Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New plants that make me drool

It’s the time of year when mail-order catalogs and e-mail offers come flooding in, tempting us with the latest plant introductions. While fairly immune to flowering plants, I’m a total pushover when it comes to ornamental grasses, succulents and anything with striking foliage.
Here are some recent drool-worthy discoveries:

bouteloua_gracilis_Blonde_Ambition
Blonde Ambition blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition'). A Plant Select winner for 2011, this extremely striking and very cold hardy grass was discovered and introduced by High Country Gardens, and as far as I can tell can is only available from them at the moment. I saw the regular Bouteloua gracilis in a planting in downtown Davis last year and fell in love with it. This cultivar is almost twice as tall and hence even more impressive. High on my list of must-have plants.
 
pennisetum_vertigo
From Proven Winners comes a new pennisetum called Vertigo (Pennisetum purpureum ‘Vertigo’). This fountain-grass relative from the grasslands of Africa is purple and big—up to 4 ft. I think it would make a great backdrop for smaller grasses with thinner leaves and delicate flower pannicles, such as dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Little Bunny'), or even for flowering perennials like shorter echinacea hybrids.
 
chasmantium_var
Variegated northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist‘) from ItSaul Plants. Take a look at this closeup of the leaves. Looks just like a variegated bamboo (Pleioblastus fortunei comes to mind). I love the non-variegated version of northern sea oats, and this one looks to be even more stunning. Available at Plant Delights, High Country Garden, and many other retailers.
 
agave_frostbite
Agave xylonacantha 'Frostbite', available at Yucca Do and Plant Delights. I’ve never seen an agave this intimidating—the leaf margins look like veritable saw blades. Yet there’s something undeniably elegant about the overall look. This plant has cojones and tells you in no uncertain terms to keep your hands to yourself. I love it.
 
amsonia_hubrichtii1_wg_W
Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii), 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year. This often overlooked Arkansas and Oklahoma native has finely textured foliage that is green all summer and turns golden-yellow in fall. In spring, masses of light blue flowers add additional interest. Would look great in combination with large-leafed tropicals. Available at many nurseries, including Blue Stone Perennials.
 
Plant Delights never disappoints when it comes to exciting new introductions. Even though I’m at the tail end of my banana obsession (the realities of our climate have finally sunk in), this Bengal Tiger banana has got me drooling. Luckily the photo on the Plant Delights web site is pretty awful, otherwise I really couldn’t resist.
 
holly_blue
I don’t have room for this and I don’t live in the right zone (zone 6-7) but, wow, this is a stunning variegated holly cultivar called Casanova (Ilex meserveae 'Casanova') available from Heronswood. The pink tinge appears in the winter. What a great way to add year-round zing to your woodland garden.
 
eryngium_big_blue
I love sea holly and have a hard time understanding why it’s almost impossible to find in local nurseries. Maybe because it’s prickly, and most nursery customers prefer soft and cuddly? For me, the drama of a sea holly in bloom is hard to beat. This cultivar from Blooms of Bressingham, available at High Country Gardens, is called Big Blue (Eryngium x zabellii 'Big Blue') and looks to be even bluer than the other cultivars already on the market. My experience with sea hollies is that they need a couple of years to really get going since they first need to develop their long taproot. After that they are very drought-tolerant.
Be sure to read this interesting article on Big Blue sea holly.
 
burpee_sunflower_coconut_ice
OK, I can’t conclude this post without at least one annual. This new sunflower hybrid from Burpee, called Coconut Ice, claims to be the first truly white sunflower. It starts out creamy vanilla and then fades to white. I don’t know why the world needs a white sunflower, but if I find seed locally, I will definitely give this one a try. It would look awesome intermixed with yellow and brown sunflowers.
 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Coir?!?

You may not recognize the word, but you’ve seen it in things like door mats, twine or brushes. Coir—pronounced COY-er or core, depending on who you ask—is the coarse fiber found between the outer husk of a coconut and the edible “nut” inside. It is sometimes called “coco peat” or “palm peat”, presumably because its color and horticultural usage is similar to sphagnum peat moss.

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) has been in cultivation for at least 4,000 years, not just for food but just as importantly for fibers, fuel and building material. Not surprisingly, coir has played an important role wherever coconut palms are grown, mostly as the raw material for rope and twine. Click here to read an interesting article on the history and making of coir.

