Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nocturne in the mist

101211_nocturne2Fog at night transforms even the most familiar surroundings.








101211_nocturne1A quiet hush settles over the neighborhood.








101211_nocturne5Sounds, while muffled, seem paradoxically intensified.








101211_nocturne6What is mundane by day appears mysterious under the cloak of darkness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Welcome, Sacramento Bee readers!

As of December 14th, my blog is being syndicated on the Sacramento Connect site operated by the Sacramento Bee. All my posts can be found under Interests > Garden.

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome all Sacramento Connect and Sacramento Bee readers. Thank you for your interest! If you have any questions or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. There’s a Comments area underneath each post.

If you prefer to read my posts on Facebook, please go to my Facebook page and “like” me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don’t call me Moss, sir!

The other day, I wrote about moss popping up in our yard. In my original post, I had a photo of something that superficially looks like a moss, but really isn’t. Instead, it’s a lichen.

Lichen on rock in our back yard

Moss, lichen—they all grow on rocks and trees, so how big can the difference be? To my amazement, I realized that the difference is fundamental.

Mosses, even though they don’t have roots or flowers, are real plants with tiny stems and leaves. They prefer moist and dark areas and form mounds or mats that are soft to the touch. When no water is available, mosses dry up and can survive in that state for quite some time.

Tree moss (Isothecium myosuroides) in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Lichens, on the other hand, are composite organisms consisting of a fungus living in a symbiotic relationship with a partner that is capable of photosynthesis (either an algae or a cyanobacterium). I like how lichenologist Trevor Goward describes it: “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”.

Green and red lichen, Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania

Unlike mosses, likens are less dependent on a steady supply of water and hence look more or less the same year round. They can survive in climatic extremes, like arctic tundra and hot deserts, but are also found in more temperate environments, sometimes even in the same place as mosses. (For a fascinating article on lichen, check out this post by fellow garden blogger Alan Lorence.)

Lichen and moss on boulder and tree, Yosemite National Park

For a layperson (like me), it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between lichen (fungi + algae) and straight algae. I wasn’t sure if the orange-red in the next two photos is from lichen and algae, but it seems to be algae (specifically a green algae with “abundant orange secondary pigments forming a shaggy coat”).

The entire side of this house is covered by algae; this is actually the fog signal building at Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco
Lichen (white) and algae (orange-red), Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California

The green stuff covering the rocks and pilings in the next photo is algae as well.

Algae-covered rocks, La Push, Washington

It’s safe to say that the only place most gardeners will ever encounter algae in their yard is in a pond or other body of standing water. Unless they have water-front property, that is.

Another plant often confused with moss is “Spanish moss” (Tillandsia usneoides). Not a big surprise considering that “moss” is part of the name. Actually, Spanish moss is an epiphytic bromeliad. “Epiphytic” means that it grows on another plant, such as a tree, and extracts all its nutrients from the air and rain. Bromeliads include house plants such as billbergias and guzmanias; dyckias and hechtias popular in xeriscaping; as well as the common pineapple.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) in Louisiana
Photo from Wikipedia

Spanish moss only grows in areas where the climate is sufficiently warm and humid, such as the southern and southeastern U.S. In fact, when I think of Spanish moss, pictures of stately antebellum mansions with oak-lined avenues come to mind. Spanish moss prefers southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) as well as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), another iconic tree of the South, because the leaves of these trees leach minerals that serve as nutrients for Spanish moss. It hangs from trees like a long silvery beard and can form quite a sizable mass.

I think Spanish moss looks utterly beautiful; it creates a wistful and brooding atmosphere that brings to mind Gone with the Wind and other tales of days long gone by.

Barking up the right tree

Trees are beautiful for many reasons: shape, foliage, flowers, seeds. We grow them for food, timber, shelter and shade. We hug them, we worship them, and we fight over them.

I love trees, and what I love most is their bark. The colors and patterns of bark are a feast for the eye. Its surface textures beg to be explored with our hands. Bark is what makes a tree unique. Bark is sexy.

And bark is a fantastic subject for abstract photography.

Gum tree (Eucalyptus sp.),
Davis, CA
Gum tree (Eucalyptus sp.),
Davis, CA
Sydney red gum (Angophora costata),
Sydney, Australia
Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius),
Davis, CA
California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera),
Sacramento, CA
Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora),
Sydney, Australia
Cut-leaf European white birch
(Betula pendula ‘Crispa’),
Davis, CA
Red alder (Alnus rubra),
Forks, WA
Cork oak (Quercus suber),
Davis, CA
Not a tree, but a tree aloe (Aloe barberae),
Sydney, Australia

These photos, all taken in 2010, only the scratch the surface as far as the immense variety of bark is concerned. Many more images can be found on Google.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where did all this moss come from?

