring, only to be found as quiet as tombs.

But it’s the virtuosic “bee cam” that follows the bees everywhere they go, into the hive, into the sky, giving us literally a bee’s eye view of the world, that takes this documentary by Markus Imhoof out of the realm of science into art. It is this astonishing cinematography that elevates the film to the level of March of the Penguins style documentaries.

I found this comment to an online review of the film from Walter Haefeker, President of the European Professional Beekeepers Association:

As a beekeeper, I have seen many documentaries about bees over the years. ‘More than Honey’ stands out due to the spectacular camera work, but also due to it’s thoughtful treatment of this very complex subject. Instead of relentlessly pushing a single message, it gives the viewer a deep appreciation of the honey bee as a super organism while at the same time introducing the audience to different takes on the trouble bees are in from different parts of the world.

Some of the shots are not very flattering to beekeepers. But this is an aspect I particularly like about the film and this film maker. Where someone else might have turned off the camera to avoid unpleasantness, Markus Imhoof keeps it rolling. The result is a very honest look at the relationship between man and bees, which is also very helpful for the beekeeping community to discuss which direction to take. Even though even professional beekeeping in the EU is not quite as industrial as in the US, the movie shows, that what at first appears to be a traditional paradise in Switzerland turns out to have a whole other set of man made problems. What can be seen in the film is that by striving for racial purity of the national swiss bee, the genetic base of these bees has been narrowed so much, that there now is trouble in paradise. In Germany, where some beekeepers also are pursuing goals of racial purity of local bees, the film has caused them think again. One of the key points of the film appears to be, that it is not a good idea to shape the genetics of the honey bee too much towards our narrow goals informed by capitalism or nationalism or worse. But there are many other important points as well. So go see the movie and find out for yourself.”

One of the film’s surprising twists suggests that the hero of this sad story just might be someone we’ve been led to believe is pure, sci-fi villain: The so-called Africanized bee, a hybrid that escaped controlled experiments in South America. They’re mean, ornery, full of strong survival instincts and, contrary to propaganda, capable of making large quantities of honey. They’re the freedom fighters of the bee world, hacking our carefully domesticated paradigm that, for many complex reasons, has been the death of bees. And I shouldn’t call this a sad story, because there’s something amazingly hopeful happening on an island off the coast of Australia…

Asparagus virgatus

There’s not a lot of fern action in my dry, sunny garden, much to my regret, but in the front garden on the north side of the house, planted in the parched gloom at the foundation line, a fern is improbably thriving behind the agaves and astelias. This frothy, arching, clumping-not-running, perfectly harmless member of the asparagus family is Asparagus virgatus.

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What do all these plants have in common besides the letter A? Cast-iron natures as far as tolerating dry soil and shifting sun/shade patterns throughout the year. They probably spend more time overall in shade, which suits even the agave, A. attenuata, famous among agaves for tolerating some shade. (An Aloe marlothii recently perished, unable to handle the winter in part shade.)

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And I can assure you that, although related, it is not the scary monster that most of us have learned to fear in the form of the climbing asparagus, A. scandens.

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With Agave attenuata ‘Kara’s Stripes’ and Astelia nervosa in the background.

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An interesting graphic quality to its stems too. I’ve never seen it look this lush before, and the clue to the improvement in its former straggly growth is that white drainspout. The small amount of rainfall we’ve had so far this winter was funneled via the new gutters and directed into downspouts, and one of the downspouts empties here. San Marcos Growers says “This plant comes from South Eastern Africa, where it typically grows along shaded waterways, so it is surprising how drought tolerant this plant is.” I can now vouch for its love of moisture as well as its drought tolerance. I would love to bulk up a big specimen in a container and see what it can do when not in sheer survival mode, as I’ve been growing it.

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Typical small red berries of the asparagus family follow tiny, almost imperceptible flowers.

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Unlike the ineradicable climbing asparagus, Asparagaus scandens, A. virgatus is your friend.

Plant Delights Nursery lists it in their catalogue to zone 7 and credits it for tolerating a lot more sun than I give it.

(Asparagus virgatus is my entry in Loree’s favorite plant pick for the week and Pam’s Foliage Followup.)

Bloom Day January 2014

Scrounging around the garden for something to report this first Bloom Day of 2014 made me realize that although nothing big and splashy was catching my eye, there’s still plenty to give bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators micro energy drinks throughout the day, especially the acacia and coronilla. But the star attraction for bees is hands down the Agave desmettiana in bloom. This morning Marty and I stood quietly a few inches from the bloom stalk just to listen to the thrum of activity. He was shocked that I had never cupped my hands around my ears to amplify sound before. Just another example of what a sheltered life I’ve led. If like me you haven’t done so, try it. The quiet thrum was instantly transformed into a buzzing, wing-beating roar.