The use of coir for horticultural purposes is relatively new. Traditionally, peat (sphagnum peat moss) has been used to aerate and lighten heavy soils and to improve the water retention of sandy soils. In fact, many if not most commercial potting soil mixes on the market today contain at least some peat. The problem with peat is that it is not a renewable resource and is being harvested at non-sustainable rates.

Coir is being touted as a viable alternative since it is a by-product of coconut production and completely renewable. It is much easier to wet than peat (if you’ve tried to wet dry peat, you know how difficult that can be), holds water just as well if not better, decomposes more slowly and doesn’t get compressed like peat does. In addition, the pH of coir is more neutral than peat so it doesn’t change the pH level of the medium to which you add it.

I became aware of coir when researching potting soil mixes for succulents. Many commercial cactus mixes are surprisingly high in peat. Once the soil is dry, it is very hard to rewet it; this results in a lot of wasted water and, on my part, in a lot of frustration. I decided to give up completely on commercial  cactus mixes and make my own, based on the experience and recommendations of other succulent growers.

Many growers use coir in varying proportions in their soil mixes. Since coir has a stable, open structure that allows plenty of air to get to the roots, it is an ideal amendment to create a loose and well draining soil mix. Combined with at least 50% pumice, perlite, calcinated clay or the like, coir with its superior water-holding capability ensures that the mix doesn’t dry out too quickly, yet at the same time doesn’t subject the roots to an excess of much moisture.

After digesting the information I found online and in books, this is the soil mix recipe I’ve settled on: 50% pumice (in the form of Dry Stall, a horse bedding product sold in feed stores), 25% coir and 25% commercial potting soil. I will give this a try for all potted succulents, starting—well, as soon as my coir is ready to use.

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Coir block

Coir typically comes in compressed bricks that are surprisingly heavy. According to the instructions I received for the bricks I bought, “simply place the brick in a bucket of water and walk away”. Well, I did just that, 24 hours ago, and half the brick is still, well, a brick. But what has come off—in no small measure due to my whacking, prodding and scratching with a cultivating mattock—is beautifully fluffy and fiber-y.

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Coir after rehydration

Another day or three, and my coir should be ready to go. I can’t wait to make up my first batch of succulent potting mix. My golden barrel cactus would really like a new home!

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High-fiber diet for the soil—looks good enough to eat!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Succulent sale at Silverado through 2/5/11

This post is of interest mainly to Sacramento area gardeners. Silverado Silverado Building Materials & Nursery in Rancho Cordova is having a big sale on all kinds of things, including pottery, fountains, ornamental and fruit trees, roses, and succulents. Succulents in 1 gallon and larger containers are 40% off, 4" plants are $2, and 2" plants are $1. This sale runs through 2/5/11.

I went this morning and ended up with a bunch of stuff. Some succulents looked pretty sad (that might be the reason for the sale), but others were in decent shape. However, even the sad-looking ones should make a recovery once warmed weather sets in. Succulents are tough.

There were just a few agaves and aloes—and the requisite golden barrel cactus—but almost everything else was echeverias, sedums, crassulas and other members of the Crassulaceae family. A nice selection overall, but many plants either had no ID tags (especially the small 2" pots) or the wrong tags. Most people don’t really care what they get as long as it’s attractive to them, but I’m a stickler for correct labeling.

This kind of sale is worth going to if you’re designing mixed succulent bowls and need lots of plants, or if you are looking for smaller plants than are available in most nurseries. $1 for a 2" plant is a good price, especially considering how fast these grow. Potted now and watered and fertilized throughout the growing season, they’ll be a nice size by fall.

Here is my haul of the day:

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Senecio vitalis, or narrow-leaf chalksticks, hardy to 25°F. More upright (and less blue) than the blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae) we have growing in our succulent beds. It’s a bit unkempt right now but once I’ve removed all the dead leaves, it will look great.

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Sedum pachyphyllum, or many fingers, hardy to 15°F. Definitely one of the “fleshiest” sedums I’ve seen. This plant is in a one-gallon container, and it was surprisingly (top) heavy—there is lots of water in these leaves!

