Monthly Archives: December 2014

revisiting Rancho Los Alamitos; a repost from January 2014

(In the final countdown to the end of 2014, I’m reposting my visit to Rancho Los Alamitos in January 2014 entitled “back at the ranch“)

All day long this past work- and appointment-filled Wednesday I clung to the idea of fitting in a short visit to Rancho Los Alamitos. I’d heard there were some changes with the barns, and there was a new foal, all reasons enough to go. And in late February the noisette roses just might be in early bloom. Plus this was Wednesday, one of the weekdays they’d be open, unlike Monday or Tuesday. I stubbornly held the idea in the foreground of my much-distracted brain, while repeated interruptions and crises did their best to submerge it deep into the background throughout the day. But an hour before close at 5 p.m. I found myself triumphantly slipping a $5 bill into the donation box and sprinting off to find the cactus garden while there was still light. This roughly 8-acre remnant of the huge land grant given to a loyal Spanish soldier in 1784, the genesis story for my hometown, is just 4 miles from my house, but sometimes it feels like you have to move worlds to fit in a visit. But when you do go, what you park behind the gates that insulate the rancho from the press of suburbs, freeways, and CSULB/Long Beach State University is, pardon the cliche, not so much a car but a time machine.


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The 19th century adobe ranch house is thought to be the oldest domestic building still standing in Southern California
The twin Moreton Bay Figs have shaded the ranch since 1887

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Staghorn ferns near the base of a palm, backlit scarlet bougainvillea in the distance


What always floors me about the rancho, gifted by its last owners, the Bixby family, to the city of Long Beach in the ’60s, is its humility. With all that oil money to spend in the ’20s (discovered a few years after a drought killed off the largest cattle ranch in the U.S. — long story), Florence Bixby (1898-1961) somehow resisted the fashion of turning the ranch into a depot for Old World antiquities. It is a place fiercely vernacular and true. She may have hired the best landscape architects in the ’20s and ’30s to shape the gardens, like Frederick Law Olmsted and Florence Yoch, but the materials were homespun simple, local. Florence Bixby, always credited as the main design influence over the house and garden as they appear today, didn’t loot temples for marble or send out legions of plant hunters for the rarest of the rare, and yet Sunset includes it among 13 of the best public gardens in the U.S. And the rancho’s simplicity can’t be explained away with an argument that Florence was a simpleton who didn’t get out much. The painter Mary Cassatt visited for years, and the home was filled with art. (To put the rancho’s embrace of all things West in context, Cassatt’s brother, Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built New York’s magnificent but doomed Penn Station in 1910 based on the Roman baths of Caracalla. The outrage over Penn Station’s demolition in the mid ’60s pretty much launched the modern historical preservation movement, which was right around the time the rancho left private ownership and was gifted to the public.)

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The front lawn. The small gate on the left leads to a secret garden adjacent to the house’s interior courtyard.
The noisettes weren’t in bloom yet, but the rambling banks rose was, seen just to the right of the clump of bird of paradise and elsewhere in the garden.

While other members of Florence’s tribe, the 1 percenters of her day, hid the working man origins of their wealth, Florence embraced them. This is the modest home of someone with a high sensitivity to the pitfalls of hubris, someone with a resolutely austere but gracious cast of mind. Above all, this is a home, not a showcase for wealth. Florence’s home. And you can still feel it in every footfall. And I so wish they’d occasionally list it for rent with airbnb. (just kidding, Florence!)

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The interior courtyard that horse-shoes behind the house.

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A wall and pool enclosing the courtyard

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Two big evergreen vines, the Easter Lily vine, Beaumontia grandiflora, and the Cup of Gold vine, Solandra maxima, are trained along the low roofline.
For the moment, the smaller white flowers of the beaumontia are being outmaneuvered by the flamboyance of the cup of gold vine in bloom.

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On the opposite side of the house is the Music Patio

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Vintage pottery atop the walls of the Secret Garden

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A white flash of the horse Bristol visible just behind the fence. The barn was moved, at great cost and effort, back to its original location.
The now one-year-old foal Preston and its mother Valentina were moved out during renovations. Both are snug inside the barn again.
Trees were thinned, leaving those the Bixby family planted, Schinus molle, California pepper trees, to remain.