I just noticed that all of a sudden we have moss growing in places where there seemingly wasn’t any just a few weeks ago. It’s been gray and damp, so conditions are certainly amenable. But where did all this moss come from?

Moss on the trunk of our chaste tree
(Vitex agnus-castus)

Mosses are among the oldest plants on earth, going back 400-500 million years. Not surprisingly, their structure is very simple. They don’t have roots and instead use what are known as “rhizoids”, thin hair-like filaments, to attach themselves to rough surfaces. These rhizoids don’t take up water or nutrients so the plant extracts everything it needs from the air and water.

Moss on our concrete patio 

Mosses don’t flower and hence don’t produce seeds; instead they reproduce by spores, like many other “prehistoric” plants.

Moss in cracks between concrete slabs 

Moss can live in a dehydrated state for a long period of time. Within hours of receiving water, they rehydrate and resume photosynthesis—and once again assume their customary color. This is typically green but can also be brown, red or even white.

Moss grows best in moist and dark areas, which is why you’re more likely to find it in your shade garden or overwatered lawn than in a sun-drenched perennial bed.

Moss on a pumice boulder. Pumice is very rough and porous so moss has an easy time attaching itself to this type of rock. 

In climates that get rain year round, moss is common. Many gardeners even consider it a nuisance, especially when it begins to grow in thick mats where it’s not wanted, like on roofs.

Close-up of moss patch

However, in our Mediterranean climate, moss is a harbinger of the rainy season and as such, we don’t get to enjoy it all that long. For me, the unexpected pop of color I keep finding in random places around the yard is a welcome sight.

So to answer my original question: Where did all this moss come from? It didn’t come from anywhere, it was always here.

Lots of moss on rock; Yosemite National Park, California

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Visiting Mad Man Bamboo

On Saturday I visited Man Man Bamboo in Rocklin, CA, about 20 minutes east of Sacramento. This small backyard bamboo nursery is run by Sean Bigley and his wife Christy. Most of the bamboos in our yard are from Sean. He has been very good to me over the years, not only supplying me with top-notch plant material, but also giving me expert advice.

Today I had my camera along so I took some photos of the Bigley’s beautiful and peaceful home nursery.

Mad Man Bamboo himself, Sean Bigley

Sean sells several dozen varieties of both clumping and running bamboos and can special-order rare and exotic species he doesn’t have in stock. In the next two photos, you can see just a few of the many 5- and 15-gallon plants he has for sale.

Back yard with potted bamboos for sale
Potted bamboos for sale; giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) on the right

Sometimes bamboos grown in unexpected ways. Take a look at the next photo.

This potted sweetshoot bamboo (Phyllostachys dulcis) has no above-ground growth but a rhizomes escaping through a drain hole has turned into a culm (this is called a “whipshoot”).

I’m a big fan of clumping tropical bamboos, and I just love how the two bambusas in the next photo complement each other—I think it’s a very successful combination of foliage textures. Sean also has a few other oldhamiis that are now producing impressively thick culms.

101211_Bambusa-oldhamii tuldoides_01
Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) on the left, punting pole bamboo (Bambusa tuldoides) on the right


Here’s a new oldhamii shoot. For bamboo lovers, seeing new shoots popping out of the ground is one of the most exciting aspects of growing bamboos.

Bambusa oldhamii shoot arriving late in the season; hard to say whether it will survive the winter and continue its journey skyward in the spring. But even if it dies, there’ll be more shoots next year.

In addition to many common varieties, Sean also has some rarities, like this Dr. Don, a cultivar of the common golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) whose culms are covered with a white powder (called “bloom” in botanical jargon) that gives them a bluish look.

Dr. Don bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Dr. Don’) in a stock tank very similar to what we have in our back yard
Close-up of Dr. Don culms

I love the look of the potted arrow bamboo in the following photo. I hadn’t seen an oval glazed pot like that before. I think the combination of the unusual pot and the large, almost tropical leaves of the arrow bamboo creates a compelling focal point.

Potted arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica)

Planted right next to the Bigley’s front porch is a green Buddha belly that is beginning to throw impressive culms. This one had to be topped otherwise it would have grown right into the porch roof.

Nice-sized culm on green Buddha Belly (Bambusa ventricosa)

The bambusas shown in the next photo complement each other beautifully in terms of culm color and leaf texture. I think it is a very successful planting.