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Closeup of Sedum pachyphyllum, If this plant hadn’t been tagged, I would never have guess that this is a sedum.
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Graptopetalum paraguayense or ghost plant, supposedly hardy to 5°F. Quite common in 3" or 4” containers, but this is the first time I’ve seen it as a gallon-sized plant. I could cut off each rosette and root it, and I’d have over a dozen individual plants! In addition, you can root each leaf individually. Truly one of the easiest succulents in terms of propagation.

110129_X-Graptoveria-'Opalina'_02
Labeled as Pachyphytum opalina, or opal moonstone. However, such a species doesn’t seem to exist. In all likelihood, this is x Graptoveria ‘Opalina’, a graptopetalum x echeveria hybrid.
Graptopetalum-amethystinum
Labeled as Graptopetalum amethystinum, or lavender pebbles. Not 100% sure about the ID because the color is too pink, but that might be because of the winter cold and/or growing conditions. Definitely very plump leaves that make the plant surprisingly heavy. A beautiful plant, and my favorite find of the day.

Now I need to figure out what to do with these plants and the ones I got from IKEA a couple of weeks ago

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wildflower seed paper

Today I received a promotional mailing from Google, presumably because this blog is hosted by Google’s Blogger service. I almost threw it in the recycling bin but then I realized that the paper the offer is printed on is not just regular paper. The mailing says:

This card was printed on 100% recycled paper embedded with wildflower seeds. Plant it in a sunny spot with a thin layer of soil, add water, and watch it grow—while you watch your business grow with AdWords.

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Google mailing on wildflower seed paper; the dark specks are the embedded seeds

Usually I’m as jaded as they come as far as advertising is concerned, but I must admit that as a gardener I was impressed by this particular twist. A web search—on Google.com, no less!—revealed that wildflower seed paper isn’t all that uncommon. There are quite a few vendors that sell all kinds of paper products embedded with seeds. Quite often the paper is recycled, which makes for a perfect green package.

Among the products I saw online, this wrapping paper caught my eye:

 

I have a conflicted relationship with wrapping paper (too expensive, too glossy, too environmentally unfriendly), and I was delighted to see this. However, at $20.00 a roll, it’s outrageously expensive, so I’ll stick to my tried-and-true method of using the Sunday cartoons as wrapping paper.

As for my card from Google, it’ll go into one of our raised vegetable beds where I can keep a close eye on it. I’m dying to find out whether anything will grow.

If you’ve tried this kind of paper before, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what happened.

Friday, January 28, 2011

First bamboo shoot of the year

It’s late January, and some of our bamboos will soon start to produce shoots. Typically, the earliest shooting species in our yard are Fargesia dracocephela ‘Rufa’ and Fargesia robusta, two clumping mountain bamboos from China. These two are no doubt busy developing shoots which will soon rise from the ground like an army of zombies. (Man, where did that muddled metaphor come from?)

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Yellow Buddha Belly (Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’)

However, this year the first bamboo to shoot is yellow Buddha Belly (Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’), planted in a large pot on our back yard patio. This is especially surprising since it’s a subtropical clumping bamboo that typically shoots in the summer and fall, triggered in its native habitat by the onset of the monsoon season. Maybe it has to do with all the rain we had in late December? Whatever the cause, this early shoot is a vivid reminder that bamboo manages to surprise even people who think they know a thing or two about this remarkable grass family.

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Buddha Belly shoot poking out of the ground

Yellow Buddha Belly, like its all-green sibling, is renowned for its swollen internodes—the sections between the nodes (rings) along its culms. These “bellies” typically appear when the plant is grown in a hot and exposed area and starved of water and nutrients. In containers it is easier to force the growing conditions needed to produce this swelling. However, as I learned from personal experience, it’s rather difficult to find the ideal balance between keeping the plant dry enough so bellies develop and withholding too much water, in which case the leaves dry up and fall off. It’s a good thing that bamboos are resilient and quickly replace dead leaves as soon as watering is resumed.

The most pronounced bellies on our specimen are on the original culms; the new culms show just a hint of bulging. I’m very curious to see if I can get our plant to reliably produce bellies as it matures.