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The last of the Shire horses, the breed that powered the ranches of the 19th century

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Cypress Steps and patio

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The rose garden. (What else is there to say about a rose garden in winter, other than maybe “Nice box hedging”?)

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A portion of the garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted

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The geranium walk designed by Florence Yoch.
Yoch’s handiwork can at times seem so spare, so simple that viewers might wonder why clients didn’t think of certain devices themselves.”
(The New York Times)

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Olmsted’s oleander walk connects the rose garden to the cypress steps. The oleanders succumbed to a pest and have since been replaced, possibly by mulberry, but I couldn’t find a reference.

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The tennis court. No pool, but a tennis court. I know I’m overly reading into the landscape as psychological profile, but doesn’t that spell “Protestant work ethic” in bold letters?

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An entry to the tennis court

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The grape arbor runs the length of the tennis court and leads at one end to the cactus garden and the geranium and oleander walks at the other

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The flagstone path leads, if I’m oriented correctly, to the south lawn and the giant Moreton bay figs

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In the Cactus Garden, looking at the fencing of the tennis court

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William Hertrich, the first curator of the Huntington Desert Garden, worked with Florence on the Cactus Garden

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The new educational center, finished last spring, has images of the plants of the rancho on its walls, including Agave franzosinii

I’ll leave you in the cactus garden to find your way back to where you parked your time machine.

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More photos and information on current events can be found on the Rancho’s Facebook page and in this article by Suzanne Muchnic for The Los Angeles Times.

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large pot with shrub and succulents

I didn’t leave the house Sunday, so wandered the back garden this morning in search of something newsworthy to report.
This large container seems to be coming along nicely. Just recently it was rim-rolled into the back garden again to act as a cache pot for a Corokia virgata ‘Sunsplash’ and some fish-hook senecio.

(Rim-roll: Tilt the pot on edge, grab the rim like an oil roughneck grappling with a big valve, and spin it round and round.
Then gently guide the pot as it gains momentum until it practically twirls itself to the desired destination.
.)

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A stack of bricks was used to elevate the inner pot of corokia and senecio flush with the rim.
A jade plant just coming into bloom and winter-fat green aeoniums have found their way here too.
All of these plants suffered varying degrees of neglect throughout summer, some coming perilously close to death, but they always recover in fall/winter, growing plump and juicy again.
In the case of the jade plant at least, my neglect coincides nicely with its cultural preferences of summer dry/winter wet.

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Oh, the many lives of large, empty vessels. They can gurgle as fountains, as this one did in the back garden for many years (photo taken in 2009 by MB Maher).
Or they can remain empty, looking all monolithically solemn and imposing. But I consistently fail at leaving any container empty for long.


stellar agaves

The ancient Aztec riddle asked “What points its finger at the sky?” and the riddle’s answer is “the Maguey Thorn.”

Left-over plans from 2014:
So when I finally get around to making a Steller contribution featuring agaves, these are some of the AGO archival photos I’ll use:

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Agave strictahedgehog agaveucbg 1/11/13

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(photos have to be vertical to work with Steller, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far in learning the app.)


happy holidays

I always find that the winter holidays have a lot in common with Silly Putty —
extremely malleable, occasionally stretching a little thin, often just straddling the border of tangling up into a fine mess, and in this house anyway, ever so slightly goofy.
And with just a little goodwill, always resilient, bending without breaking.

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photo found here

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Agave guadalajarana from holidays past.

Instead of comic book mimicry, I bet I could make some fine agave leaf print impressions with Silly Putty, too, should I find any in my stocking this year.
(after an absence of, oh, maybe 40-some years).

Here’s to the sublime and the silly this holiday season, and more agaves in the New Year!


tetrapanax in bloom

I know a lot of Tetrapanax papyrifer in zones colder than my zone 10 have their blooms regrettably cut short by winter.
Let me just ease your zonal envy a bit, as you gaze on these bodacious panicles, and fully disclose that they are the worst fly-attracting blooms I have ever encountered.
An evil amount of flies pockmark the wheat-colored panicles. Buzzing clouds of them lift off and swarm the air every time I pass. Only late in the day do they finally disperse.

