isoplexis and digiplexis side by side

There’s no telling which of these, if either, will be around for photos next year, so now’s the time for a side-by-side color comparison.
According to this article, it was Isoplexis canariensis that was crossed with Digitalis purpurea to give us Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame.’ The photo on the right is of Isoplexis isabelliana, but the color if not the flower shape is a good semblance of I. canariensis, with probably less gold and more burnt orange. (Being ever on the lookout for the tall, spiky, and orange, I’ve trialed a few isoplexis. I. canariensis was short-lived in my garden.) The shocking pink, apricot-throated digiplexis to my eye exudes a Jonathan Adler-inspired play with colors. In its new guise, dear old digitalis has been liberated from the genteel confines of the shady cottage garden. Even though able to handle full sun, especially near the coast, the unseasonal 20-degree jump into the 90s today and for the rest of the week is not to either plant’s liking, or mine for that matter. I’ve had verbascums collapse under similar conditions. They both held up surprisingly well this first day of the heat wave. Some lateral spikes broke off a few days ago but were saved for a vase.

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If it lives up to its sturdy reputation, I wouldn’t be surprised if digiplexis has a future as a florist’s pet.


plant hunting late May

I’ve been checking out local nurseries the past couple weeks, both independents and chains/franchises, which isn’t news since I do this quite a lot, but bringing a serious intent to change some of the garden late in May is news. I know a lot of gardens are just beginning to send out their personal shoppers (us) in May, but a zone 10 summer garden should ideally be settled by now, planned and planted last fall, which always gives superior results compared to a spring planting, much less a late spring planting. There should be no more fiddling with it after May, because summer will knock most new plantings on their ass. But the Diascia personata really had to go. I think it’s a good plant with great potential, maybe a bit more afternoon shade. (Grace, I think you’d love it if the leaves stay clean for you.) And maybe it’s suited for larger gardens, not because of it’s size but because it’s best seen massed, and from a distance. That pinky-coral color never stopped grating on me, which is odd because I don’t mind it on the smaller diascias. On the whole, I prefer Diascia integerrima.

As a replacement, I was leaning towards something blue/violet, in agastaches maybe, but none were to be found local, and small-sized mail order plants would be of no use this late in the season. I settled on Salvia greggii ‘Salmon Dance,’ a) because, well, there it was in 4-inch pots; b) they’re tough as old boots; c) they’re not pink; and d) as a sloppy-seconds planting, at the very least the hummingbirds will be happy. Although it’s not a conscious plan, pink continues to be purged from the garden and the reign of orange goes on.


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This morning I split off some pieces from a large clump of Pennisetum ‘Sky Rocket,’ which is just getting its burgundy plumes, to fill the gap along with the salvia. This pennisetum, planted last year, thickens fast but the blades seem to top out at a relatively modest height of 2 and half feet or so. If it holds to this height, it will prove to be a valuable grass indeed. Grown as an annual in zones below 8.

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Image from San Marcos Growers

And though I didn’t find exactly what I needed, as is typical of plant nursery jaunts, I found lots that I wanted. There was a cordyline I haven’t seen before, Cordyline ‘Electric Star,’ the clumping kind with subtle, phormium-like coloration. I’d have been all over this cordyline in a smaller, cheaper size.

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Another surprise was Isoplexis canariensis for sale locally, exquisitely in bloom in gallon containers at H&H Nursery, under their label. Always exciting to see a plant make the leap and graduate from rare and desirable to readily available and dependable. It’s still a little early to know just how dependable or long-lived. The photo is from my garden in April, but it’s still in bloom and sending out fresh spikes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes as ubiquitous as that other strong orange, leonotis. Keeping with my orange/warm color fetish, there were a couple kniphofias at H&H I haven’t seen available local before, ‘Alcazar’ and ‘Nancy’s Red.’ Selections like these have previously been found only in Digging Dog’s catalogue.

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Also at H&H was an unusual, smooth-skinned Kalanchoe beharensis appropriately named ‘Furless.’ I still can’t decide if smooth leaves are necessarily desirable in a Kalanchoe beharensis. Checking around, I find Glasshouse Works lists something similar called ‘Baby’s Bottom.’ I had no idea there was such variety with this kalanchoe, with some leaves deeply lobed. Mine pictured above was brought home from a plant sale last year, supposedly variegated. It hasn’t shown very strong variegation so far, but the edges do seem a bit more incised and ruffled than the species as I remember growing it.


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I ran into this beauty, one of the annual Chilean bellflowers, nolana, at Brita’s nursery in Seal Beach, where it was growing in the ground, possibly from self-sowing.

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A big, sprawling thing, with black stems and black splotches on the flower capsules. The nolana commonly available from seed is Nolana paradoxa, but an image search didn’t produce photos showing those sexy black markings.

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And I was thrilled to score a couple Digitalis trojana in bloom and hopefully ready to throw some seed around. This is one I don’t mind planting in late spring, because if it’s anything like that other tawny foxglove from Turkey, Digitalis ferruginea, it will hate hanging on sleepless through a mild winter. If it self-sows, it just might find the perfect spot, the one I never seem to find for it.