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“Bellies” on yellow Buddha Belly

Specimens that exhibit the belly effect are significantly shorter (a maximum of 12-15 ft, with 8 ft being typical). Planted in the ground and given regular water, however, Bambusa ventricosa is a large clumping timber bamboo that can reach 55 ft. In that case, its culms are straight, with no bulging.

I do admit that I was drawn to this bamboo species because of the swollen internodes. I will continue my quest to force bellies even though I do feel a bit like a torture master!

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All-green buddha belly bamboo with swollen internodes at Mad Man Bamboo

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Harbingers of spring

After a sunny couple of days, we’re back to the damp pea soup that has been the hallmark of this winter. We’ve lived in the Sacramento Valley for a long time now, and I can’t remember a winter that had quite this much fog. (I should add, though, that we live just a few miles from the Yolo Bypass. That’s why our part of town has more fog than North or West Davis.)

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View from my home office window this morning

However, signs of change are starting to appear. The most visible harbingers of early spring are our violets. While in some parts of the country, particularly in the East, violets are common and often considered lawn weeds, they’re a bit of a rarity here in the Sacramento Valley. In fact, we were not able to find violets at any of our local nurseries so I finally bought some from Bluestone Perennials. They have developed nicely in the last couple of years and have not strayed from where I planted them.

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Sweet violets (Viola odorata) blooming in our back yard

What we have is Viola odorata, or sweet violet. Maybe this particular species is less invasive than the “wild” violets cursed by people in online gardening forums? All I know is that the scent is heavenly. You can smell it just walking by.

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Sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Another harbinger of spring is lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Just yesterday I noticed swelling buds on our ‘Blue Skies’ hybrid, planted in the spring of 2000. It should be in full bloom by late March, maybe sooner if we have an early spell of warm weather (‘Blue Skies’ blooms earlier than common or French lilac). To me, the scent of lilac—much like violets—embodies springtime like nothing else. It wafts into the house through the open kitchen window and instantly wipes away all the stress and tension I might feel that day. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea.

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Swelling buds on our lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’)

Like violets, common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) may be common elsewhere but in our part of California it is not. The problem is that Syringa vulgaris, native to the colder regions of the Balkans in southeastern Europe, needs cold winters with sub-freezing temperatures for proper dormancy (in the U.S. that corresponds to zones 3-7). In mild-winter climates it typically doesn’t set flowers, or if it does, they are sparse and not very fragrant. For that reason, lilac wasn’t much grown in the warmer parts of California. However, with the advent of low-chill hybrids like our ‘Blue Skies’ things have changed. These hybrids bloom well even in areas where the thermometer rarely drops below freezing. Now winter-challenged gardeners in California, Arizona, Texas and the South can have their lilac and eat it too!

syringa_vulgaris_from_wikipedia
Common or French lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Photo source: Wikipedia

Our experience with ‘Blue Skies’ has been nothing but positive. It is planted next to our back yard lawn, and it gets all its water from overspray or what whatever moisture its roots collect—most likely they extend right under the lawn. Our lilac has never been fertilized, and it has bloomed reliably every year since we planted it. In addition, we haven’t had any problems with suckering, apparently an issue with common lilac. I was amazed to read on the web site of Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder, Colorado that:

…the tendency to sucker and the ease of transplanting are primary reasons for the rapid spread of lilacs across America. By the 1650s, lilacs were growing all over the colonies, and later they were carried west by the pioneers. I recently pruned some lilacs that were planted by miners in the rocky foothills above Boulder. I can just imagine some rough traveler, burning with gold fever and the Colorado sun, sharing his canteen with a lilac sucker.

Click here to read the full article. It contains a wealth of interesting and useful information about lilac care and maintenance.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

  McCormick_Cactus_Garden

M. Evelyn McCormick
Cactus Garden, Del Monte
ca. 1893
Oil on canvas
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brown-bitting our cordylines

“Brown-bitting” isn’t in your gardening vocabulary? Don’t feel bad, it wasn’t in mine either until I read the book Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw. It literally just means removing all the brown bits of a plant—dead or dying leaves, spent flowers and so forth. It’s something I do regularly, but now I have a handy word to describe it.

