Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bamboos at San Francisco Botanical Garden, part 1

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend some time at San Francisco Botanical Garden. This 55-acre sanctuary in the heart of Golden Gate Park is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and yet it is only minutes from the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. You can park your car in the Music Concourse parking garage and easily walk to all these places.

San Francisco Botanical Garden has 8,000 plants varieties from around the world, grouped into a dozen or so collections, including the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest, the Ancient Plant Garden, the Temperate Asia Garden and one of my favorites, the Moon-Viewing Garden with its gazing pond and Japanese lanterns.

While San Francisco Botanical Garden doesn’t specialize in bamboo per se, there are several dozen bamboo species scattered across the various collections. I enjoy scouting for bamboo (or other plants I might be interested in) in public gardens because they typically have mature specimens. That gives me a good idea of what a given species looks like once it is fully grown. In a sense, this is like test driving a car because it allows you to quickly determine whether that bamboo you fell in love with in a book will actually fit into your yard.

Following are some of the clumping bamboos I saw at San Francisco Botanical Garden. The running bamboos I encountered are described in a separate post.

Chusquea (clumping)

Chusquea is a large genus of clumping bamboos from Central and South America. According to the literature, there are as many as 200 different species, some of which haven’t even been described yet. Only a dozen are currently available in the U.S.

Many Chusquea species are native to tropical and subtropical regions and tolerate no frost; others, such as Chusquea culeou and Chusquea gigantea, grow at higher elevations in the foothills of the Andes and are hardy to 0°F.

Unlike most other bamboos, chusqueas have solid culms. They develop many branches at each node which gives them a unique feather-duster look. With their small leaves and arching habit, chusqueas are highly ornamental. However, their intolerance of heat—especially warm nights and warm soil—restricts their use to coastal regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. The Sacramento area is too hot for chusqueas; while they do survive here, they look ratty much of the year. In the fall I planted a Chusquea gigantea at my in-laws’ property in the Northern California mountains; I’m hoping that in spite of occasional 90°F days, it will thrive there. 

While chusqueas are technically clumping bamboos, many of them have long rhizome necks, which means that new culms can come up at quite a distance from the mother plant, sometimes as much as a foot away. This behavior makes them unsuitable for really small yards.

While San Francisco Botanical Garden, according to the Plant Finder on their website, has six chusquea species I only found one: Chusquea sulcata.

Chusquea sulcata. With its thin leaves and whorls of branches at each culm node, this species typifies the chusquea look. It’s a tropical species, hardy only to 28°F.

Himalayacalamus (clumping)

Himalayacalamus is a genus of clumping bamboos native to the lower elevations of the Himalayas. Himalayacalamus species are not very cold-hardy (they sustain damage below 20°F or so) but at the same time they don’t tolerate high summer temperatures either, especially in conjunction with high humidity and nighttime temperatures above 70°F. These requirements make them ideally suited for the San Francisco Bay Area. Here they thrive as can be seen from the photos below.

We have a Himalayacalamus hookerianus ‘Teague’s Blue’ in a shady spot in our back yard, and while it has been a slow grower, it does look very healthy in spite of our high summer temperatures. This may sound like a contradiction of the cultural requirements I just mentioned, but our humidity is very low in the summer, and even on a 95°F degree day, nighttime temperatures typically drop into the low 60s thanks to the Delta Breeze coming in from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to the south of us.

The key to growing Himalayacalamus in the Sacramento Valley is to provide a location that is in the shade most of the time—but definitely in the afternoon—and that gives protection from high winds that would otherwise desiccate the foliage. A spot under a mature tree would work well.

Himalayacalamus hookerianus, commonly known as “blue bamboo”. Its adult height is in the 15-20 ft. range.
New culms of blue bamboo start out whitish blue and age to a burnished gold color. I find this contrast to be strikingly beautiful.
Mature clump of Himalayacalamus falconeri ‘Damarapa’, commonly known as candy-cane bamboo for the vivid colors on new culms: green stripes against reds, purples and yellows. Like blue bamboo, it reaches an adult height of approx. 20 ft..
 Himalayacalamus falconeri ‘Damarapa’, close-up of the same clump. Older culms age to a burnished yellow, typical of most Himalayacalamus species.
Himalayacalamus asper, also known as Tibetan princess bamboo. This species sports very small and delicate-looking leaves. As you can see in the photo above, the culms bend under the weight of the leaves, resulting in a beautiful willow shape but requiring more space than the other Himalayacalamus species.

Thamnocalamus (clumping)

Thamnocalamus is a genus of clumping bamboos native to the Himalayas and—in a quirky twist of evolution—South Africa. San Francisco Botanical Garden doesn’t have any of the Himalayan species, but they do have the South African one, Thamnocalamus tessellatus, or “bergbamboes” as it is called in South Africa.

