Tag Archives: Huntington Botanical Garden

roll out the barrel(s)

I know spiky agaves in the garden make some people nervous, but lovers of architectural plants for the dry garden can get into a lot more trouble than an agave.
The golden barrel cactus has recently gotten under my skin, figuratively speaking only, thank goodness.
Echinocactus grusonii holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most familiar yet endangered cactus planted around Southern California.
Illegal collecting and the building of the Zimapan Dam and reservoir in its native Hidalgo, Mexico, haven’t helped matters.
Indeed, Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Garden, believes it is probably no longer to be found in the wild.


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Golden barrel cactus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden


Regrettably, I have only one golden barrel cactus to roll out, to test its light-splintering qualities this fall, now that light and wind have replaced heat as the big news in the garden.
I plug pots of agaves into the garden all the time as the seasons (or my itchy digging fingers) open up space for their big sculptural rosettes.
But this is a first for me, temporarily moving a potted barrel cactus into the garden, and that’s for a couple reasons.
In my experience, barrel cactus are rarely used as specimens and are almost always planted in groups. Would just one look silly?
And, secondly, Echinocactus grusonii deals with any absent-minded mishandling quickly and savagely, inflicting a “dirty wound,” prone to infection.
So why risk it, you say?

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The key word is “golden.” It has a wonderful solidity, but all those golden spines arrayed like hundreds of tiny propellors impart a surprising lightness too.
Doesn’t that silver pot make it look like a prickly loaf of rising bread?
Placement of cactus in the landscape does bring up valid concerns for pets and children. My little experiment is in a spot safe from wandering corgi paws.

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As far as planting as a specimen versus in groups, I’m still undecided.
Here golden barrel cactus is a specimen with fiery red Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans. I am so not ashamed of wanting to steal this idea.

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With dyckias and Echeveria agavoides at the Huntington’s Desert Garden

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The same area stepping further back, when the Palo Verdes were in bloom, photo by Mitch.

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A group of barrel cactus with the whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia) at the Sherman Gardens

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A small group as an accent in a complex planting at the Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, photo by Mitch Maher.

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With Dragon Trees at Lotusland.

This cactus grows readily from seed, maturing to flowering size in roughly 15 years.
The Getty in particular has a spectacular mass planting of this cactus.

the siren call of cycads

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a local Long Beach front garden, zone 10, south-facing exposure

I recently chanced upon a house and garden that I used to drive by a lot more frequently.
Habits change, errands take one in a different direction, and in that unobserved period a cycad suddenly seems to have become enormous.
And cycads, as a rule, don’t do anything suddenly.

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The most frequently seen cycad, Cycas revoluta, known by the misnomer “Sago Palm,” is probably the only cycad I can safely ID.
I think this is a Sago Palm, though I could easily be mistaken. I’ve never seen one this big.

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That little garden reminded me of the photos I’d yet to post of the cycad garden at Lotusland for you cycad lovers.
I admire cycads, though I haven’t yet come to love them. I really should make up my mind, because it requires an investment of years, decades, to grow them to these sizes.
I know I certainly wouldn’t refuse a good-sized, robin’s egg blue Encephalartos horridus for a tall container. (Like I’d ever expect to find that gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree.)

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Sorry, but I can’t help with IDs of these ancient plants. I know they are very slow growing, so size equates with value, and it’s a huge big deal when they cone.
Ceratozamia, cycas, dioon, encephalartos, lepitozamia, macrozamia — I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
I do know they are one of the most endangered plants in the world.

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Of course, the best way to learn about a plant is to go to the experts.
And it just so happens that The Cycad Society is holding a “Cycad Day” on October 24, 2015.
Maybe you needed a compelling reason to finally make that trip to West Palm Beach, Florida. If so, now you have one. You’re welcome.

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A Southern California source for these plants is The Palm and Cycad Exchange in Fallbrook, California.

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Lotusland’s Rare Plant Auction would be another source.

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I imagine they turn up at the Huntington’s plant sales too.

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Lush and deep green in leaf, some are tolerant of conditions dry enough to suit our native oaks, which don’t appreciate excess summer irrigation.

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Cycads are members of that small, select group of plants dating to the Mesozoic period called gymnosperms (“naked seed”), whose exposed seed are borne in cones.
Angiosperms, relative newcomers but now 80 percent of plants today, generally develop their seeds via flowers.
Credit cycads’ good looks for making people wild enough about them to devote whole gardens to them in climates that can accommodate their needs.
They hail from tropical and subtropical places, like South and Central America.