Bamboo tapestry (from left to right): Buddha belly (Bambusa ventricosa), Alphonse Karr (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’), Golden Goddess (Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’)

Holiday decorations and bamboo? Why not! Throw a strand of lights over a tropical clumper like this Chinese Goddess, one of the smallest bambusas, and your yard looks like it could be in Florida or Hawaii.

Chinese Goddess bamboo (Bambusa multiplex 'Riviereorum') with holiday lights

More information about Mad Man Bamboo:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Five things in our yard that I love right now

The near-constant gray skies and frequent rain these past couple of weeks have made me more morose than I like to be. It’s all too easy to focus on the ugly things winter brings to our gardens.

Today, as a reprogramming exercise, I decided to look for five things in our yard that make me feel good. This is what I’ve come up with, in no particular order.


Succulents: They don’t really change in the winter. They’re always beautiful, and we have lots of them. This is an Aloe marlothii that has doubled in size in the last two years. When it eventually blooms, it will look like this.

Still blooming: This Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips') will probably bloom for another month, then take a break and start up again in late spring. It’s a real power house. Most flowers are red and white, but some are pure white, others pure red.
Soon to bloom: If temperatures don’t drop too much, I expect this flowering maple (Abutilon x hybridum ‘Souvenir de Bonn’) to bloom soon. There are quite a few new buds, and even some flowers. Of course if it gets really cold, it may die back, but today I’m only thinking happy thoughts.
101210_tropicals peartree
Tropicals still hanging on: My elephant ears (Alocasia macrorrhizos ‘Borneo Giant’) still looks good. The leaves are larger than ever, almost 2 ft. across and 4 ft. tall. The cold spell at Thanksgiving (27-28°F) didn’t faze it at all, but it’s protected by the house on one side and trees in front and behind it.
Citrus: Our Bearss limes are ripe—so ripe that they’re falling off the tree. Yes, these are limes even though they look like lemons. They start out dark green but eventually turn bright yellow.

Which five things in your yard do you like right now?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creeping wire vine


A few days ago I freshened up a large glazed pot that has been under the bay trees in our back yard for the last three years. In its original incarnation (see photo on the right), it contained a purple cordyline (Cordyline australis 'Purple Sensation'), a Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) and a creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris).

The cordyline snapped in half during a windstorm because its stem was thin and weak. I replanted it in a different pot where it’s been doing well. The Japanese forest grass got moved to the “Japanese” garden outside the dining room because it looked too crowded in the pot. What stayed was the wire vine.

The next feature plant was a young Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi). The vision I had in my head was grand but the tree fern just didn’t do much at all. For every new frond it produced, it lost an old one so it never got any bigger. I suspect it had to do with our low humidity and high temperatures in the summer—very different from the climate where they grow natively. So a few weeks ago, I yanked out the tree fern. What stayed was the wire vine.

101208_brown_pot_with_variegated_fatsiaThe wire vine, over the last couple of years, has grown tremendously. What I originally planted were two 4” containers, one on either side of the pot. Now the pot is all but invisible beneath the cascading tangle of leaves and intertwining stems. I love the effect; it’s like a miniature version of an overgrown old garden.

The moribund tree fern has now been succeeded by a variegated Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’). When I was at Capital Nursery in Sacramento on Saturday, I initially picked out another cordyline but when I saw this aralia, I had to have it. Its large leathery leaves are a perfect foil for the dainty-looking but tough leaves of the wire vine. I’m very pleased with this new combination and I hope it will last longer than any of my previous experiments.

I’ve read reports online where people complain of how invasive creeping wire vine is when planted as a groundcover. They say that the stems root wherever they touch the ground. Since mine is in pots, I’ve not had any problems. Considering that the ground under the bay trees is a near-solid mat of fibrous roots, and bone-dry to boot, I’m not worried that it will take over.

Close-up of leaves and stems
You can see how tough this little plant is!

We also have wire vine planted in a pot next to the granite lantern in our Japanese-inspired garden bed outside the dining room. The “thriller” plant here is a sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), and its growth habit and texture form a beautiful complement to the wire vine.

Wire vine and sword fern in our “Japanese” garden
Wire vine spilling over the bamboo edging
Close-up of wire vine leaves and stems clambering over the bamboo edging

Can you tell that I just love this intricate-looking plant that is tough as nails?

Latin name: Muehlenbeckia axillaris
Common name: Creeping wire vine, maidenhair vine, mattress vine
Native to: East coast of Australia; New Zealand
Light preference: Sun to shade; doesn’t appear to be picky
Water needs: Average to low; leaves will go limp if too dry
USDA zone: 6-9