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Another surprise, and a much nicer one, has been that despite its fearsome reputation for expansionism, it’s so far proven relatively benign.
Relative, that is, in comparison to the ‘Golden Chain’ Arundo donax we tore out in the fall, which was terrifyingly vigorous.
Those bright gold, bamboo-like spears were infiltrating far more valuable trees and shrubs.

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And for a garden first, I used Marty’s shop vac to blow out the pollen that accumulates like drifts of snow in the agaves and succulents at the base of the tetrapanax.
With the first heavy rainfall in years, the thick pollen snow was becoming paste-like and overwhelming the crowns of plants growing under those enormous shaggy leaves.
Which do provide valuable high shade for the understory plants mid-summer.

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It’s always something, isn’t it?

you had me at aloe

And now you’ve lost me with aloiampelos, aloidendron, aristaloe, gonialoe, kumara. The genus aloe has just become slightly more complicated.
Memory work for 2015 will include absorbing the fan aloe’s new name Kumara plicatilis. (See Gerhard’s very helpful post here.)

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Meanwhile, I keep bringing home aloes with no tag, no name at all, as with this unlabeled hybrid. Sometimes it’s a good thing that I don’t have that meticulous collector mindset…

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Aloes are in bloom all over town. Aloe ferox

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My Aloe cameronii with its first flower bud.

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It’s right outside the office, where we had a shade tarp rigged all summer, so the Red Aloe didn’t get that deep coppery color to the leaves.
Next summer we’ll have to choose between that lovely ruddy coloration on the aloe or working in a sweatbox. I know which I’d prefer. (sorry, aloe!)

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Aloe conifera, a name that promises an interesting flower shape

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I’m guessing ‘Goliath’ will have just a very short stay in this pot.
A Tree Aloe, with one parent Aloe vaombe, I’m not sure if this gets reclassified as aloidendron or not with only one parent, A. barberae, from aloidendron.

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Aloe ‘Kujo,’ thought to be a hybrid found at the Huntington Botanical Garden. There will always be plenty of mysteries left to defy the most ardent taxonomist.

(Pam at Digging chats about favorite foliage on the 16th of every month.)


Toyon, California Holly

This sturdy evergreen shrub native to California, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is also known as the Christmas Berry or California Holly. Here’s why:

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There’s an old urban legend that early European settlers in Los Angeles, where this holly lookalike grew especially abundant, named their new home in its honor.
Hollywoodland. Ultimately shortened to Hollywood.

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At a neighbor’s holiday party over the weekend, I discovered it in full-on berriment growing on the west side of their bungalow.
Of course, today I just had to beg for a few sprigs of berries to bring home.
(As far as I can tell, I’ve now coined that word “berriment,” and it just might stand as my lasting contribution to humankind.)
The foamy mass in the background is a native buckwheat, but not, because I asked, the giant St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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Irresistible impulses, like mine, to bring indoors the toyon’s bright red berries began to threaten its very existence until a law was passed in the 1920s prohibiting picking the berries in the wild.
A ban local birds wildly celebrated. There’s a complicated bit of science and tanins and whatnot involved in the question of toxicity to humans, but the short, safe version is don’t.
Just don’t eat the fresh berries. Notwithstanding the fact that local Indians did all manner of clever things with the flowers, berries and bark, for food and medicine.
Usual size is 8 to 15 feet, but it can and does grow bigger. My neighbor’s toyon is trained as a small tree, but it can also be grown as a hedge.
Easy and forgiving, sun or even part shade, tolerant of regular irrigation or, once established, summer drought.

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Other plants in the vase are sprigs of lemon cypress and olive from our garden, very familiar to Evie, but the toyon from just a dozen houses away might as well have been from another country.
Evie immediately leapt onto the table to investigate. Bears and coyotes are known to eat the berries, but I have no idea what the digestive tract of Felis catus would make of them.

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Evie never sampled, but did make a thorough, full-vase investigation.

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I filled a couple urns for the mantle too, mostly with lemon cypress and olive branches, with just a few sprigs of toyon berries, which manage to communicate holiday merriment even in very small quantities.

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Toyon became the official native plant of Los Angeles on April 17, 2012.