Almost exactly two years ago we redid the far corner of our back yard, next our the Washington navel orange tree. This area is tricky because in the summer it only gets a few hours of sunshine in the morning, and maybe another hour (if that much) in the afternoon. In the winter the sun is too low to hit this area at all. We decided to plant mostly foliage plants, including several cultivars of lilyturf (Liriope muscari), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) as well as two variegated flowering maples (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii' and Abutilon x ‘Savitzii’). In the right-hand corner (not visible in the photos below) is a blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus ‘Teague’s Blue’).

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Freshly planted cordylines, January of 2009

The focal point in this area are two cordylines (Cordyline australis). I chose the regular all-green kind because the more colorful purple varieties tend to get lost visually unless they’re placed against a lighter background. Cordylines are a common sight in their native Australia and New Zealand and have become quite popular in California in the last 10 years. I’m very fond of their long strappy leaves and vertical growth habit. As the older leaves die and shrivel up (or get cut off, as the case may be) the plant forms a thin trunk, with the growth concentrated in the pompom of leaves above. This gives the plant a palm-like look.

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January 2011

Our two cordylines were planted in January of 2009 from 1-gallon containers and have grown quite a bit since then. Even though the bottom leaves were still largely green, I decided to trim them to make the trunks more visible and give the plants more definition.

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Before black-bitting
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After black-bitting

Cordyline australis has several common names, including cabbage tree and and cabbage palm. I have never actually heard anybody call them that, and I have no idea where the cabbage reference comes from—no cabbage I’ve ever seen has leaves like that! I believe in the U.K. cordylines are called Torbay palms, probably because they thrive in Torbay and other spots along the Southwestern coast of England.

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January 2011

Cordyline australis is said to be hardy to 15°F, even lower with some protection. It grows well in containers and provides an exotic vertical accent when placed up against the house. It isn’t fussy when it comes to soil (except poorly drained clay) and it can make do with relatively little water. While the literature says that it needs full sun, our two cordylines only get sporadic sunshine and are doing just fine.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More radical pruning and shearing

On Saturday we continued our winter pruning and shearing in the front yard. After finishing the area outside the fence, my wife and daughters tackled the planting bed inside the fence. While some people just let their perennials be, we prefer a more manicured look—fresh green foliage without last year’s dead bits—for this part of our garden. After all, that’s what we see when we look out the front windows and hang out on the front porch.

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Front yard on January 23, 2011

Right now, the planting bed does look bare and sad. But in just 4-6 weeks spring growth will start in earnest, and by early summer our front yard will hopefully look like it did last year.

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Front yard on July 3, 2010
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Front yard on July 3, 2010
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View from front door on September 18, 2010

I’m definitely ready for spring! How about you?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saguaro heaven

I’ve been thinking a lot about Southern Arizona lately, probably precipitated by the days of endless fog we had recently. Our weather is much better now but I still wish I could just hop on a plane and do some exploring in and around Tucson.

Panorama of Saguaro National Park
Photo: Wikipedia

In December of 2007 I traveled to Tucson with my mother who for many years had been wanting to see saguaros in their native habitat. While there is much more to the Sonoran Desert than just saguaros, they are its most magnificent inhabitants and one of the best known icons of the American West.

Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) are true giants. The largest known saguaro is 45 ft. tall, with a girth of 10 ft. They are extremely slow-growing; a 10-year old saguaro is often just two inches tall. It can take up to 75 years before a saguaro develops side arms, and it can live up to 150 years or longer. What’s even more amazing: Out of the 40 million seeds a saguaro typically produces over the course of its life, only one of them will develop into a plant that outlives its parent.

Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and in the Mexican state of Sonora. Saguaro National Park, consisting of two sections on the east and west side of Tucson, conserves particularly outstanding tracts of the Sonoran Desert. It is the best place to see saguaros in their native habitat.

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Vista from shade ramada at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located just south of the Western Unit of Saguaro National Park, is just as special. This world-renowned botanical garden, zoo and natural history museum offers many opportunities to learn more about the flora and fauna of this remarkable land. I’ve been there three times now, and it’s the most unique place of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Even though we’re not planning a trip to Arizona at the moment, I enjoy looking at the photos I took during my 2007 visit—especially as I’m adding more succulents and cacti to our garden.

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Two saguaros
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Dangerous but beautiful
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Saguaro family
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Saguaro with ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
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The strangest saguaro we saw
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Saguaro skeleton
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Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae)
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Agave in a bowl at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum