Cussonia spicata and the value of plants

I have these weird unwritten rules when buying plants. For example, $30 is usually deemed way too much to spend on one plant. It’s not a conscious rule, it’s just after checking the price, unless it’s spectacularly, once-in-a-lifetime rare, I always walk away if it’s $30ish and up. And then I’ll sometimes go on to browse and select assorted odds and ends that, in total, end up costing as much as $40, if not more. Unwritten rules sometimes make the least sense of all. Here’s a recent example to show how this works, or doesn’t, in practice.

Last Friday work ended unexpectedly early, and there I was in Marina del Rey, which along with its yacht-filled harbor also has an excellent nursery. The succulent selection was even better than I remembered. Crassula ‘Campfire,’ for instance. Why haven’t I grown this yet? Lack of space? What a puny reason. And there’s a good salvia section too. I always pause before grey-green and felty, mouse-eared Salvia officinalis ‘Beggarten,’ but it hates my clay soil. What about those big grey leaves in pots for summer? Pots are always the answer. And some pole beans for my mom. I’ve been made weak-kneed by the incredible bromeliad selection here before. But $80 for one bromeliad? Can’t do it. I found a cardboard box and desultorily filled it with the smallest, cheapest odds and ends. Nothing like a little plant shopping to ease out of a horrid workweek and into the weekend. (Metro ran 30 minutes late, deadlines whizzed by unchecked, etc., etc.)

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And then there it was, casting dramatic shadows under the shadecloth, Cussonia spicata, robust and over 4 feet tall. A group of them, actually. Some with trunks awkward and akimbo, but way in the back was a perfectly gorgeous, straight-as-a-die specimen that was selling for about half the price of that bromeliad. But in the dreaded and taboo over-$30 price range. I mentally tallied all the odds and ends accumulating in my cardboard box, and sure enough, the total amounted to more than the price of the cussonia. (And as an aside, happened to be twice what I had just paid for parking at the business offices of 4640 Admiralty Way. I’ll never understand the arbitrary value given to things.) It was obvious that the math of my unwritten rule just wasn’t adding up. My own South African “Cabbage Tree,” Cussonia gamtoosensis, just about this size too after years growing on from a 4-inch pot, is a year-round, evergreen joy. Finding C. spicata locally again in this size at a better price was a long shot. That’s the math that matters. The impulse crassulas and salvias went back to their nursery shelves, and the cussonia came home with me, where it obviously so rightfully belongs. I was up at 5 a.m. on Saturday to spend all day rearranging my little world to give it a proper welcome and find its perfectly inevitable placement, which turned out to be the small east patio, as of Friday buried in leaves I kept meaning to sweep up from the Chinese fringe tree. The $40 cussonia was just the catalyst I needed to give it a good sweep, move out the bikes and stash of firewood, and drag in a table and chairs. After the dust settled, we instantly knew that this was now the best spot for morning coffee. I’m vowing to never clutter it up again. We’ll see how that goes.

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As the Dude would say, the cussonia really ties the room together, this awkward, canyonesque patio on the east side of the house that I had pretty much given up on.
And I hated being defeated by it, because I’m a firm believer that every inch I pay a mortgage on must be put to use for people and plants.
(Begrudgingly, driveways, garages, laundry sheds, etc., are allowed too of course.)

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Marty worries that the cussonia looks frail, more like a “houseplant” than a potential 30-foot tree. And he’s right, it’s got the look of the apiaceae all over it, whose members include familiar houseplants like fatsia and schefflera, but there’s nothing meek or tame about a cussonia. It’s going to need a much bigger container fairly soon, but this size is all there was on hand.

And that’s how a dead space came to life for $40. Such is the incalculable value of plants.

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14 Responses to Cussonia spicata and the value of plants

  1. Kris P says:

    I’ve got similar unwritten limits on my plant expenditures, although I’ve adjusted for inflation 😉 The Cussonia is a beauty. I’ve admired that nursery’s Cussonia collection on a number of occasions myself, held at bay mainly by the projected size of the plant.

  2. Denise says:

    Kris, I’ve visit a few times a year and never noticed the cussonias before. Must be all those spendy bromeliads that grab my attention. My plan is to keep it in a pot — saving now for a really big one 😉

  3. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Your Cussonia is gorgeous! Rules are meant to be broken, right? You’ve obviously mastered the new math. Congratulations on all counts.