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That improbable palminess via stiff geometric leaves on a stout trunk, plus their rarity and unique evolutionary status, are part of what turns ordinary people into devotees.

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Where to See Cycads.”


signs of fall

Fall doesn’t announce itself ceremoniously draped in dramatic curtains of crimson and gold.
We’re a little, ahem, minimalist and understated here in Southern California as far as seasonal transitions.
But there are many autumnal similarities we share. Like everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, we do get that spectacular angled light, and the days become inexorably shorter.
That’s my biggest gripe with autumn, losing the long, summer-camp-style days. I haven’t really minded the heat this summer. Really.

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Signs of fall here might include the aeoniums waking up from their summer dormancy. Now they can be brought out from partial shade and placed under a gentler autumn sun.
But not if the days are still reaching the 90s. I moved this pot into full sun too soon and scorched some of the leaves on the echeverias. which amazingly doesn’t show in this photo.
I do grow some aeoniums in full sun all year, but not this rarer, blue-leaved aeonium, probably Aeonium hierrense, underplated with Echeveria agavoides and Sedum confusum.

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More signs of fall might be feeling comfortable with stowing all the fans in the attic.
There will be at least a few more weeks if not a month more of scenes like this. Move over, corgi, and share that fan for once.

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A more horticulturally universal sign of fall would be the Japanese anemones coming into bloom, as they are here at Rancho Los Alamitos.
I heard Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington, speak at the Rancho on Sunday, and I wish he’d had hours more time to share his stories of Hertrich and railroads and building a world-class botanical garden.
Thankfully, he’ll be speaking at Natural Discourse, too, this upcoming October 17.

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More signs of fall: freshly moved plants, like this Agave ‘Snow Glow,’ replacing a lusty Agave sisalana.
(Actually, I didn’t stop planting and shuffling things all summer, and have the losses to show for it. Fall is the much preferred season for planting here.)
‘Snow Glow’ was getting squeezed by some expanding Yucca ‘Blue Boy’ and needed maybe 2 more feet of room to grow, which it will get here.

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The large Agave sisalana (photo taken in May) was pupping furiously and encroaching on a grevillea. It was long past time for its removal.
This rubbery-leaved agave with the sharp leaf tips is often mistaken for a furcraea. Indeed, that is how I acquired it, as “Furcraea sp.”
That shaggy rosette of the dark ‘Zwartkop’ aeonium gets reduced by over half as it drops leaves throughout summer.

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The seemingly thriving adenanthos died in late August, but the grevillea surges ahead. (My fault, the soil was bone-dry.)

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Another reason the sisalana had to go is because both Aloe ‘Hercules’ and Agave ‘Mateo’ are making good size.
“Mateo’ in the blurry background on the right has been incredibly slow.

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Euphorbia ammak made about a foot of growth this summer, most of it after I pulled out the 6-foot Euphorbia lambii growing practically on top of it.
The lambii sheds leaves freely and copiously all summer. Just a word to the wise if you’re planting complex succulent gardens under its canopy.

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There’s no use denying, the signs of fall are coming thick and fast.

CSSA 2015 Biennial Convention, June 14-19, 2015

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agave at South Coast Botanic Garden, a former open pit mine for diatomite extraction, then landfill, now botanic garden

I should probably split this glut of information into several posts, but if I don’t sit down right now and do it, the churning river of obligations that is my life at the moment will whisk me away again.
And there I’ll be, bobbing out of sight, heading for tumbling rapids and waterfalls unknown, while important, time-sensitive information goes unmentioned.

So here’s the really important news, conveniently placed at the top of what may turn into a very long post:

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America/CSSA is holding its 2015 biennial convention in Claremont, California, at Pitzer College, June 14-19.
There hasn’t been a convention in my hometown Los Angeles since 2001, so I’m looking at this as basically a gift from the CSSA to me. (Thank you so much!)
Since 2000, the grounds of Pitzer College have been in the capable hands of Joe Clements, who formerly headed the desert garden at the Huntington.
So, needless to say, the surroundings for the convention will be extraordinary. (You can read Nan Sterman’s article on Pitzer for Pacific Horticulture here.)

Continue reading CSSA 2015 Biennial Convention, June 14-19, 2015

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!


The Kashmir Cypress

A pre-dinner garden tour at Dustin’s.

“What is it?” I asked.

You asked me that last time,” he answered patiently. “It’s psoralea.”

Oh, the Kool-Aid something or other?” (Strange, how memory works.)

Right,” he explained, “from Annie’s.

His psoralea is growing up into a beautiful little tree.

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Continue reading The Kashmir Cypress

The Montezuma Cypress

Wandering a botanical garden such as the Huntington, one cannot but give thanks to rich industrialists for their interest in botany, whatever their sins. We can only hope the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or George Soros will follow in their footsteps.

Thanks to Henry Huntington, I finally made the proper acquaintance of this tree, Taxodium mucronatum, the Montezuma Cypress. I snapped the photo last Saturday as an afterthought, mainly to remember its placement next to the Temple of Love.

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I’ve never found a name tag for this giant, a tree I’ve walked by at the garden many times, and Saturday I overheard the familiar murmuring by those sitting near it or walking its enormous perimeter: “What is it? Do you know its name?” I can and do walk by many trees destined to forever remain anonymous, but any tree that can induce a physical reaction similar to being punched in the stomach deserves to have its name acknowledged. Maybe I’d bump into a docent later on in the day.

For me botanical gardens are increasingly a setting to see trees allowed to unfurl in height and width to their full potential. When such conditions are granted, trees present a face that is both familiar and other. If street trees are tabbies, botanical gardens house the tigers of the arboreal world. This cypress hadn’t been limbed up at all, branches sweeping down to the lawn, ferny dissected leaves within strokable reach.

The Huntington’s excellent bookstore would probably offer a clue, but we didn’t stop there this time, and I never found a docent to ask. And I was sure a quick search on the Internet would quickly churn up a name. This magnificent specimen had to be world famous.

My first guess was metasequoia, but never having met one before I needed confirmation. I started search strings like “metasequoia near Temple of Love.” Nothing. And the images for metasequoia just didn’t fit. “Giant tree Huntington Botanical Temple of Love.” Endless search string variations were tried, all dead ends. I’ve become spoiled, accustomed to having any fact at my keyboard, and being stymied was an exasperating surprise. I did learn that the Temple of Love is of French origin (18th century, Louis XVI period, attributed to Louis Simon Boizot, purchase price $7,824), that Huntington’s railroad fortune included establishing Los Angeles’ first public transportation system, the Red Car, which my great-aunts have such fond memories of, dismantled after WWII to make way for automobiles and freeways (See Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), but no identity for the tree. It was unthinkable that such a patrician of a tree would go nameless.

My head cold made me pretty much unfit for anything else, so I kept up with the search off and on all day yesterday until the name Taxodium mucronatum surfaced, mentioned in a description of the rose garden, which is just adjacent to this tree and the temple. A quick image search confirmed that this might be the answer. Coincidentally, I’d been enjoying reading about the native bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, on southern blogs like Pam’s Digging. I know the Huntington has lost mature oaks to excess irrigation, but this moisture-loving tree must be having no difficulty with the irrigation required for the lawn and nearby rose garden.

It is the girth of the Montezuma cypress that is most remarkable. Many trees easily surpass it in height. From The Ancient Giant of Oaxaca: “The Mexican bald cypress is a member of the Taxodiacea, the family of giant sequoias, California redwoods, and bald cypresses, which, excluding tropical species, has the greatest potential of all tree families for achieving both great age and enormous size.”

I love what the authors write under “Our First Encounter”: “Having seen giant sequoias and redwoods…we were accustomed to the drama of large specimens. However, when engulfed by [its] spreading arms…we experienced a totally different degree of awe, not comparable to anything we had previously encountered. While the big trees of California are majestic, like the skyscrapers of downtown New York they are out of reach. [Here] is an accessible ‘seated giant,’ welcoming us with broad, sweeping branches.”

Without finding a name, I would never have learned that another Taxodium mucronatum, the legendary Cypress-of-Tule known as ‘El Gigante,’ grows in the churchyard of Santa Maria del Tule in the village of Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico, and is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years of age, considered to be among the oldest and most massive of all living things.

If anyone can verify whether the ID of this tree at the Huntington depicted in the above photo is either correct or incorrect, I’d love to hear from you.
(Epilogue: I called the Huntington this morning and had verification from a botanist in less than a minute. Montezuma Cypress it is.)