Tag Archives: Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan

nursery hopping in December

Pulling into a favorite nursery’s driveway yesterday, I could already see from the street it’s a madhouse. I’d completely forgotten the split personality most nurseries take on in December. The usually empty parking lot is not only full of cars, moving and parked, but also Christmas trees, shoppers, and children darting among the cars. I proceeded cautiously, pulling into the first (and only) available parking stall to eliminate one less moving object from the mayhem. The car makes a small bump, bump, and as I jump out to investigate an employee accuses, “You ran over our tree stand!” which he’s brandishing in his hand as evidence of the crime. Of course, there will be Christmas tree stands in the parking stalls in December, and overworked employees irritated that I would be unaware of this fact. There’s no more denying that the holidays are officially in full swing. I very nearly got immediately back in the car to leave.

But I’m glad I didn’t, because they were carrying Lobelia tupa in gallons, a plant never offered locally.
And their excellent stock of the proteaceae family included the sight of this Protea ‘Mini King’ in bloom in its container:

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And a bulbous plant not often seen, the giant red Crinum asiaticum var. procerum.

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This specimen was old enough and big enough to flower, sending a swooping stalk like a flamingo’s neck almost to the ground.
There was a smaller plant in a 3-gallon size for almost $50.

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I might want to try the variegated Euphorbia characias in a container too. The ones I planted last winter melted away again.

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As usual, I warm up to the winter holidays slowly, apparently marching to a different little drummer boy. But there’s still plenty of time.
We’ve always been the house that brings home the tree on the 24th.

Have a great week, and watch out for those tree stands.

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!


describing plants

It’s plant catalogue season. Plant Delights and Derry Watkins’ Special Plants both arrived in the mail today, although I also seem to be getting quite a lot via email. Selfishly, my preferred format for the long, slow perusal required of a first-rate catalogue is on paper. (Next best is the iPad I don’t yet possess.) A string of computer glitches has put me in a technophobic mood, not to mention the glut of Clay Shirky reading I did yesterday, not to mention the new Gmail format. That this process of constant upgrades and innovation seems to have hit breakneck speeds is why I expect to wake up one morning looking like this fellow. (Image found here)

Did I already mention that I loathe the new Gmail format? Like the insomniac developers at Google who just can’t leave well enough alone, plant names can also really grate on the nerves. Just check any catalogue list of hosta or daylily offerings. Then there are those names that bring really sweet associations, like Melianthus ‘Purple Haze,’ which always reminds me of my brother’s hero worship of Jimi Hendrix, and when he mastered a reasonable approximation of the guitar solo from ‘Little Wing’ and first played it, to the rapturous awe of my 11-year-old self. Different song entirely, but if it wasn’t for the purple haze all in his eyes, we wouldn’t have the perfect name for this compact cultivar of Melianthus major with the lovely purple wash to its serrated leaves. The agave ‘Jaws’ is another name I never forget, which surely must be the aim when selecting names. But my being unable to forget this agave’s name might also have something to do with the fact that I coinicidentally purchased it on the day Roy (“That’s some bad hat, Harry”) Scheider died, February 10, 2008. Unfortunately, I can’t cite a source for this melianthus at the moment, but Plant Delights carries ‘Jaws’ in its extensive online agave offerings.

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Agave ‘Mr. Ripple.’ Another memorable name.

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But the name of this dark-leaved, lophomyrtus I transplanted yesterday always eludes me.
(Checking old blog entries, I find it’s ‘Red Dragon.’ Evergreen New Zealander.)
The euphorbia I remember only as not the weak grower ‘Tasmanian Tiger,’ a name easy to recall. Its true name, ‘Silver Swan,’ I can’t seem to commit to memory.

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Roses tend to have memorable names, even when in French, e.g. Cuisse De Nymphe (“Thigh of Nymph”).

But the difficulty in finding catchy names for cultivars is nothing compared to the slow progress made in describing plants in Latin.

“Botanists are probably only about halfway through describing the plants on Earth, with roughly 200,000 species described. Yet only about 2,000 names get published a year at the current pace.” (ScienceNews.)

And having to publish new species in a printed format has proven cumbersome in the electronic age:

“[I]n July 2011, the international congress that meets every six years to revise the nomenclature code convened in Melbourne, Australia, and voted to accept certain forms of electronic publication.” (ScienceNews.)

“[R]esearchers have agreed to drop the requirement for hard copies of papers describing new species. Also vanishing from the code is a requirement that species must come with a Latin description.” (Nature.)

Names must still be in binomial Latin, as prescribed since Linnaeus, just not the physical descriptions. Beginning January 2012, “diagnostic botanical descriptions may be written in Latin or English, and the electronic publication of new names is accepted,” The New York Times 1/5/12, “The New Universal Language of Plants.”

Now, that’s progress even I can appreciate.

Added 1/23/12: “No longer will botanists have to write sentences like: ‘Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa,’ as I did in 2009, describing a new species from Mexico. Instead, I could simply write that Bourreria motaguensis was a six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves that were 2 to 7 centimeters long.” – “Flora, Now in Plain English,” by James S. Miller, dean and vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden. The New York Times, 1/22/12.

Occasional Daily Photo 11/30/11

I switched out the 50 mm lens today for a 24mm to get a bigger view. I’ve been leaning on the 50mm like a crutch — for such a small garden, it just seems easier to manage with the 50mm. This wider view with the 24mm is as you’re coming in the gate from the east, and I’m pretty much backed up against the house with my camera. I’ve seen better camera phone photos than what I get with this 24mm lens, so more practice is definitely in order and/or a night school photography class.

Sometimes, opening this gate after a long day, the garden still has the ability to surprise even me. It’s as though the garden proclaims, Here nature triumphs! Yes, even in November, it’s still a busy, busy garden. I’ll never be able to practice simplicity of gesture when it comes to plants. But there’s more bare ground exposed than this telescoped view implies, and as the “soft” perennials of summer die back, what’s becoming apparent are some of the star plants for a zone 10 winter, such as agaves, yuccas, grasses, and euphorbias.

The agave is an attenuata hybrid ‘Blue Flame,’ one of two, the other out of frame. At the base of this agave to the right is a clump of the hardy cranesbill ‘Bertie Crug,’ which survived some tough conditions this summer, including very dry soil and the typical overcrowding I inflict on plants. Bertie managed to bloom through it all, even if her dark pink blooms were mostly hidden by her neighbors.

Just in back of the agave is one of two big Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ that I tried like heck all summer to keep from becoming deformed by overcrowding, just for this moment in fall thru winter when they gain size and really start to shine. The small-leaved, creamy shrub on the extreme right is a variegated prostanthera, or Australian mintbush. Deep golden yellow flowers dotted mid frame are from Amicia zygomeris, which seems to be responding to a strong cutback and cooler temps with a sunny flush of its typical pea flowers. The dark red grass is Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline.’

If it weren’t for the little heater I’m running in the office this grey, chilly day, the view out the office window onto the garden could almost be mistaken for summer. (Except for all that bare soil.)

Winter Sun ‘Variegata’

I never met a variegated leaf I didn’t like, which might be considered the equivalent of a horticulturalist recessive trait, a weakness of character, a penchant for the flashy. In other words, not in the best of taste.

Variegated derives from the past participle of Late Latin variegare , from Latin varius , “various” plus agere , “to do, to make.” To make varied in appearance, as in:

The varied appearance of light in winter is one of the few compensations for miserably shorter days and colder temperatures.”

Variegation in plants is caused by a lack of plastid pigments, which creates that negative space that irresistibly draws my eye, really a barren space where the plant is concerned because no photosynthesis will take place in it, which is why variegated plants are slower in growth. With what amounts to possessing a second edge, no wonder the variegated literally makes a garden “edgier,” more exciting.

x Fatshedera lizei ‘Variegata’

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But variegation is not just limited to center stripes (medio-picta) or marginal striping (marginata). It can include blotches, spots, speckling, two, three or more different colors. I have to admit I’ve so far avoided the spotty kinds like the plague (e.g. Ligularia tussilaginea ╦ťAureo-Maculata,’ the Leopard Plant.) They just look plaguey and poxed to me. But never say never where plants are concerned.

Unnamed variegated pelargonium

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Interesting that variegation occurs rarely in nature. It is an anomaly that the plant explorer finds when, wandering lost in a tropical understory, he sits down to read his map and absentmindedly strokes the leaves of the brilliantly variegated gesneriad at his elbow. (In my childish mind’s eye, I always see this adventurous plant collector in pith helmet and khakis. And, yes, he might resemble Tintin just a bit.)