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For berries of your own to bring indoors during the winter holidays as much as you please, toyon is carried in local nurseries, usually at fall planting time.
Los Pilitas Nursery is also a source, as well as the Theodore Payne Nursery and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nurseries.
Any of the above resources will patiently and knowledgeably explain how toyon can be an essential evergreen in your summer-dry garden.


counting euphorbias

Tis the season to celebrate euphorbias, since many of us will be living with or gifting/regifting one of its tribe over the next couple weeks, the poinsettia. Call me scrooge, but I’d much rather think about the ones planted in my garden than the holiday favorite with the flaming red bracts. Since first digging the garden 26 years ago, there’s always been at least a couple euphorbias around, and that will certainly be true again for 2015. I’m referring to the herbaceous and shrubby kinds, not the succulents, whose numbers are legion. This genus is ginormous, the largest genera of flowering plants in the plant kingdom, named after Euphorbus, physician to the Mauretanian King Juba II (first century B.C.), whose exploitation of its medicinal properties earned him a place in botanical nomenclature. But the white sap is notoriously toxic and the stinging enemy to the mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth, so I can’t imagine how and in what form Dr. Euphorbus delivered the medicine. Even getting the sap on the skin causes a strong reaction in some people, though I seem to have the hide of a rhino and haven’t had a problem so far. I’ve grown many of the different herbaceous kinds over the years, which generally tend to be short-lived for me. Many will seed around, whether lightly or alarmingly, and species do occasionally cross, like the famous Euphorbia x martinii, a naturally occurring hybrid between characias and amygdaloides. The euphorbias are standouts here in winter and spring for a sunny, dryish garden, and I’ve long been faithfully trying out any new kinds that come my way.

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First the euphorbs returning for 2015. There’s tree-like Euphorbia lambii fattening up after the recent rain, losing its scrawny summer looks.
This euphorbia seeds around like nobody’s business. But it’s tall, incredibly tough and tolerant of a dry summer, so it gets a pass.
Hardy down to 25 to 30 degrees.

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By February it will look more like this (February 2013)

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In bloom April 2013, illustrating a euphorbia’s attractions: smooth, blue-green leaves arranged in whorls with a shaggy chartreuse inflorescence

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Also fattening up is a young E. atropurpurea. After a wobbly first year, it’s exciting to see it settling in and appearing to choose life. From Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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Here it is at the Huntington Botanical Garden, flaunting its atypically fabulous wine-colored bracts.
I had never heard of such a euphorbia before and stood slack-jawed before it when first stumbling across this beauty.

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There was much gaping and sputtering, and then a frenzied search for my son Mitch, who was photographing barrel cactus elsewhere in the garden (see here).
I dragged him back by the sleeve to take this photo. And then I chased this euphorbia across a summer of plant shows, ultimately finding a source at Annie’s Annuals. Bless you, Annie!

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Also returning is Euphorbia rigida, just not this specific plant, which declined and withered away. A couple pieces were salvaged.
It also reseeds, but nowhere at the level of E. lambii. When I find these seedlings, they’re carefully potted up. Photo from February 2014

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spring 2012. So this plant lived at least three to four years. The clay here might have something to do with the shortened lifespan.

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Euphorbia mauritanica in the front garden, where the sun/shade shifts around quite a bit throughout the year.
These are probably leggier than they should be, but I’m hoping they’re in shape for a good bloom this spring.

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Here’s the ideal Euphorbia mauritanica, included in a design by Dustin Gimbel.

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My straggly Euphorbia ceratocarpa, appearing to have barely survived a recent move to clear out the compost area.

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Old photo from 2009 when the smoke tree ‘Grace’ ruled the garden and I continually wore that green robe through the winter.
Euphorbia ceratocarpa is on the left against the fence. Golden blur on the right was a duranta.

Unfortunately, this is the best photo I have to illustrate why I’ve carefully nurtured this one ratty-looking plant from a single cutting for the many years after the mother plant died.
There’s very little information available on this euphorbia for gardens. English plantsman John Raven grew it, and his daughter Sarah Raven has this to say:


This is one of the most open-growing and perhaps less elegant of the euphorbias, forming big, rangy clumps nearly 1.8m (6ft) across. But it is definitely a contender for the longest-flowering plant I know. I’ve had one that is yet to stop blooming outside the kitchen at Perch Hill since March 2006. It has not had a single week’s pause, and you can pick decent-sized stems right the way through the winter. I cut some for an arrangement at Christmas, when there is almost nothing of this brightness still surviving. E. ceratocarpa is also very easy to propagate. The cuttings that my parents collected all took extremely easily – even after several days wrapped up in damp loo roll in a plastic bag – and those few plants have created many thousand since. This euphorbia should certainly be more widely grown.” – source here.

