Tag Archives: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Salvia ‘Desperado’

There’s an irresistible momentum that sweeps me up every time I see a great-looking but unfamiliar plant. If at all possible, it must be tracked down and brought home. And then the game begins: Where to plant it?

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Garden designer Sue Dadd recently brought this sage to my attention, a hybrid of two California native sages, Salvia apiana and Salvia leucophylla, introduced in 1999 by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is where I bought my gallon plant over the weekend at their Grow Native Nursery. I had just seen it planted en masse in a garden of Sue’s design and couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was one of those horticultural epiphanies, an absolutely thrilling sight, all shimmer and soft reflective shine with wands of pale lilac bloom spikes swaying around a large variegated agave.

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You can image search all day long, but there’s very few photos available and not much information either on this gorgeous plant. And that lack of anecdotal documentation is undoubtedly due to its size. It’s huge. Easily to 6 feet with some reports of 9 feet tall and maybe half that in width. How many gardens can accommodate such a bruiser? And it’s not like I’m afraid of big plants. I love how they anchor the garden and draw the eye away from the busy, busy planting underfoot.

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I didn’t even know at the time that this was a Rancho Santa Ana introduction. I was visiting to catch their wildflower show and stopped in briefly at the nursery. There were some nice Agave utahensis for sale, one of which I grabbed. As serendipity would have it, an elegant white sage sat amongst other native salvias on their benches, and the tag said ‘Desperado.’ Delicious ripples of recognition ran down my spine. Knowing its fated size from Sue (“It gets big“), I picked it up, put it back, picked it up again, carried it to the checkout kiosk, abandoned it midway, then finally resolved to buy it, if only to honor the plant scientists who dreamed up such a beautiful vision and made it real and available in a one-gallon pot. Or maybe the hybrid occurred naturally, but still a human had to recognize the potential and propagate it. Science!

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Back home in my garden I played a pretend game of “dress up” with ‘Desperado,’ trying out various sites and associations, knowing full well that, ultimately, there just isn’t room to accommodate it here. With Beschorneria albiflora, the light and water requirements would be a match. I was told at Rancho Santa Ana that this sage, unlike some natives, tolerates garden conditions and doesn’t need to be kept absolutely dry during summer.

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Nice with lime green nicotianas.

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It could easily handle some of the driest spots, too, with Yucca rostrata and euphorbias. And the hummingbird show would be epic.

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Or stir up some drama and high contrast with burgundy phormiums.

The Grow Native Nursery has demonstration gardens that are abloom with all sorts of interesting natives right now. In a border alongside the growing greenhouse was a compact version of another beautiful giant, the native buckwheat St. Catherine’s Lace, appropriately named Eriogonum giganteum. Identical in all respects except size, it was the designer plant of my dreams: Eriogonum giganteum var. compactum. I immediately inquired as to how I could get my hands on one and was told, for now, there are none to be had. That display bed was for propagation only. I’m certain I could fit that buckwheat somewhere in my garden.

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I do have someone in mind for a gift of ‘Desperado.’ This big, bodacious sage will have to be strictly catch and release for me. For zones 8-10 but can be grown as an annual too.

edited for veracity 4/25/17:

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P.S. Changed my mind again. It’s in the ground, very close to the back south wall. An Echium simplex I was letting develop seeds kindly gave up its seat on the bus.

low and green

I’ve got to say it’s been a long time coming, but it’s still just a tiny bit surreal to wake up every day to more MSM coverage on lawns, and by extension, the plants that will have to replace lawns.
Suddenly, in just two months’ time, the governor has bravely steered the conversation to the generally ignored world of plants and garden design.
Now my usual solipsistic focus on what I’m planting has shifted to wondering what in the world everyone else is going to be planting.
How is the mostly plant-indifferent public going to figure this out quick and dirty, so to speak? (Hint: garden designers are your friends!)
My theory on the enduring popularity of lawns is that they’re probably the easiest garden feature to understand and control.
And in a lot of ways, human life and grasses are inextricably linked. Controlling grasses is literally in our blood.
In roughly 10,000 years, life as nervous prey in tall grass has eased into settling into Adirondacks with icy drinks on tightly mown carpets of lawn.
Emotionally, it’s hard to give up those clear, safe sight lines. And mixed plantings require far more decision making, which can quickly push people out of their plant comfort zone.
And where natural rainfall supports a small lawn, why not? A flat, green, negative space has lots of fans. Mid Century architects wouldn’t know what to do outdoors without lawn.
Here in California, the most diehard lawn fans are apparently looking into artificial turf in record numbers.
I admit I find this solution scary for any space bigger than an area rug. It’s already clear this is going to be a tricky transition away from lawns.

Sunset’s “Gotcha Covered” explains the superiority of living plants as ground cover here, in comparison with paved surfaces, but there’ll be similar issues with artificial turf:
As all plants undergo evapotranspiration—the process of releasing water through their leaves, then discharging it back into the environment—they help humidify, oxygenate and cool the air.
Paved surfaces, on the other hand, warm the air by radiating the sun’s heat back into the environment, increasing air temperatures by15 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using groundcovers near, or in place of, paved and hardscaped surfaces helps reduce that air temperature and can even lower air conditioning bills

And what about soil health underneath that artificial turf, or how our gardens serve as habitats for species other than ourselves?
Let’s not panic and rush to roll out the outdoor carpeting just yet.
If the prospect of replacing the lawn seems daunting, just remember the Chinese proverb:
If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.

