Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tower of Jewels (Echium wildpretii)

This is a post I’ve been waiting to write since I started my blog last fall. I’m happy that the time has finally come. Do I sound mysterious enough?

A year and a half ago, I bought two very special plants in 4" containers. I put one in the backyard, and the other in front. The one in the backyard turned to mush last October, but the one in the front hung on…grew…thrived…and has now started to bloom. I’ve been taking photos since October, and now I can finally reveal them.

The mystery plant is Echium wildpretii, or Tower of Jewels. Native to the dry slopes of Mount Teide on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Tower of Jewels (called tajinaste in Spanish) is a biennial that forms a rosette of fuzzy grayish leaves in its first year before producing a tall inflorescence (up to 10 ft in its native habitat) densely packed with flowers in its second year. After flowering and setting seed, the plant dies, but it leaves behind thousands of seeds that scatter as the dried up “tower” falls over.

Tower of Jewels prefers a dry and sunny position and demands well-drained soil. It tolerates temperatures down to the 30-28°F range but quickly dies below that. The same is true for its relative Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), which has become quasi-naturalized along the Northern California coast and is such a stunning sight in the spring.

Here is a sequence of photos that shows you the development of our Tower of Jewels between October 2010 when it just was a 2½ ft rosette and early May 2011 when it started to bloom.

101027_echium_wildpretii03  110328_Echium-wildpretii
October 27, 2011                                                 March 28, 2011

110404_Echium-wildpretii  110411_Echium-wildpretii2
April 4, 2011                                                       April 11, 2011

110416_Echium_wildpretii  110422_Echium_wildpretii_01
April 16, 2011                                                      April 22, 2011

   110426_Echium_wildpretii_09  110506_Echium_wildpretii_02
          April 26, 2011                                                May 6, 2011 (5½ ft tall)

The tower is packed with flowers that are absolutely stunning the way they are arranged.

Close-up of the flowers arranged around the tower in a spiral pattern. Note the two different sizes and colors of flowers: larger fuchsia-colored ones in the front, and small bluish-purple ones in the back.


The flowers are a bee magnet. By mid-day, the entire tower is a hive of activity. I can hear the buzzing of the bees as soon as I step out onto the front porch.



We’re not the only ones growing Tower of Jewels in Davis. The Ruth Storer Valley-Wise Garden at the UC Davis Arboretum has quite a few, as does Central Park Gardens in downtown. My daughter and I saw five or six of them in bloom last weekend as we went for frozen yogurt.

110501_echium_wildpretii_central_park  110501_echium_wildpretii eb
              Central Park Gardens                     My almost 10-year old daughter for scale

If you live in a nearly frost-free climate and have a sunny spot, there are very few plants you can grow that give you more impact—and make your neighbors stop in their tracks.

If you can’t find Tower of Jewels in a local nursery (Capital Nursery in Sacramento has 1-gallon plants), here are some mail-order sources:

Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, Richmond, CA (4” plants)

Rare Exotic Seeds, Montreal, CA (seeds)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Early May updates, part 3

Even though I’ve had cacti in the past, this is the first year that I’m making an effort to grow them well. I’ve added a number of small plants to my collection this spring, and some of them are now in bloom.

Let’s start with the genus Mammillaria. This includes some of the most popular cacti in home collections.  Most of them are native to Mexico, and their small flowers appear in a band around the top third of the cactus. This makes for a very unique look.

Mammillaria spinosissima (aka “red-headed Irishman”)
Mammillaria spinosissima,
view of the entire plant (6” tall)
Mammillaria hahniana (aka “old lady pincushion”)
Mammillaria hahniana, view of entire plant (2" tall x 3½" wide)
Mammillaria prolifera (aka “Texas nipple cactus”)
Mammillaria prolifera, view of entire plant (3" tall x 4" wide)

This next cactus, Thelocactus hexaedrophorus ssp. Lloydii, opened up today for the first time. The flower is almost as large as the entire cactus!

Thelocactus hexaedrophorus ssp. Lloydii just yesterday…

…and today when the flower opened up for the first time
What a beauty! The entire cactus is only 3" wide and 1½" tall!

My small bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys ‘Albata’) are getting ready to bloom as well. Their flowers should open up in the next week or so.

Opuntia microdasys ‘Albata’.
Will have lemon yellow flowers (see here).
Opuntia microdasys ‘Albata’

This prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis var. vasey) hasn’t produced any flowers yet, but it has grown two new pads. It’s very interesting to see how relatively large these soft pseudo spines are; as the pads mature, these spines will turn into bundles of glochids.

Opuntia littoralis var. vasey (aka “coastal prickly pear”),
a Southern California native

The next cactus was the first to bloom this spring. Check my earlier posts here and here to see photos of its floral glory. Its three flowers have dried up but are still attached to the cactus. I have no idea if they were pollinated, i.e. if there are viable seeds inside. I will wait until the dried flowers will fall off and then I’ll check for seeds.