Easy to propagate? Ha! I’ve had cuttings take a year to root. The only other person I’ve come across who grows it is garden designer/author Rebecca Sweet. It reminds me of a big, blowsy, lime-green hydrangea when in bloom.

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Euphorbia mellifera is another big shrub like E. lambii, but more lush. Fairly fast growing, this one was planted out from a 4-inch pot last year.
For zones 9 to 11 or container culture. Reseeds lightly here.

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And then there was the moment when the pale, variegated euphorbias entered our lives. ‘Tasmanian Tiger,’ discovered in a garden in Tasmania in 1993, was the first.
Because they turned up at the local nurseries, I grabbed a couple this fall to plant near Leucadendron ‘Ebony’ while it gains size. Short-lived plants have their uses too.

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I tend to try all the pale variegated ones. Some have proved to be stronger growers than ‘Tasmanian Tiger.’
A new one to me, at the nurseries this fall, under Native Sons label, E. characias ‘Glacier Blue’

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An old photo of a bloom truss from Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan,’ which I remember as a very robust grower.

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This non-variegated form of E. characias turned up at local nurseries too this fall.
Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl,’ so named because part of the flower structure has a “black eye.”

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An old photo of a blooming Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow,’ whose leaves have bright yellow variegation that flushes red with cool temps of fall/spring.

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From April 2011, Euphorbia mellifera almost out of frame at the upper left, ‘Ascot Rainbow’ blooming lower right.

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I’ll end with a photo of this incredibly weedy self-sower brought home years ago. Possibly Euphorbia nicaeensis.
A nuisance, yes, but the fresh color and meticulous arrangement of the leaves keeps me from weeding every last one from the garden.

Enjoy (or give to your mother) your Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia) this holiday season, and as alway, mind the sap!


weekend nursery browse

On the way to dropping off a holiday wreath at my mom’s on Sunday, I stopped for a walkabout at H&H nursery, located on Lakewood Blvd. in a power line easement near the 91 freeway.
I was hoping to find a Correa ‘Ivory Bells,’ or Australian fuchsia, which blooms all winter, a kind of holiday treat for the hummingbirds. The small grey leaves are somewhat similar to Pittosporum crassifolium or Feijoa sellowiana. I’m always attracted to the correas when I see them, but they’re usually in the pink form at nurseries. I can’t say when pink began to wear on me, but I’m still not ready to let much of it into the garden again. I foolishly passed up ‘Ivory Bells’ earlier in the week and was hoping it had been shipped widely to multiple nurseries (it hadn’t). With all garden space currently spoken for, it would have to go in a container, which is fine because I’ve been on a binge trying out shrubby characters like ozothamnus and westringia in containers and want to experiment with more. As with the latter two shrubs, these experiments usually do end up in the garden but are surprisingly easy to care for during extended periods in containers and are much less bother than, say, annuals or tender perennials. (If anyone is interested in correas, Joy Creek Nursery in Oregon has a nice list of them, including ‘Ivory Bells.’)

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This photo from JJ De Sousa’s Portland garden shows how stunning shrubs can be in containers. I think this may be an ozothamnus with trailing Dichondra argentea.
I’ve grown the Ozothamnus ‘Sussex Silver’ variety.

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At the nursery, no correas were to be found. Still in the C’s, though, I found some corokias, which I love, and very nearly brought home the wiry Corokia cotoneaster.
Another photo from a Portland, Oregon garden showing what looks to be this corokia.

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Mostly I wanted to stretch my legs a bit, and this large nursery/grower is great for a stroll. And I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate the coming rainstorm.
The tree aloes seem to be flooding the nurseries lately. These are ‘Hercules.’ In the last month or so I’ve found Aloe ‘Goliath’ and Aloe dichotoma.
My ‘Hercules’ came in a gallon. These big boys go for over $200.

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Twice the Hercules, double-trunked.