Ethan Hawke fondles switchgrass at the High Line

There’s an attention grabber. No, that’s not a recent tabloid headline and, yes, I am being facetious, but I find it amazing that the High Line (and switchgrass!) is casually slipped into a bit of puffery about the current goings-on of Ethan Hawke.

From the May 13, 2013, issue of The New Yorker: “Ethan Hawke traipsed the High Line with his hands in his pockets, his blue-gray eyes wide in the strong morning light…Knifing through a bed of switchgrass, he observed…”

No further explanation of what the High Line is, or what switchgrass is for that matter (panicum). It’s just assumed we’ll know — or should know.

In the land of public opinion, the High Line has been an idea in transit, moving relatively swiftly from an impossible feat to a controversial instigator of gentrification, now coasting and settling into a beloved space mentioned in articles about film stars. I’ve been a fan every step of the way. Will the High Line be the impetus for plants and landscapes to begin to share a little space in the collective cultural mind, alongside film stars and cat videos? Wouldn’t that be something? Can headlines like “Autumn crocus now in bloom at the High Line!” be far off?

I’ll always read any piece on Ethan Hawke, because of all the Chekhov plays he’s been doing, because of the Before Sunrise/Sunset movies and Gattaca, and because of the film version he made of Jack London’s White Fang, in which at 21 he costarred with the incomparable Klaus Maria Brandauer and that equally incomparable actor Jed, the wolf mix that played White Fang. The scene where Jed rescues Ethan from a mine collapse is especially riveting, as is the scene when Jed dispatches the bad guys.

But I had no idea Ethan Hawke had narrated a history of the High Line. I suppose his movie Chelsea Walls was a tipoff to his involvement in the neighborhood.

There is something so emotionally satisfying about moving through a landscape — which is why I think there’s something uniquely American about the High Line and its contribution to landscape design. Footfall after footfall expectation builds, scent and sound are stirred, memories too. Memories like walking to and from school on paths through empty fields, an interlude of intense freedom bracketed by responsibility at both departure and arrival. Even in a tiny garden like mine, moving through a landscape is embarking on a journey of discovery. Cutting a little path through the main border and scaling the plants down to knee-high at the path’s edge has been an interesting and rewarding experiment this year.

Where the bricks end is where the new path begins, maybe 8 feet in curved length. It’s really just a dog track in width now that summer growth is spilling onto it, fit for corgi-sized adventures.


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Summer gardens and parks, coming soon to a neighborhood near you.


tricks for the plant collector

A garden book among the many I’ve read that I’m reminded of almost daily is Pamela Harper’s “Color Echoes.” My synopsis goes like this:
The eye is lonely and craves relationships, and will wander around restlessly to seek them out, but is easily satisfied even if you provide only the barest of excuses for associations, like echoes in form and color. I can’t remember whether Ms. Harper intended to offer comfort to plant collectors, but to my way of thinking she did.

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Often — okay, almost always in plant collectors’ gardens the associations are not planned outright, like this variegated anthericum echoing the variegated pampas grass in the tank, a stripey echo that only became apparent when some tall nicotiana were pulled out. But the restless eye picked it up in a heartbeat.

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I love this little Anthericum saundersiae ‘Variegata,’ aka, per Tony Avent of Plant Delights, Chlorophytum saundersiae ‘Agristripes.’ (Pausing for breath.)
And it loves the dry shade under the tetrapanax/rice paper plant.

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Wonderfully subtle, nubby texture when in flower, as it is now.

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And then this figwort (Scrophularia aquatica ‘Variegata’) I stuck in the corner of the tank because it wants constant moisture did me the amazing favor of actually enjoying the spot I selected for it. Another unplanned echo, this time with a twist on leaf shape. I think it qualifies.

The eye seems to like a narration, a good story, a punchline, as much as the brain does, but there’s so many competing interests to consider. Within minutes after pulling out the flowering tobacco, an irate hummingbird skidded into the now empty air space and hovered there emphatically, cycling through a half minute’s worth of blurry, angry beats of his wings.

Just calm down, pal. There’s plenty more where that came from.


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I needed the space for my new mangave from Dustin.

Apart from hurting a hummingbird’s feelings, it’s incredibly painful to pull out a gorgeous, flourishing plant, especially one performing without complaint in dry soil. (Shockingly dry soil, I found out when I slipped the shovel into it, which is probably best. I hate to imagine what a well-watered tetrapanax might be capable of.)
But when I saw that beautiful mangave snug in its new home, I got over it.


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The Yucca recurvifolia, planted years ago, now echoes the ‘Golden Chain’ Arundo donax, a young plant just beginning to hit its stride.
My eye predictably ricochets from one to the other and sighs happily.

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And the plant collector in me sighs happily too, because I didn’t have to resort to using the same plant over and over to strengthen intention and association.
(Hummingbirds visited the green nicotiana last evening after the photo was taken. They seem to prefer the dark red strain but will settle for green in a pinch.)

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I’m also counting the Eryngium pandanifolium as an echo for the shape of the yucca. A photo from March.

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It’s twice as high now, with lots of offshoots from the base. Reputed to be the biggest eryngo.