  4. Denise says:

    Peter, isn’t it a beauty? I suppose I’m subconsciously trying to set some sort of boundaries, especially hitting the nurseries hard like I do in summer.

  5. I love this post! I’ve been down that road many times, and everything you said rang true. I’ve let many a beauty get away for some arbitrary reason or another.

    Your cussonia is a perfect! I bought two cussonias (spicata and paniculata) at Annie’s Annuals this spring, and the spicata has grown like a weed. I’ve already repotted it once and I bet it’ll need a larger pot by the end of the summer.

  6. Denise says:

    Gerhard, yes, the crazy arbitrary rules we carry around! I’m still regretting planting my paniculata in the ground. It mushed away, probably from the clay. On a Venice, CA tour there was an old, enormous C. paniculata in a garden — looks vastly different when it’s a big tree. I didn’t even recognize it. Thank goodness AA carries these occasionally.

  7. ks says:

    I’ve tried to be prudent with my plant budget this year (2 trips a year, 2 years in a row will do that) so it’s no more double-decker carts at Annies for me. The most expensive plant I bought this year was a 5 gal variegated red twig Dogwood, but was ably to use my employee discount so it was under 25$. I would love a Cussonia, but can’t figure out how it fits into the ‘look’ of my 2014 somewhat meadow-y looking garden.Not to mention our year round very cool night time temps. Annies has up to 5 cultivars of Cussonia and I look at them every time I go. Ok, you talked me into it. 4″ pot, container, if it dies it dies. Feel better now.

  8. Hoov says:

    You would have felt terrible if you hadn’t bought it. Obviously worth the money to avoid feeling terrible, right?

  9. Denise says:

    @Kathy, that was fun following your logic. For a minute I thought a cussonia was out of the question for you. Glad you feel better.
    @Hoov, that is so true! And there’s a million reasons a day to feel terrible, but one big potted triumph over terrible on the east patio now. Small victories…

  10. It’s a beauty for sure, and even better that it can grow grow grow in your climate. My tortured little Cussonia paniculata has to spend it’s life in a container hauled inside and out.

  11. Denise says:

    Loree, imagine if everything you had in pots grew to full size! The Shade Pavilion would explode!

  12. David Feix says:

    I have two Cussonia spicata’s, one front, one back garden, and both are now leaning multiple trunked 30 foot tall specimens after 23 years in the ground. They’ve all branched, and the one in front bloomed last summer. They have a tendency to lose all their foliage on the trunk which blooms, and then disturbingly the branches with blooms proceeded to rot off and drop. I took action and removed them all to the main trunk, which has successfully sprouted new shoots. It took 18 months from flower buds formed to actually blooming. The inflorescence looks rather prehistoric when it happens.

    My experience is they handle clay loam just fine if planted on a slope or a slightly raised mound. Annie’s regularly stocks both C. spicata and paniculata these days, so they’re not hard to come by. Twenty years ago, only Gary Hammer sold them, and that’s where I first got mine.

    If you like Cussonia foliage, you ought to check out Trevesia palmatum, the Snowflake Tree. Plus it has that thorny trunk action going on…

  13. David Feix says:

    Flora Grubb was over for brunch here last Sunday, and after seeing my 23 year old monster, remarked that the one she just planted by her front door when she moved to Berkeley will now be moved further from the house! My trees must have a caudex that is more than 2 feet across. They are also popular as a bonsai subject, lifted to show off the caudex. They are amazingly fast growers with shade and water, but easily killed to the ground with hard freezes; my first tree was already 6 foot of trunk(1.5 years old from the nursery), in the December 1990 freeze, and 24°F killed it to the ground. This year’s 29°F short two night freeze defoliated one completely two houses down, but just brozed some foliage on my much taller trees. The very old Cussonia spicata at the LA Arboretum are amazing, having branched into multiple tiers of branches and looking like real trees, not so palm-like.

  14. Denise says:

    David, I’ve been leaning towards keeping mine confined to a pot, and your experience cinches the deal. I’d love to try the trevesia too! I didn’t get out to Gary’s nursery Desert to Jungle nearly enough when he was alive, but I brought home an unnamed Ecuadoran knotweed that will live in my parkway probably forever 😉

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