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Aside from natives, there’s creeping rosemaries, westringias, grevilleas, cotoneasters, helianthemum off the top of my head.
But keep your eyes open, and you’ll see examples of low and evergreen all over town.
Above is Myoporum parviflorum, a fast-growing Australian native with almost inconspicuous tiny white flowers.

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The Salvia leucantha and myoporum were filling in a parking strip at a local market. I’m trying out a red-leaved myoporum at home with succulents.

Las Pilitas Nursery has compiled a list of “Less than a foot high ground cover plants that are native to California.”

San Marcos Growers helpfully breaks up their extensive list into useful categories. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden has lists of Calif. natives by category here.

And for lawn-substitute grasses, there’s no better source of information than John Greenlee.

Toyon, California Holly

This sturdy evergreen shrub native to California, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is also known as the Christmas Berry or California Holly. Here’s why:

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There’s an old urban legend that early European settlers in Los Angeles, where this holly lookalike grew especially abundant, named their new home in its honor.
Hollywoodland. Ultimately shortened to Hollywood.

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At a neighbor’s holiday party over the weekend, I discovered it in full-on berriment growing on the west side of their bungalow.
Of course, today I just had to beg for a few sprigs of berries to bring home.
(As far as I can tell, I’ve now coined that word “berriment,” and it just might stand as my lasting contribution to humankind.)
The foamy mass in the background is a native buckwheat, but not, because I asked, the giant St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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Irresistible impulses, like mine, to bring indoors the toyon’s bright red berries began to threaten its very existence until a law was passed in the 1920s prohibiting picking the berries in the wild.
A ban local birds wildly celebrated. There’s a complicated bit of science and tanins and whatnot involved in the question of toxicity to humans, but the short, safe version is don’t.
Just don’t eat the fresh berries. Notwithstanding the fact that local Indians did all manner of clever things with the flowers, berries and bark, for food and medicine.
Usual size is 8 to 15 feet, but it can and does grow bigger. My neighbor’s toyon is trained as a small tree, but it can also be grown as a hedge.
Easy and forgiving, sun or even part shade, tolerant of regular irrigation or, once established, summer drought.

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Other plants in the vase are sprigs of lemon cypress and olive from our garden, very familiar to Evie, but the toyon from just a dozen houses away might as well have been from another country.
Evie immediately leapt onto the table to investigate. Bears and coyotes are known to eat the berries, but I have no idea what the digestive tract of Felis catus would make of them.

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Evie never sampled, but did make a thorough, full-vase investigation.

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I filled a couple urns for the mantle too, mostly with lemon cypress and olive branches, with just a few sprigs of toyon berries, which manage to communicate holiday merriment even in very small quantities.

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Toyon became the official native plant of Los Angeles on April 17, 2012.

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For berries of your own to bring indoors during the winter holidays as much as you please, toyon is carried in local nurseries, usually at fall planting time.
Los Pilitas Nursery is also a source, as well as the Theodore Payne Nursery and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nurseries.
Any of the above resources will patiently and knowledgeably explain how toyon can be an essential evergreen in your summer-dry garden.

Fall Planting Festival at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 11/2/13

California is defined by its Mediterranean climate. It is the smallest floristic province in North America, but has the greatest diversity of plants north of Mexico. It includes such characteristic vegetation as chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodland and grassland. These plants exhibit classic adaptations to California’s hot dry summers and cool wet winters: leaves that are small and leathery, light-colored or drought-deciduous.” – Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Tomorrow, November 2, 2013, is a special day indeed. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden will host the Fall Planting Festival, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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Think you have other plans? Check out the extensive ceanothus and arctostaphylos offerings on their plant list here. I stopped counting the salvias at 25.

An event at which gardeners can purchase from a dazzling range of California native plants, at the perfect time of year for planting. There will be experts on hand to help people make selections, and to offer planting and care advice. There are a number of cultivars that are unique to RSABG, and some of these will be available at the event.”

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Argyroxiphium sandwicense (Silversword), photo from RSABG

Maybe you can squeeze in another oak; RSABG has 10 from which to choose. The California fuchsia, aka the hummingbird’s BFF, will be represented by 15 selections from their list of epilobium/zauschneria.
Here is where you’ll find that priceless gift for your garden from California’s exquisite botanical legacy.

Garden Party in Westwood, CA Oct 22 & 23

With speakers the likes of such SoCal horticultural heroes as Bart O’Brien from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is hosting this inaugural event, Lili Singer, Emily Green, John Greenlee, all whose talks will be spread across both days, making it almost impossible to choose which day to attend…

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden invites you to celebrate gardens, gardening and gardeners at Grow Native Nursery Westwood’s Autumn Garden Party. Four California native plant experts will present lectures at the two-day event at RSABG’s Los Angeles retail nursery location.”

I’m fairly sure the seslerias are European, not native, so this photo of Sesleria ‘Greenlee’ in my garden is not precisely on topic. But it is an amazingly good grass.


I have so many questions about gardening with natives, whether exclusively or partially, so now must get to the hard work of deciding which day to attend. In case you missed it embedded above, the link to the event is here.