Thamnocalamus tessellatus covers vast stretches of land in its native South Africa. It is considered one of the most drought-tolerant species while also hardy to 0°F. As you can see in the photo above, it forms an impressive clump under ideal conditions. However, closer up, it isn’t the most refined species owing to culm and branch sheaths that remain attached for several seasons and end up looking tattered.

Side note: While Africa isn’t the first place that comes to mind when we think of bamboos, there are in fact several species native to the African continent, in particular sub-Saharan Africa (genus Oxytenanthera), South Africa (Thamnocalamus tessellatus) and East Africa (Yushania alpinia). In addition, the cultivation of non-native bamboos is being explored in countries like Kenya for their commercial potential; check out this interesting article.

To read about running bamboos at San Francisco Botanical Gardens, click here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is native to much of California. Some sources say that it is forage for deer but other sources suggest that deer actually avoid it. Not being a deer expert, I can’t really say what is true and what isn’t. However, I do know that this well-behaved, non-invasive perennial prefers sandy or well-draining soils and needs full sun to thrive. It flourishes even in difficult spots that are exposed to reflected heat.

101227_muhlenbergia_rigens1Deer grass is anything but rare here in the Sacramento Valley. It is often planted in public places (for example the parking lot of the West Sacramento IKEA store where it elevates what would otherwise be a pretty dreary concrete landscape) and looks stunning in mass plantings or combined with finer-textured grasses like Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima).

Each plant can form a rather sizable clump up to 5 ft. wide by 2-4 ft. high, with the flower spikes reaching another 2 ft. above the clump. It must have enough space to achieve its full potential. I often see it in residential landscapes where it looks lost, crammed into a planting bed with other perennials. That is the very reason why I haven’t introduced deer grass into our garden: We simply don’t have the room to dedicate to it. However, if we had acreage, I’d create an area with nothing but ornamental grasses, and deer grass would feature very prominently.

101227_muhlenbergia_rigens2In the meantime, I enjoy this majestic, if coarse, grass wherever I come across it, such as today at the Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. (I’ll write a separate post about the Sundial Bridge later this week.)

Deer grass has excellent drought tolerance and is therefore well suited to a dry garden. It is native to USDA hardiness zones 7-10 but it may do well in colder climates as well.

Deer grass is available at most nurseries in our area. If you have the space and love ornamental grasses or minimalist landscapes, give this one a try!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book review: “Bizarre Botanicals” by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

Santa Claus must know me well because for Christmas he brought me two books that would delight any plant lover. The first one, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf, is about a small group of 18th century naturalists who turned Britain into the horticultural epicenter of the world. I’ve just started this book and will write a review when I’m done.

The other one is Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-of-Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants, by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross. I must have seemed awfully anti-social yesterday because I spent a good part of the afternoon devouring this book—pun intended, considering that 35 pages are dedicated to carnivorous plants.

I’ve got to tell you right away: This is one of the most entertaining plant book you’re likely to find anywhere. It portrays 78 plants that for one reason or another are “weird and wonderful.” Subdivided into ten different categories, the book introduces us to insect-eating plants like Venus flytrap, pitcher plants, sundrops and butterworts; plants with fantastical inflorescences like medusa orchid and bird-of-paradise; plants with repulsive odors like voodoo lily and titan arum; plants with odd behavior like the telegraph plant which has little leaflets that move up and down in jerky steps; and plants whose flowers or stems remind us of animals, like panda ginger, cockscomb and bat-faced cuphea. The descriptions are full of interesting tidbits, written in a lively and entertaining style that fuses botanical science with a wicked sense of humor.

Larry Mellichamp, a professor of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens, has grown every plant described in the book. Drawing on his personal experience, he supplements the plant descriptions with hands-on information for everyday gardeners. This elevates Bizarre Botanicals from a curious novelty to a practical guide all of us can use should the fancy to bring home some of these strange beauties strike us.

While many of the plants described in the book come from the tropics and can only be grown in a greenhouse or as houseplants, quite a few are hardy enough to be grown outside in many parts of the country, including scouring rush (what we Westerners call “horsetail” or “snake grass”), Dutchman’s pipe, passionflower, bleeding heart, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

I was thrilled to find plants we have in our own garden, like voodoo lily, black aeonium, and sea holly. Others like baseball plant and old man cactus have been on my wish list for a long time, and reading about them in Bizarre Botanicals has given me the impetus to actually plant them at home. I might even get myself a glass terrarium for a small collection of carnivorous plants.

I should mention that the book is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, most of them taken by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross, assistant director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens.

Bizarre Botanicals is the kind of book you’ll want to share with other plant lovers. If you’re not comfortable loaning out your own copy, get another one as a gift.