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The Agave ‘Blue Glows’ in gallons go for about $25.

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A sea of aeoniums and agaves.

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I didn’t check the price on the titanotas. Such a variable agave. These are much whiter than mine.

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Every time I see a tree-like Kalanchoe beharensis I feel a pang for the loss of mine, a single-trunked plant that became too top heavy and snapped.

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Lovely bowl of Notocactus magnificus. I still have vague plans to build a cactus bench/growing frame but it’s way too early to start collecting plants.
When I say “build,” what I really mean is transmit my vision to the builder, Marty, and convince him that the project is desperately important.

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The Little Red Riding Hood aloe, ‘Rooikappie,’ bred by the South African plantswoman the late Cynthia Giddy.
Coincidentally, I recently brought an aloe home named for her.

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Euphorbia pseudocactus. I really need to get busy planning that cactus bench. It’s becoming desperately important.


cussonia crazy


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Cussonias are a small genus from Africa and the Mascarene Islands

There are maybe 25 species in the small genus known as the Cabbage Trees, and without trying too hard I’ve already brought home five of them.
I didn’t set out to be a collector of cussonias, but spurring me on is the fact that, so far, there doesn’t seem to be an ugly duckling in the bunch.
Without hesitation, when one turns up at a local nursery, I grab it.
Cussonias are included in the araliaceae family, which contains some of the most outlandishly beautiful leaves to be found anywhere.
They have that family’s signature finely cut foliage but atop a seriously tough plant.
As mature trees they can reach 15 feet, but they flourish for years in containers, where they need about as much attention as succulents.
Their mop-headed, evergreen canopies bring the lush life to frost-free, dry-summer climates along with what I can never get enough of, that emphatic pop of verticality.

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My first Cabbage Tree, Cussonia gamtoosensis, which I recently planted in the ground.
Some plants are so beautiful that I’m willing to change the garden to accommodate them as they mature.
Found locally under Annie’s Annuals label.

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An old photo, with its leaves spangled in morning dew

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That’s a rebar tripod it’s resting against to help gently train the leaning trunk upright.

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This is where the grasshoppers hung out all summer, as many as six at a time, enjoying the simultaneous opportunities for sun and concealment.
Yes, I count grasshoppers. It’s a repulsion/attraction thing. When they become too numerous, we freeze them in peanut butter jars.

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Brought home June 2014. Cussonia spicata. The Cabbage Trees have a peculiar trunk-to-canopy ratio, with short, thickened trunks giving them their unique profile.
Some of them, like the more commonly available Cussonia paniculata, are known as pachycauls, from the Greek pachy– meaning thick or stout, and Latin caulis meaning the stem.
(How many of us can identify with pachycauls in this season of holiday feasting?)

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Cussonia natalensis, found at Xotx-Tropico in West Hollywood. This little nursery is so jam-packed with rarities that it’s easy to miss some real gems.
Fortuntely, cussonias have a distinctive outline that sets them apart even in a crowded nursery.
After I selected this one to take home, for the rest of my visit, Leon, the owner, and a true character in the best Hollywood tradition, referred to me simply as the “plant girl.”
(At his nursery, which he’s run for 25 years, Leon follows you around and tells the story of each plant, as if he runs an adoption agency instead of a plant nursery and you’re inquiring about a child temporarily under his care. The website is down, but the address is 900 No. Fairfax Ave, West Hollywood, CA 90046, (323) 654-9999.)

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Reminds me of a bright green maple leaf. Also known as the Rock Cabbage Tree.

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This is Cussonia paniculata, probably the most commonly available Cabbage Tree, whose mature leaves take on a bluish hue.
I’ve planted small ones in the ground, only to have them mush out, so this one will live indefinitely in a container.
I once stood under a mature tree on a Venice garden tour and didn’t even recognize it as a cussonia until chatting with the owner about it.
Keeping cussonias in containers retains their unique form.

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Cussonia tranvaalensis, also found locally under Annie’s Annuals label.
This cussonia brought to my attention recently that, at some undefined point in time, I’ve turned into a person who squishes aphids with their bare hands.
None of the other cussonias seem to be attacting aphids.

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Since it’s known as the Grey Cabbage Tree, these leaves will also acquire a blue-grey cast as they mature.