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The Princess Caroline pennisetum moved to this spot last fall now echoes the burgundy phormium just about equidistant on the other side of the footpath.*

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This pennisetum was over 6 feet tall by the end of last summer, which well passes the phormium in height.
But we’re not talking mirror image in the plant collector’s garden.
Plant collectors feel the eye is easily led and becomes satisfied with the smallest gesture, quickly making the connection.

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Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’
Vavavvoom, what a leaf. (I’m warning you not to google-check my spelling on that. There will be silicone implants involved.)

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Bought last fall, the albizia in its pot on the small patio near the fence echoes the full-grown Euphorbia cotinifolia tree, a self-sown seedling on the opposite side of the garden closer to the office. It’s been warm enough the past week to trigger that familiar sound of euphorbia seed explosions as they hurl themselves into space like little astronauts, hopefully to land on suitable ground. With the onset of mid-summer heat in a couple months, it’ll sound like I’m making Jiffy Pop in the garden. Euphorbia rigida does this too. I can’t remember if E. characias does it or not. The Euphorbia cotinifolia, like the other tropicals, is late to leaf out, so no photo.

I think shape echoes work on the same principle. That I subscribe to this principle has nothing to do with my insatiable appetite for agaves.


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Big green rosettes, little green rosettes. The eye sighs.

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This one didn’t last long, since the kniphofia’s blooms were finished in a few weeks, but it was a twofer, hitting both shape and color.
Kniphofia with Isoplexis canariensis in the background.

A handy trick for plant collectors. Just stuff I’ve been thinking about during this dangerous season of spring plant sales.


*(The footpath was added last fall too, just about slicing through the exact spot where a gigantic 7X7 Salvia canariensis grew. I added a couple of its cuttings to the verge area at the community garden, where I just learned last night that, yes! there is a pipe leak under my garden plot. All last summer I was Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, pointing out that never having to water a garden during a Los Angeles summer is unusual, and it being assumed these were the rantings of a novice with a compulsion to surreptitiously overwater. If anything, I’m incredibly lazy about watering.)

Bloom Day April 2013

Spring is moving fast here in Southern California. I’ve already checked out some of the gardens on our host’s site for Bloom Day, Carol at May Dreams Gardens, and saw lots of traditional spring shrubs and bulbs and perennials like hellebores in amazing colors just coming into bloom. Slowly but surely spring is spreading across the land. Huzzah!

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Spring has had an unmistakably orange cast to it in my garden this year. A kniphofia in its current 50/50 bar coloration.

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Same kniphofia about a week ago.
I moved this one around and didn’t keep track of the name, but all my kniphofias come from Digging Dog, which has a great list.

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Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ is just starting to bloom, and hopefully the isoplexis will hang in there a little longer.
The grass Stipa gigantea was moved here last fall and hasn’t missed a beat, showing lots of bloom stalks.

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Tweedia caerulea/Oxypetalum caerulea may be a rare baby blue in color but it is a surprisingly tough plant.
This one survived forgotten and neglected in a container throughout the mostly rainless winter.
It’s climbing up a castor bean, Ricinus communis ‘New Zealand Purple.’

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The self-sowing annual Senecio stellata started bloom this week. Big leaves, tall, and likes it on the shady side.

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Another tall one, Albuca maxima.

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This South African bulb has been thriving in the front gravel garden, which gets very little summer water. Over 5 feet tall, it reminds me of a giant galanthus.

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More white blooms, Erodium pelargoniflorum, a prolific self-seeder in the front gravel garden.

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The fringe tree on the east side of the house, Chionanthus retusus, just about at maximum white-out.

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The fried egg on a long stalk near the Euphorbia cotinifolia tree trunk is Argemone munita. Hopefully better photos to come.
I wouldn’t mind about six more of these self-sown in the garden for next year.

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Self-sowing white valerian forming buds, with the lavender bells of the shrub prostranthera, the Australian mintbush.

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The mintbush with the succulent Senecio anteuphorbium.

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A gift pelargonium, no ID. The small details in the leaves and flowers of these simple pelargoniums get me every time.

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Closeup of the tiny flowers.

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The plant at its base is even more self-effacing, with a big name for such a quiet plant, Zaluzianskya capensis.

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Lots of self-sown nicotianas. The flowers are too small to be pure N. alata, so it probably has some langsdorfii in the mix.
Whatever its parentage, lime green flowers always work for me.

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Nicotiana ‘Ondra’s Brown Mix,’ with a potted begonia for scale. This strain of flowering tobacco has been keeping hummingbirds happy all winter.
This is the first begonia to bloom (again, no ID!), and the colocasias are just beginning to leaf out.

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The porch poppies, with lots more poppies in bloom in the garden.

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The anigozanthos might be a tad too close to the euphorbia, but I love the lime green and orange together.

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The last two photos are by MB Maher, who was in town briefly and tried to get more of the Euphorbia lambii from a higher angle.

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MB Maher’s photo of the Salvia chiapensis with a bit of purple in the center from Penstemon ‘Margarita BOP,’ planted from gallons a couple weeks ago.
I have a feeling that yucca will be in bloom for May Bloom Day. See you then!

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