beam me here



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Actor Zachary Quinto, probably best known for playing the young Spock in the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movies, on the evidence of his garden, seems to be a well-grounded young man.
It’s not very often that a house for sale comes with a garden that I could see myself puttering in, a garden without irreversible mistakes or in need of buckets of sweat equity.
Good bones is the cliche I’m trying but failing to avoid. The hardscape looks easy to care for, the angles are sharp and clean, with abundant retaining walls for seating or containers.
Some areas look sunny enough for potted agaves but with mature shade trees for cooling sitting areas and, just as importantly, shading the house.
And no surprise that privacy screening looks to be thoroughly handled and in move-in shape, ready for morning coffee.
The roofline’s deep overhangs will also help soften the blast from the heat. Personally, I’d like a little more ground to play with, but I could be arm-twisted into downsizing.
I’d keep the dining table and the Acapulco chairs too. From The Los Angeles Times.

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a garden wedding



When someone who works in landscape design gets married, even the agaves are dressed for the occasion.

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Congratulations to Mary True and Cheryl Fippen on their recent wedding in Berkeley, California.
Thank you both for your kind permission to use these photos.
Additional thanks to Shirley Watts and MB Maher.
All photography by MB Maher.


streetside with grasses and succulents

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Because of this house, I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon trying to source a flat of Sesleria autumnalis or Sesleria ‘Greenlee.’
No luck yet, but I will not be deterred.

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backdrops for plants

Some interesting backdrops I found around town, some intentional, some borrowed, some just sheer serendipity.

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I’m wondering what came first here, the choice of color for the house and then the Lion’s Tail?
Or did the Leonotis leonurus start the ball rolling?

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This is a borrowed backdrop. From the angle where I was standing, I picked up the color of the house next-door.

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This is the house where the agave lives, beige in color, not persimmon.

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The parkway picking up that same persimmon-colored house next-door. Mattress vine, restios, helichrysum, small grasses.

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I’m thinking there’s a lot of clip, clip, clipping to keep the muehlenbeckia off those lovely low-lying rocks.

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Agave vilmoriniana without a backdrop. Well, I suppose asphalt could be considered a backdrop, the default urban kind.
I wish I had the space for this one to let those tentacles unfurl (also called the Octopus Agave).

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The Cow Horn Agave against a stone backdrop. Agave bovicornuta. Oh, I do miss mine.
There’ll be more photos of these terraces to come, just because one can never have too many photos of the Cow Horn Agave.
With aeoniums and Kalanchoe tomentosa.

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A missed opportunity to add a colored backdrop? Hard to say. The entire Spanish house/villa is white. I’ll be posting some more photos of this one too.
I need to track down the name of the grass in the foreground, most likely a sesleria. Amazing with the bulbinella.


fall planting notes 2014


The first second day of fall. Depending on who you talk to, summer was either glorious or it passed like a kidney stone. No in between.
I’d describe summer 2014 and its occasional heatwaves as a cocktail that included plenty of tangy glory mixed with a bitter chaser of slight-to-moderate discomfort.
I had epic plans for a leisurely audio narration on fall planting, but due to file size had to whittle it down to under a breathless two minutes.
I really think including the human voice will be the next big innovation. Somehow, in the future, all our Facebook comments and tweets will be spoken.
What if, instead of rousing speeches, Churchill had tweeted? Would England still have fought on?
Not that my voice has any Churchillian qualities. It always sounds kind of high-pitched to me.
When I was in the Bay Area over the weekend, I was treated to a mesmerizing, geosynchronous tour via iPhone of Fisherman’s Wharf, an app still in the beta stage.
Developed by the Groupon founder and known as Detour, narrators such as a 40-year veteran fishing boat captain lead you via earbuds and your phone through the back alleys and byways of the wharves:
Past that fishing boat, off to your left, duck through this doorway, don’t mind the baleful stares of the fish sellers, right on this spot you’re standing is where they used to shanghai sailors.

In any case, here’s my low-tech, abbreviated rundown on fall planting. The takeaway is Annie’s Annuals may have plants on site not listed as available online.

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Hymenolepis parviflora, the Golden Coulter Bush, aka Athanasia parviflora.
Yellow umbels in summer. Annie’s Annuals doesn’t list this as currently available, so possibly on-site sales only.

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The hymenolepis replaced a big clump of Erigeron ‘Wayne Roderick’ that struggled in full sun.
I’m seriously thinking of rigging a shade tarp over the garden next summer, because even reputed sun lovers like erigeron can’t hack it.

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Ferula communis ssp. glauca, a giant umbellifer that probably won’t bloom its first year in the garden. Brought home from Annie’s Annuals.
Dies after flowering, but what nice lacy leaves. The bloom stalk gets as big as a broomstick. I don’t see this listed as currently available online either.