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Helleborus argutifolius, whose fresh seed germinates as soon as it hits the ground, with the big rosettes of Echium simplex in front. I’m dying to see those cool white spikes rise up this summer.

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Bilbergia nutans with lots more blooms to come. How did this free-flowering bromeliad get by me for so many years?

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Nancy Ondra’s nicotiana selection is as charming as ever. Such a good plant for fall, winter and spring here, but dies off when the heat arrives. Seeds profusely.

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Acacia podalyrifolia. Until I decide what shape to prune it, shrub or tree, this acacia will continue to whack everybody in the face as they exit the driver’s side of their car. At least it smells nice.

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Unlike this really skunky plectranthus.

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Echeveria coccinea is managing to bloom in the very dry soil under the tetrapanax.

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I launched a massive plant hunt locally for Geranium ‘Ann Folkard,’ so it could weave through the skirts of Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’ this summer. None was found, but instead of mail ordering ‘Ann Folkard’ I opted to try a magenta brethren, Geranium cinereum ‘Subcaulescens’ found at a nursery in El Segundo. This is one instance I would have preferred the trailing habit of AF, but the clumping G. cinereum has already distinguished itself by continually pumping out scads and scads of shocking magenta flowers. Quite the eye-rubbing sight before the first cup of coffee in the morning.

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I didn’t realize there was such variability with Pelargonium sidoides until I found this one with a larger leaf but smaller, darker flowers at Robin Parer’s booth at a plant show last year. Always has a few blooms on it.

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Coronilla valentina will go supernova, covered in bloom, by the end of the month.

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Budding up. Euphorbias, dyckias, and aloes.

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I was recently talked into a trial subscription to The Wall Street Journal, which has since been arriving dangerously close to Aloe capitata’s developing bloom stalk, its first ever. (Home delivery subscription cancelled today.)

Carol hosts this invaluable monthly record of blooms at her blog May Dreams Gardens.

designing crows

The crows that live in Tokyo use clothes hangers to make nests. In such a large city, there are few trees, so the natural materials that crows need to make their nests are scarce. As a result, the crows occasionally take hangers from the people who live in apartments nearby, and carefully assemble them into nests. The completed nests almost look like works of art based on the theme of recycling,” photographer Yosuke Kashiwakura writes. — Yosuke Kashiwakura / National Geographic Photo Contest, Honorable Mention: Nature

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it’s that time

Time to cut the grasses down and say goodbye to sights like this until next winter. Spring comes early here in Southern California, February/early March, and the old growth needs to be cut down to make way for the new.

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Like a bloom of jellyfish gently floating on air currents, this is Chloris virgata, the grass that Maggie Wych helped me identify last year.

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Of all the plant names I continually learn and then promptly forget, I never draw a blank on this one. Recovering its name was a highlight of 2013.*

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It performed fantastically in full sun and very dry soil last summer, self-sowing more in sun. I need to pot up a few seedlings for a tryout in containers this summer, where I think Chloris will really sparkle.

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There’s not much information available on cold tolerance, and there are references to its potential for weediness.
The online Jepson Manual describes its distribution outside California as “native to warm temperate regions worldwide.”

*(Chloris has lost her name before and zigzags throughout Greek and Roman mythology in different guises. Rechristened the goddess Flora, Botticelli paints Chloris’ portrait in his Primavera, and alludes to the mythological violence behind the name change by depicting her violator, the wind god Zephyr, making a grab for Chloris, after which she becomes known as Flora. Makes you wonder about the botanist who named this grass. Where one sees floating jellyfish and playful interaction with wind, another is reminded of deeds of violence.)

As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses: I was Chloris, who am now called Flora.” Ovid

Kalanchoe ‘Oak Leaf’

Wonderful architectural bloom trusses on this 5-gallon kalanchoe at Lincoln Avenue Nursery in Pasadena. Was this a Kalanchoe beharensis in flower? The leaves at the base of the plant were difficult to see without disturbing the careful display. The San Marcos Growers tag identified it not as Kalanchoe beharensis but Kalanchoe ‘Oak Leaf’ or the Dwarf Velvet Plant. Thought to be a cross between Kalanchoe beharensis and K. millot, John Greenlee is credited with bringing it to the attention of San Marcos Growers. (Read SMG’s discussion here.) I’m always interested in finding good shrubby landscape succulents, and the genus kalanchoe has been offering some fine examples. This one, with its see-through, aerial scaffolding when in bloom, looks very promising. It’s easy to see the appeal for Greenlee as a textural accompaniment for grasses. With my wallet emptied out after the holidays, I’ll wait to see if smaller sizes turn up at the spring plant sales. The challenge will be in finding as dramatic a backdrop for its pallid stems as those masses of Sticks on Fire, Euphorbia tirucalli.

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