To see a preview of the book, click here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nighttime visitor

On Christmas morning we not only found presents under the tree but also a surprise on my in-laws’ back patio:


These footprints were right next to the house. My father-in-law got out a tape measure for scale:


For comparison, these are our black lab’s footprints:


So who was our nighttime visitor?

A mountain lion, also known as cougar or puma.

My in-laws see tracks occasionally, but never this close to the house. For all we know, this particular mountain lion could have watched us watching TV in the living room.

Or maybe it was after my father-in-law’s private stash of MGD, stored in the snow right outside the kitchen door:


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Winter impressions

101223_cedar_needles2Winter in my parents-in-law’s garden in Mount Shasta in the mountains of far Northern California. I love exploring their yard with my camera. In addition to the planting beds and landscaping features they created, their property has a lot of native vegetation that is very different from what we have in Davis.

The elevation here is 3,500 ft. and the town receives quite a bit of snowfall because 14,179 ft. Mount Shasta, a massive volcano rising above the town on the east side, forces moisture out of the air as it rises and cools.

101223_pine_needlesAt home in Davis we are able to putter about the yard even in the dead of winter. There’s always something to do outside, not just cleanup work, but also preparing new garden beds, even doing some planting. In contrast, here in the mountains the gardener is forced into several months of inactivity because of the weather. The most that can be done is reorganize the garden shed or winter sowing. And of course there are always plant catalogs to peruse!

Still, there’s something wonderfully meditative about sitting in a warm house and looking out over an expanse of white broken only by towering pine and cedar trees—and soon bamboo.


The remnants of this year’s plants often have an amazing sculptural quality. For gardeners in cold-winter climates, they are a reminder of what their yards were like just a few months ago, and at the same time a promise of what next year will bring.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bamboo in the snow—Christmas update

At Thanksgiving I posted photos of the bamboos we planted in my parents-in-law’s yard in Mount Shasta, CA (zone 7) this summer. They’ve been covered by snow since mid-November, some of them completely buried. During that time, the lowest temperature was 13°F, with average lows in the high 20s. These are hardly extreme temperatures compared to what other parts of the country have been experiencing. That’s a good thing considering that these bamboos are still pretty small—some were planted from 1-gallon containers.

I took a walk around the property this morning and checked out all the bamboos. Everything looks good. I saw no leaf burn and no culm damage. That gives me hope for decent growth next year.

Yellow vivax (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureoculis’)
Even bent over and frozen in place this is a supremely beautiful plant. The culm color is stunning against the snow.

Giant black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra ‘Punctata’)
This variety is supposed to grow bigger than the regular nigra, and it has been very vigorous here: Originally planted from a 5-gallon container into a half barrel, it had to be moved from the half barrel into the ground after less than 6 months.
A nigra shoot poking out of the snow is a pretty strange sight. It looks alive but I’m not certain that it will actually continue to grow next year.


Fargesia denudata
The leaves are looking a bit yellow but are definitely alive.

David Bisset bamboo (Phyllostachys bissetii)
This is a small tissue-cultured plant that we put in the ground this fall. It’s hard to spot in the first photo above but it’s still very much alive. I’m curious to see how it will do in 2011—it has a reputation as a vigorous grower.

Yellow groove bamboo
(Phyllostachys aureosulcata)
This one is doing really well. The leaves look great, with no sign of distress. That’s what I expected, considering how cold hardy this species is.


Stone bamboo (Phyllostachys angusta)
This was the largest plant we put in the ground (25-gallon container). As you can see, about half the culms are frozen to the ground but the plant appears to be in excellent condition.

Those of you in the Midwest or East who are accustomed to much harsher temperatures are probably laughing at how much of a mother hen I am around these bamboos. But remember that I’m used to gardening in zone 9b where a forecast for a 28°F night has everybody scrambling for frost blankets. This is the first experience I’ve ever had growing bamboos in a climate that gets snow, and I want to learn as much as I can.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seasons greetings

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, or just plain old Happy Holidays to all of you!

I’ll be taking a few days off, but there will be new posts early next week.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bambutopia on Facebook

Just a quick reminder that my blog now appears on Facebook as well. If you prefer to read it there, simply go to and click the “Like” button. My posts will then automatically appear on your wall together with your other updates.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Oxalis, how I loathe thee

I’ve heard people say that weeds are just unloved flowers; plants whose virtues have not yet been discovered; or perennials that haven’t been educated yet.

Common yellow oxalis sprouting with abandon
in our succulent bed

I don’t agree. What I do agree with is the Danish proverb “Weeds never die”. When everything else is on the wane, weeds are busy laying the groundwork for next year’s invasion.

