Tag Archives: Cussonia spicata

potted plants on the move

The summer containers in nondrought-stricken gardens can become quite a virtuoso display.
I’ve understandably pared things down the past few years but am always amazed at how even a relatively small group of pots can exclaim “Summer!”

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All the pots scattered through the garden become candidates for a massed summer display.
I appreciate how growing a single species to a pot means it can be a focal point at one time of year and part of a big group display at another time.
A good place for summer staging is around the Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus) which bisects the long, narrow patios on the east.
Now that the tree has fully leafed out and all the flowers have fallen, I’ve massed pots on either side of the tree to take advantage of its dappled light.
A chaise in dappled light isn’t a bad idea either. A Mid-Century Homecrest, it needs a touch-up of black paint but is the most comfortable lounger, like floating in zero-gravity.
(Thanks again to Shirley Watts for hauling it down from Alameda in her truck.)

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This group of pots has been gradually accumulating here the past month or so, pulled from all over the garden.
The chartreuse Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ was moved in when it gained enough size to make an impact.
Unlike so many colocasias, this tropical reliably returns from winter dormancy year after year. I turn the whole pot on its side and leave it outdoors in winter.
I have lots of small, slow-growing agaves in pots, but I like having a couple good-sized potted agaves to mass for summer.
There’s a couple pups here of ‘Blue Flame’ and ‘Boutin’s Blue,’ both of which don’t mind some shade.
The golden Schefflera ‘Amate Soleil’ was fine in full winter sun but definitely needed dappled shade by June.

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The pots of mostly foliage are easy on the water budget, and water from the shower handles all the containers.
The latest addition is a big pot of cosmos, chamomile and silver-leaved horehound/marrubium, a gift to the bees.

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Looking from the other end, Cussonia spicata in the tall grey pot is doing so much better in the dappled light after wintering in full sun.
Variegated manihot, potted succulents, and closer to the table the huge Aeonium ‘Cyclops,’ also moved here to escape full summer sun.

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The base of the fringe tree is unplanted, covered with a mulch of its own leaves year-round.
The view after August rain last year (see post here). I’ve since broken that coffee cup, a favorite from a local tugboat company.
And Mitch took those wooden planters up to his garden in San Francisco.
Before my neighbor planted palms on his side of the fence, this little patio used to be a heat trap by mid-day and went mostly unused until evening.
As a native Angeleno, it’s taken me a lifetime to appreciate the slim footprint of the ubiquitous palms and the lovely shade they cast.

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I’ve been playing around with that tall iron stand for 20 years or so. When I saw photos of Maurizio Zucchi’s home, I felt both validated and incredibly envious.
The little Euphorbia ammak at its base has a long way to grow to make an impact. I’d so love to find some more iron scaffolding for this patio.
The twisty tuteur supports a marmalade bush, Streptosolen jamesonii, I’m hoping can be trained up through its spirals.
The empty frame is part of the floor grate to the broken heater we inherited with the house.

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Last summer the vine Mina lobata grew up the iron stand’s girders, wilting in the afternoon sun.
I found a seedling of this vine that’s been potted up to try in morning sun/afternoon shade.

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Potted’s City Planter was planted up last summer and has been bullet-proof ever since.

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Hopefully this will be the last time I move this monster pot for a few months.
Showing is one of two lamps salvaged from Warehouse No. 1, the oldest warehouse in Los Angeles Harbor.
Marty kept a little workroom in the basement of the cavernous warehouse when he worked for the Port of LA, so we have a strong affection for the old relic.

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The remaining rosette of the huge clump of dyckia I just removed this week from the front garden.
Dyckias and year-round tree litter are just not a good combination. I was so sick of the mess.

I know a lot of pots of tender plants are on the move out of basements and greenhouses, where they vacationed like winter snowbirds.
Sometimes I wonder if the pots in this frost-free garden don’t have just as many miles under their rims.

repotting Cussonia spicata

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Cussonia spicata, June 2014. Cussonias are also known as Cabbage Trees, all from South Africa, and I want every one I’ve ever seen.
In my zone 10 they can be grown outdoors, where they will fulfill their ultimate destiny as medium-sized trees.
But they’re well-known rock stars for containers, in which they can live long, relatively happy lives. (Caveat: in a big enough pot.)

On one of my early morning garden prowls in late April I discovered that the Cussonia spicata had exploded its pot.
It was kind of thrilling, actually. I’ve never had a plant do this before, not even an agave. Not even an Agave americana.

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Here’s the cussonia still appearing meek and content in its pot June 2014, no hint of its future explosive tendencies.
I had originally located the container in dappled shade on the east side of the house, where I should have let it remain.
I didn’t realize how badly it needed some shade until I saw it for sale recently looking almost tropical, much more lush and green than mine.

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But I just loved it in this particular spot, which unfortunately is full sun, so I made the cussonia just deal with it.
(Not much stands still for long here. For instance, that Agave americana var. striata on the right has been moved elsewhere this spring.)

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You can see the rupture, the dark shadow on the right. Oh, well, nothing to do now but go container shopping.
Which reads rather dry and mundane but is actually one of the happiest sentences in the English language.
And, coincidentally, end of April is awfully close to Mother’s Day and not that far removed from my early April birthday. Prime season for presents to self.
For once, I was going to buy whatever container spoke to me, money be damned. (OK, I was ready to blow maybe $100.)
And it is very weird how the crude cost of it all keeps coming up with this particular cussonia. See post here.

I searched around locally, but nothing really spoke to me, and the matter was shelved until after a brief trip to San Francisco.
Oh, wait. Isn’t that where Flora Grubb keeps her nursery with its amazing plants and containers?

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Yes, she does. And there it was, a lightweight concrete fabrication. The search was over.
By the time we got home, a big slab of the original pot had calved off like an iceberg.
It was as simple as peeling a banana to remove the remaining pieces, the easiest repotting job I’ve ever done.

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And with all the moving and shuffling going on here, lightweight seems like a sensible idea.
(That westringia in the background has been moved this month too. Euphorbia mellifera needed its spot.)

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I did eventually relent and moved the cussonia back to the shadier east side in its new lightweight pot.

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I don’t like the way the trunk of the fringe tree fights with its silhouette, but since repotting and moving back to dappled shade, it seems happy once again.
Hopefully, any explosive tendencies will be suppressed for another few years.

For anyone in Northern California, it was at Flora Grubb’s where I saw the fat and happy Cussonia spicata, about the size of mine but without the leaf-tip burn.

And I found this video by the RHS on repotting plants, which covers the whys and wherefores.

cussonia crazy

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image found here

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.

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.

Come Any Time

Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino (Pasadena), California. MB Maher and I visited on Saturday, May 28, 2011.

As I wrote here, one of the reasons we visited on Saturday was to catch some puyas in bloom.
But there’s always something more than you anticipated at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Much more. Tons more.

Puya venusta


Photos by MB Maher bear his watermark

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