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Leucadendron ‘Pisa,’ found local, planted in mid-summer

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Tough times call for old stalwarts like santolina.
Speaking of tough, what I really wanted from Annie’s was the ‘Ella Nelson’ yellow eriogonum, but they’ve run out. I was told more will be available soon.

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But If you can’t find what you came for at Annie’s, there always a dozen or so other plants as consolation.
I’ve never trialed the rusty foxglove, Digitalis ferruginea ‘Gigantea,’ so I may as well grow it and kill it once to get it out of my system.
This is the last-gasp manifestation of my pie-eyed inclination to try out every flowering spike under the sun. Dainty flowers just don’t last long in my garden.
Summer 2015 will definitely be shrubbier. As far as flowers, I’m thinking the malvaceae family may have some answers. Hibiscus, lavatera, sphaeralcea.
For spikes, there’s hollyhocks, and I’m trying some purple of the reputedly rust-free Halo series. Annie’s carries a good selection.

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Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’ was found local. Cutting back hard in spring seems to be the general recommendation to avoid the flops.
A glimpse here of its color.

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Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon’ replaced a prostanthera in early summer

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Euphorbia mellifera is always easy and beautiful here, tender elsewhere. I really prefer it to E. lambii.
For 2015 I’m trying it in full sun, near the ‘Moon Lagoon,’ for the pairing of the bright green and blue.
Planted a little too close, I’ll move the euphorbia as soon as necessary, so this is probably just a one-summer chess move.

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Lavandula lanata. I can tell already this one is going to be tricky about drainage.

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These ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ euphorbias were found local. If there’d been a choice, I’m pretty sure ‘Silver Swan’ is the more reliable variegated euphorbia.
The ‘Fireworks’ gomphrenas were cut back and some Verbena bonariensis removed to make room for the euphorbia.

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I bet you didn’t know laundry chores are handled here amongst the agaves. The covered pergola off the kitchen also houses the outdoor laundry shed built against the house.
On top of the laundry shed is the second-story lookout, where I spend lots of quality reading/skylarking time. The corrugated roof does a great job of making every rain sound epic.
Here’s to doing laundry while vast quantities of measurable rain thunder down on the pergola roof this winter. I’m counting on you, La Nina El Nino, to come through.


pandemonium revisited

The New York Times has a very nice article today on Pandemonium Aviaries (“362 Birds, and Unruffled“), which MB Maher visited and photographed in 2012
Since that time, bird rescuer Michelle Raffin has written a book “The Birds of Pandemonium; Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered.


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Also since that time, her marriage of many years has ended, and Michelle is in the process of fine-tuning the perfect exit strategy to ensure the continued care of her demanding flock when she eventually becomes unable to care for them. Now 63, Michelle made that first, life-changing rescue of an injured dove 15 years ago. Since the blog post, I’ve experienced first-hand how bird rescue works. In our case, a lost parakeet landed exhausted in my son’s top-down Miata parked under the jacaranda trees. After a year alone in the bath house off our bedroom, we realized it needed a mate, exactly the pattern Michelle follows with her rescued birds. The character of the bath house has changed too, now more aviary with a tub in it than bath house. Birds are sneaky that way, insinuating themselves into our lives, hearts, bath houses. My original post and more of Mitch’s photos can be found here.

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The aviary now receives birds from some of the country’s most respected zoos for breeding and lifetime care.”
362 Birds, and Unruffled” by Sandy Keenan, The New York Times 9/17/14

streetside; your own personal prairie

When my job canceled today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go before breakfast, before even the first cup of coffee. The local neighborhood prairie.
It’s something you don’t see everyday in my coastal neighborhood in Los Angeles County, where a mix of succulents are usually the first landscape choice for stylishly beating the drought.
This is a very new, waterwise, lawn-to-garden conversion built around a matrix of grasses, with the eyebrow grass, Bouteloua gracilis, predominating. There are zero succulents included.
The folksy, barn-red color of the bungalow and wood-and-cattle-panel fence reinforce the expression of pioneer spirit reflected in their choice of landscape.

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This is prairie Southern California style. The blue against the pillars is from plumbago trained on cattle panel.

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A native cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’

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Easy to tell that the house faces east.

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On the south side, Pittosporum is planted along the outside of the fence near the sidewalk. The dark leaves are a Euphorbia cotinifolia.
White roses are most likely ‘Iceberg.’

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Young cypresses behind the fence. So this open, inviting view is only temporary until the privacy screens mature.

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There’s some sort of mesh shade cloth hanging behind the bell.

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The climber Solanum jasminoides will fill in here too.

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Detail of cattle panel fence, last night’s party lights still lit. Paper bags as shades for battery-powered votives maybe?

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I should have waited for sunrise before taking this photo, but it shows how the fence fits into the side entrance.
From this side I could hear sounds in the kitchen of the household waking, so it seemed impolite to linger.