This rarity in nature is why I think the old-fashioned word “gardenesque” applies to variegated plants and justifies their inclusion in a garden as appropriate rather than an abomination: “Partaking of the character of a garden; somewhat resembling a garden or what belongs to a garden.” Variegation could almost stand as a metaphor for the garden in its own right: The natural world mediated by the human hand (for aesthetics, not profit — well, very little profit anyway).

Pelargonium ‘Indian Dunes’

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Particularly in a small garden, they separate and delineate.

Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’

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No need to fear disease is causing the “broken colors” of variegation. In Ken Druse’s chapter on variegation from his book “The Collector’s Garden,” he quotes a study from Cambridge University where it was found that in “99 percent of the cases, the variegation is not viral. It is chimeral and often very stable.” (Druse goes on to explain that “Chimeras are plants or plant tissues consisting of more than one genetic composition.” I love how the language of science borrows from the mythical.)

Echium fastuosum ‘Star of Madeira’ (Variegated Pride of Madeira aka Echium candicans)

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Sometimes in sowing a batch of seedlings a variegation will arise, and fairly stable seed strains can then be developed, like the ‘Alaska’ nasturtiums that are self-sowing in my garden. Or mature trees or shrubs will spontaneously produce a variegated branch called a sport. The variegated are generally weak growers, but there will always be an outlier. For example, the variegated Daphne x burwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ is rumored to be a stronger grower than the species. (The growth habits of daphnes will forevermore remain rumors to me. I witnessed the slow death of a mature D. odora once, and that was more than enough torment for me.)

Erysimum linifolium ‘Variegatum,’ variegated wallflower

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The variegated is not to everyone’s taste, and some gardeners have expressed outright loathing. I find the variegated leaf sometimes sublime, occasionally garish perhaps if the garden is loaded too heavily in their favor. But in winter light, I’m always glad for the shimmer of their luminously deviant leaves. (Viva la deviance!) My eyes follow the variegated leaves these brief, dark days in December like a devoted planet loopily tracking the winter sun.

Euphorbia Love

Euphorbia, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Perennial, shrub and tree.

You give a frost-free garden dappled shade and ruby tints high overhead. Euphorbia cotinifolia, about 15 feet, max.
I’ve been entertained by the sound of your ballistically exploding seeds as the temperature reached into the 90’s.

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As fresh in August as in spring. Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’

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Outdoing all other claims on green. Euphorbia mellifera.

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Safe to say your reputation is sound enough for some minor quibbling. There’s this small problem with scale you allow to congregate on E. characias. In fact, here in zone 10, E. characias never makes the large shrubs it does in zone 8. E. x martinii does much better, a natural hybrid of E. amygdaloides and E. characias. And I’ve heard E. myrsinites is tough, but apparently not tough enough for the gravel garden, so I’ve abused your good nature in that regard. E. lambii appears to be struggling in the gravel garden as well, yet I know you can pull it off — I’ve seen E. lambii grown xeric at the Huntington cactus garden. More water while you are getting established would be appreciated, wouldn’t it?

Back to your many fine qualities. Your ubiquitous cheeriness in Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ perennial in zone 10, returning amongst the crush of plants I squeeze in around you, always forgetting you were there first.

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You never complain but only find ever more ingenious ways to outmaneuver the throng. Like climbing up the grapevine.

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And I’ve read you earn your keep just about everywhere you are planted, even if only for one summer. You’re getting quite the reputation for containers too, but it’s straight into the garden for you here.
(You are so good that buying the new, darker-leaved ‘Breathless Blush’ seemed a safe bet. How is it possible to create such a weakling from you?!)

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I’ve also read that some of your tribe are considered weedy. (E. dulcis ‘Chameleon,’ you may see yourself in this description. I’ve read about your antics elsewhere, although you despise zone 10.)
None are weedy for me, not even E. characias. Just a few seedlings I’m always grateful to have.

Euphorbia seguieriana ssp. niciciana, Siberian Spurge, has colonized bare spots in the gravel garden but never infiltrates into other plants. But I can’t remember when you last flowered. Have you ever flowered? Definitely not a euphorbia to be let loose in good garden conditions, but I appreciate the lushness you bring to the spiky growers around you.

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I know how euphorbias will shine all winter with hellebores and grasses, so I’ve been quietly slipping you in amidst the waning summer party. Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan.’
(Your kin, the ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ was no tiger in my garden.)

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Your bracts decorate the garden for ages, stippling patterns amongst leaves like the nubby textures from beads on plain 50’s sweaters.

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My love always swells for euphorbia in late summer and winter. Spring and summer too. Nonstop euphorbia love.