Oxalis growing between the stems of a sea urchin sedum
(Sedum lineare ‘Variegatum’)

My biggest enemy in the realm of weeds is oxalis, or wood sorrel. There are many oxalis species grown as ornamentals, and yes, they can be beautiful. The one I’m having a beef with is the common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta). It grows everywhere and at any time of year—the photos in this post were taken just now, a few days before Christmas—and it seems to prefer places where I would have to sacrifice skin and blood to get to it, like the base of prickly succulents. It prefers alkaline soil, which is pretty much all we have, and it loves the sun, of which we have plenty as well. Its roots go straight down and its stems are weak, making it impossible to pull out neatly. If you leave any of the root behind, the plant will happily make a comeback.

Roundup (glyphosate) is an effective weapon, but for every oxalis you kill, ten more are waiting in the wings—and it’s all to easy to damage desirable plants growing nearby. Plus, the environmental impact of herbicides is something that does concern me, so I only use Roundup when I absolutely have to.

Newly sprouted oxalis at the base of a potted Bambusa dolichomerithalla 'Silverstripe'. This is fresh soil that we had brought in a month ago; I doubt that the oxalis seed was in the soil. It somehow landed on the soil after I potted up this bamboo.

So, what to do about this noxious devil with the pretty yellow flowers? I’ve read of people using the wand of a steam cleaner to literally cook weeds in situ. I was going to give this a try but our steam cleaner is for mopping floors only and doesn’t come with a wand. If any of you have successfully employed this method, please let me know. I like the idea of it, but I’m not entirely convinced that it would destroy the roots of oxalis, too, and unless you kill those, the leaves will grow back in a hurry.

Another solution I’ve heard about is using a portable flame thrower, or “weeding torch”, that public works departments often use for weed suppression in parks. While I don’t have one of those, I do have a chef’s torch—the kind you use to caramelize sugar on top of crème brûlée. Being the curious mind that I am, I decided to give it a try.

My trusty chef’s torch, never used for anything this crude
Chef’s torch in action—will the oxalis survive the blaze?
…and after

The chef’s torch certainly worked. It burned the oxalis to a crisp in a matter of seconds, creating a pretty nasty smell in the process. Since our succulent bed is criss-crossed by drip lines, I had to be careful not to get too close. That severely limits the usefulness of the chef’s torch, or any other fire-spewing implement, in this bed and all others that are on a drip system.

But this was just a quick experiment anyway. I’ll keep a close eye on the areas that I torched to see if the oxalis will come back. I have no idea how deep into the ground the heat penetrated so I don’t know if the roots are dead or alive.

To get rid of the rest of the oxalis, I’ll resort to my tried-and-true methods. Old-fashioned weeding implements work, at least in easily accessible places. Smothering the seedlings with newspaper plus a layer of mulch does the trick as well. And as last resort there’s always a well-placed squirt of Roundup for the areas that I just can’t get to easily, combined with a quick plea for forgiveness from Mother Nature. But no matter how many minor battles you walk away from victoriously, it seems that you simply cannot win the war against oxalis.

A few stalwarts still blooming

During a break in the rain I took a quick stroll through the garden and snapped a few photos of what’s still in bloom. It was good to see how much color there still is. Aside from the cold spell over Thanksgiving, our weather has been fairly mild, prolonging the flowering season of these late bloomers.

Wouldn’t it be nice it we made it through the winter without any more frost? Or is the mere act of expressing that wish asking for trouble?

Butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium)
I bought 10 rhizomes from an eBay seller in Hawaii
a few years ago and this is the first year they’ve bloomed.
In fact, I didn’t see the first blossom until mid-November.
I have high hopes for next year!
Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens)
This succulent native to the grasslands of South Africa does very well in our climate—almost too well. I bought three plants in 4-inch containers a few years ago and I’ve divided and re-divided them many times since then. All you have to do is break off a piece of the plant along the rhizome that grows very close to the surface (sometimes even above ground) and stick it in the soil. Like aloes, the leaves contain a gel-like substance used to alleviate burns, cuts and rashes.
Lavender (Lavandula sp.)
Lavender blooms almost year round in our climate.
Bog sage (Salvia uliginosa)
Like most sages, an indefatigable bloomer for us.
Rose leaf sage (Salvia involucrata var. puberula)
5 feet tall now and blooming non-stop since late summer.
Grass aloe hybrid (Aloe 'Grassy Lassie')
A typical winter blooming aloe.
Echeveria (Echeveria imbricata hybrid)
101219_farfugium-giganteum-flower1 2
Giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum giganteum)
One of my favorite shade perennials.

In addition to these late bloomers, I spotted a few plants about to start blooming.

Flower stalk of Aloe microstigma
Another winter-blooming aloe.
Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
We have about 10 clumps of calla lilies in our back yard that survive the summer without much supplemental water. Their foliage dies off by mid-summer and comes back in the fall. In a month, we’ll have dozens of blooming callas, provided we don’t get any hard freezes.