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Unlike my admittedly superficial trial of the eyebrow grass, these are proving that it will thrive in Southern California.
Bouteloua gracilis is the smallest of the prairie grasses.
Their size sets the scale for the rest of the garden, with plants in bloom just grazing above the knee on a walk from the front door to the mailbox.

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Informal paths of decomposed granite wind through the plantings. We’re often warned against using d.g. where it might be tracked indoors onto wooden floors.
Maybe a shoes-off policy is a house rule here. I like that the porch paint is in the same color range as the d.g.

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Among the big sweeps of eyebrow grass are also carex, phormium, lavender, caryopteris, gaura, Salvia greggii, yarrow.

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And a couple clumps of the ruby grass, Melinus nerviglumis

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How much “down” time a prairie-style landscape imposes is a key issue in a climate that handles dormancy almost imperceptibly. There are many plant choices that will see a zone 10 landscape through the year without any bare soil visible at any time or need for radical haircuts. Roughly calculating, if the grasses are cut back, say, before Christmas, they’ll be making growth again in February. On the other hand, many succulents also have periods where they’re not at their best, high summer for example. Knowing the trade-offs when choosing how and with what plants to replace the front lawn is a crucial consideration. What I like about this house and garden is that it seems to know exactly what it wants.

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extraordinary leaves

All leaves are extraordinary in a basic, photosynthetic sense, and then there are those that push the point even further.
Leaves perform infinite adaptive riffs and improvisations on variegation or curve, curl, and flounce. A couple examples in my garden today. Pam at Digging collects tributes to leaves the 16th of every month.

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Cut-lace leaves of Glaucium flavum look amazingly pristine for mid-September, especially when compared to the battered leaves of a sweet potato in the upper left.
I recently cut the bloomed-out flower trusses off this one, which carried tissue-thin poppies in a delicious shade of peach all summer.

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Another glaucium in the front garden, possibly G. grandiflorum. No bloom as of yet, and there’s no hurry with leaves like that.

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Echium simplex is probably the one plant in the garden whose looks improve with the heat. This is a biennial, blooming in its second year, with rumored triennial tendencies.
In any case, when it feels the urge, tall white spikes will appear.

Bloom Day September 2014

I think I’m finally getting the hang of this heat wave business. I’m taking a cue from the plants: Hunker down and just wait it out.

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When I cut the melianthus back, this Gomphostigma virgatum found some needed breathing room. With a little extra irrigation, it’s revived enough to lightly flower.
A silvery South African shrub that likes more water than most silvery things, it was performing this pretty arching trick and dangling tiny white flowers over the clam shells this morning.
I saw this growing at Digging Dog Nursery in their display garden and asked for it, but it’s not currently listed in the catalogue.

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Lavandula multifida, the fern-leaf lavender, when it doesn’t mysteriously collapse, stays in constant bloom. Two out of the original four planted last year remain.
They bulk up very fast and keep the garden and hummingbirds constantly flush with indigo flowers, but it does lack the eponymous scent.
I love having lavender back in the garden, even the unscented kind, and have another touchy one, Lavandula lanata, waiting to be planted when it cools down later in the month.

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Included just because it looks so very icy cool, Aloe scobinifolia. And also because once it’s in the blog, I’ll have always have a record of its name.
It did have a bloom truss on it when I bought it a few weeks back.

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Gaura is blooming in containers. So many new cultivar names for gaura these days, but they’re all short-lived so I don’t keep track. I only ask that gaura be white, not red or pink.

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White also gives a very different character to Persicaria amplexicaulis

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This is a total Bloom Day cheat, since I bought this Euphorbia milii ‘Amarillo’ yesterday.
But these fancy cultivars of the Crown of Thorns are in bloom all over my neighborhood, especially in the Cambodian-owned gardens.
One house down the street has dozens of these growing wall to wall in containers in the front garden, where they can be admired from the gate.
I got the impression last time I lingered at the gate the owners didn’t appreciate me seemingly stalking their prize plants, so it was time to get one of my own.

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This sticky-leaved Cuphea viscosissima is very heat sensitive. I’m hoping it undergoes an astounding transformation when the weather cools.
It’s a volunteer seedling from plants I grew in the past, which surprised me since they looked so miserable in their short time in the garden.

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A photo from August to show how tall it is for a cuphea, the blurry plant in the foreground. I’ve found a bee and a couple wasps snared by the sticky leaves, so that’s a mark against it too.
I didn’t take a new photo of the marigold Tagetes ‘Cinnabar,’ but there’s no worry or hand-wringing over these Day of the Dead flowers from Mexico during a heat wave.

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I’ve been seeing photos of Pennisetum ‘Vertigo’ on blogs and reports of it hitting 6 feet, but I think this ‘Princess Caroline’ at 8 feet in one season is even bigger, if that’s an appealing feature.

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Seeing this Solanum pyracanthum in a Portland garden made me realize the impact of different climates on this plant. Here it’s wispy and flowers early and at a small size, no matter how frequently I pinch it back. In Portland in July it was much more dense, with the leaves and orange thorns an arresting feature before it blooms. I’ve noticed that the castor bean plant similarly flowers early, while the plants are still young and rangy. Both the solanum and castor bean will act like perennials here too.

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Lotus jacobaeus, famous for it’s wine-colored flowers, has a gold cast this year.

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A short-lived perennial here, this new plant was brought in last year.

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Winter-dormant Pelargonium echinatum has been in bloom all summer.

Since August’s Bloom Day, I’ve cut down the long-blooming Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ to the ground and stopped the near-constant irrigating of Rudbeckia triloba, at which point it collapsed.
I didn’t take photos of Russelia equisetiformis, the yellow form of the firecracker plant, which has been in constant bloom all summer, or the kangaroo paws, but otherwise that’s the September 2014 Bloom Day report I’ll be adding to Carol’s blog May Blooms Gardens, where she collects our flowering reports from all over the world every month.

Gastrolobium ‘Bronze Butterfly’


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Before September turns the corner into fall, when my garden plans will predictably revive and become hopeful and catalogue-driven once again, it’s a good opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at the survivors. The survivors are once-treasured plants that slowly over time become mere backdrop to the latest and newest treasures. The garden changes so often that there are few plants that date back even a decade. This plant is the rare exception, having been a survivor for donkey years, (old slang for a very long time), going back to when it was purchased sometime in the ’90s. After purchase I promptly forgot its name, only remembering ‘Bronze Butterfly,’ because it just so happened that for once the name was a true and vivid description of the plant.


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Old photo showing the bright edge to the leaf margins in spring, with the leaves appearing much darker, almost black.


When the Internet became available (an event that divides my life pre and post more than anything else, with the exception of possibly marriage and kids), a Google search confirmed it as Brachysema praemorsum from Australia. Not only time and technology but taxonomy marches on as well, and currently brachysema is known as gastrolobium. What hasn’t changed is its consistently gorgeous appearance for over a decade now in the front gravel garden. In fact, it’s probably the oldest plant in the garden.* I pulled it from the California native section of a long-defunct nursery near Palos Verdes, Calif, that according to this article closed in 1997 due to the economic effects of severe drought followed by recession in that decade. So I must have brought it home sometime before ’97, at least. I’ve never seen the plant for sale again.

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It might not ever make Plant of the Year, but it has many admirable qualities. First and foremost is its ability to live among agaves and dasylirions on their irrigation schedule, which is pretty much when it rains, and you know how well that’s been going lately. It is from Australia, that continent with so many sympatico, mediterranean-adaptive plants for use in our Southern Calif. gardens. A light clipping to keep it off the agaves is probably the only attention it receives. It doesn’t build up a lot of dead growth in the interior and always looks fresh. When in bloom, the claw-like, red flowers don’t read especially well amongst the leaves and for me aren’t the main attraction.

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It’s really all about the wiry quality to the stems, upon which float the opposite, winged, richly colored leaves. Its meandering tracery makes a fine counterpoint among the solidity of agaves.
Along with durability, a big reason for its survival in the garden is that it never becomes an exasperating or annoying presence. It just never has a bad day.
(On the strength of BB’s performance, another gastrolobium was added this year, G. sericeum, from Australian Native Plants Nursery near Ojai.)

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I have a strong suspicion the two ‘Blue Glow’ agaves that bookend the gastrolobium will complete their life cycle and bloom next year, another reason to do a little portrait of this part of the garden now.

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Another old-timer is the restio behind the agaves. (It’s hard, for me anyway, to tell restios apart, but I think this is Thamnochortus insignis, about 3 feet tall after many years and sprawling to maybe 5 feet in diameter.) With ‘Bronze Butterfly,’ these two are the oldest plants in the front gravel garden, which was lawn in the pre-Internet days when we bought the house. Back then I took out the lawn because I was greedy for space to grow plants. I was actually worried for a time that neighbors would complain of our lawnless state. Now that having a green lawn has become a cause for complaint, I’m hopeful that, unlike the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm, nurseries won’t close due to drought but will instead thrive as robust gardens replace lawn as the new normal. There’s so many great plants out there just waiting to prove what beautiful survivors they can be.

*San Marcos Growers describes it as a 2002 Koala Blooms introduction, which would be after the nursery where I purchased it closed in 1997. I can’t account for the discrepancy in dates and have always believed it was purchased at the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm. In any case, it’s been in the garden at least ten years. UCSC lists it as “Brachysema praemorsa.”