Parodia werneri subsp.werneri, three weeks after blooming

The final image today is of the cactus seedlings I received from my blogger pal Alan in St Louis. This is a better photo of what they look like right now. In reality, they are a fraction of an inch tall—maybe 3-4 millimeters. I have no idea what cactus species this is, but not knowing is part of the fun. Right now, they look to me like engorged ticks with bristles!

Unknown cactus seedlings, 3-4mm tall

Thursday, May 5, 2011

When aphids attack

Sorry if the title of this post sounds like a cheap special on the Fox Network. I couldn’t help myself. But the truth is that our peaceable town is under siege. Not by hungry gila monsters or blood-thirsty vampire bats, but by aphids. Just yesterday I was waiting at a stoplight near the post office, and I happened to glance at the roses planted in the median strip. The buds and stems were covered so densely that they looked like they were bulging like grotesque neoplasms, and the leaves were so shiny from all the aphid excretions that you could have gotten the impression that it had just rained.

As much as I like roses, we took out all the bushes we inherited when we bought our house in 1997 for two reasons: They were aphid magnets in the spring and hence a nasty mess for a good number of months, and the spines are not exactly child-friendly.

Fast forward 14 years and our garden is relatively aphid-free except for some bamboos that aren’t so lucky. I have no idea why some bamboo species attract aphids like catnip attracts cats, and other don’t. You’d think bamboo leaves would all “taste” the same?!?

Semiarundinaria fastuosa with aphids

These bamboo species in our garden seem to be particularly prone to aphid attacks:

Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon’
Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon Inversa’
Phyllostachys viridis (and presumably the ‘Robert Young’ cultivar)
Semiarundinaria fastuosa (Temple bamboo)

Semiarundinaria fastuosa with aphids

Quite a few lady bugs hanging out on the infested plants. According to the web site Ladybug Lady, an adult lady bug eats about 50 aphids a day. That sounds pretty good until you realize that under optimal conditions, a single aphid could produce 600 billion offspring in one season.

As the thermometer climbs into the 90s, the aphids will eventually go away (where? Oregon?), but for now I spray the affected plants with insecticidal soap. For it to be successful, the application has to be repeated every 3 or 4 days. It gets tedious after a while and isn’t easy to do on a plant that is 6 ft. tall. Since I still have the use of our neighbor’s pressure washer that I used the other week to clean our flagstone walkway and patio, I’m planning on giving all our taller aphid-infested bamboos a good hosing down on the lowest setting. Maybe that is enough to reduce the aphid population to a tolerable level.

Much like aphids appear to have a preference for certain bamboo species over others, the same holds true for succulents. Our coral aloes (Aloe striata), currently in flower, are infested while other blooming aloes aren’t. Some echeveria and graptopetalum flowers seem to be aphid magnets whereas other succulents flowers are completely aphid-free. If there’s a pattern, I can’t see it.

Here are photos of two of our coral aloes (Aloe striata) that are currently in flower. One is infested with black aphids, the other white. Supposedly the color of aphids is determined by the food they eat, but both sets of flowers are salmon-colored. Go figure!

Coral aloe (Aloe striata) flower with black aphids
Coral aloe (Aloe striata) flower with white aphids

According to Wikipedia, there are 4,400 species of aphids in 10 families. Many of which infest only one plant species while others feed on hundreds of different plant species. I harbor no illusions that I will ever achieve a lasting victory over the little buggers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Early May updates, part 2

Topic: Shooting bamboos

Originally posted: 4/21/11

It’s been ten days since I last wrote about our two potted bamboo superstars: black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) and golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’). But have grown tremendously.

The new culms on our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) are now 10+ ft. tall. The culm sheaths have started to fall off, exposing newly developing branches. The culms are a bluish green at the moment; they will turn black within a year.

New culms on black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)
Beautiful bluish-green coloration on new culms; also notice the white ring just below each node
Culm sheath (bottom) about to fall off. Check out the two new branches; they will soon move downward like the spokes of an umbrella opening up.
New culm

Our Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ has ten new culms this year; this is particularly impressive considering this is a containerized bamboo. Phyllostachys aurea—commonly called “golden bamboo,” although that is somewhat of a misnomer—is known for its compressed internodes, the hollow sections between the nodes. The nodes are the circular ridges that bulge outward; they are solid and separate the internodes from each other. In the photos below the nodes are outlined by white rings. The compressed internodes gives Phyllostachys aurea its unique look.

Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’. This new culm is predominantly green, with a bluish flush right below the node ring. In time, the culm will turn a buttery yellow, while the sulcus—the vertical groove along the culm—will remain green.
A masterpiece of nature

Another containerized running bamboo has begun to shoot, Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon Inversa.’ This form of the famous Japanese timber bamboo Madake has green culms and a yellow sulcus. What you see in the photo below is the first new shoot on this plant, which I bought last December from Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, CA.

Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon Inversa’

Our Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) is busy forming branches on its new culms. This species is renowned for its saucer-like nodes, clearly seen in the photo below. Chinese walking stick bamboo is native to rainforest valleys and loves high humidity. Since our climate is the antithesis of humid, especially in the summer, the leaf tips turn brown and the foliage isn’t as lush as it would be on the coast or in the Pacific Northwest. Hosing it down frequently goes a long way toward keeping it happy.

Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda with new new branch
and culm sheath about to fall off


Topic: Flowering bamboos

Originally posted: 10/13/10

Last October I wrote about two bamboo species in my collection that were in flower: Pleioblastus shibuyanus ‘Tsuboi,’ a small running bamboo with variegated leaves, and Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis,’ a large clumping bamboo. I had actually omitted another small running bamboo: Pleioblastus simonii.

All three are still flowering. On Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis,’ the flowering is limited to the “mother” culm from which the plant was propagated. There are just a few flowers, and I don’t think the plant will die. Most likely, this flowering was induced by the stress of being moved to a new home (ours). As tough as bamboos typically are, sometimes stress can trigger sporadic flowering.

The two Pleioblastus, on the other hand, are flowering all over the world. This is part of a cycle that happens every so many years—or decades in some species. Both plants are still producing new leaves together with the flowers, so I’m cautiously optimistic that they will survive. Sometimes a bamboo plant puts all its energy into making flowers to the point where no new culms or leaves are produced; in such a case the plant usually dies.

Pleioblastus shibuyanus ‘Tsuboi’
Pleioblastus simonii (flower on the left)


Topic: Another exciting plant trade

Originally posted: 4/24/11

As part of a plant trade I received a small division of a beautiful running bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis.' This is what it looked like when I pulled it out of the box:


Today, less than two weeks later, it looks like this:


The amount of growth is astounding. Note that the existing culms have elongated, branches are beginning to develop, and two new shoots/culms have come up. That’s the vigor of bamboo in a nutshell!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Early May updates, part 1

Seasonally appropriate temperatures are finally here, and the plants in our garden have kicked into overdrive. This week I will be updating some earlier posts to show you how things are developing.


Topic: Starting cannas from seeds

Originally posted: 2/19/11

In mid-February I sowed four Canna musifolia seeds left over from a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, our black lab thought I was growing food for her and she made a mess out of my seed pots, as described in this previous update. One seedling survived, and it’s now about 8” tall. It expect to plant it out in a few weeks.

Surviving Canna musifolia seedling
going strong



Topic: Ghost plant babies

Originally posted: 3/27/11

My ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) babies are now toddlers. They’ve rooted nicely and have all but consumed the leaves from which they were propagated. I’ve started to water them and I expect them to grow rapidly now that daytime temperatures are in the 80s.

Ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) babies, propagated from leaves



Topic: Bay tree flower orgy

Originally posted: 4/1/11

The four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis) in our backyard had more flowers this year than I can ever remember. They lasted for about three weeks and provided the bees with a huge supply of nectar.

Now our backyard is a covered with a carpet of dried flowers that have fallen off the trees. They are on top of the bark mulch, in our bamboo stock tanks, and in our potted plants. They make a slight crunchy sound as you walk on top of them and, oddly, give you the impression that it’s autumn in our garden.

Dried flowers from our sweet bay trees



Topic: Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens)

Originally posted: 4/9/11

In my original post I mentioned that we also have an orange-flowered cultivar of Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens) called ‘Hallmark.’ Although smaller and slower growing than the yellow-flowered species, it’s a beautiful plant in its own right. ‘Hallmark’ is now blooming in our garden so I’m able to post  a photo.

We have it growing both in full sun and in mostly shade, and it blooms in both locations (albeit more profusely in the sun).

Bulbine frutescens ‘Hallmark’


Topic: Cactus seedlings

Originally posted: 4/24/11

As part of a plant trade with garden blogger Alan of It’s Not Work It’s Gardening, I received a bunch of tiny cactus seedlings that he had started himself. Alan had posted regularly about these seedlings (check here, here, here, here, and here), and I promised I would post regular updates as well.

I added some decomposed granite to the 4” pots and placed them in a spot where they receive about 5 hours of morning sun. They have definitely assumed a reddish hue in the sun, and as far as I can tell they’re still alive. I’m totally flying by the seat of my pants here since I’ve never taken care of cactus seedlings before. If any of you have any experience, please jump in and tell me what I can do to improve their chances of growing into adulthood.

Tiny cactus seedlings



Topic: Planting tomatoes

Originally posted: 4/25/11

After an unseasonably cool spring, we’re on the cusp of early summer. Seemingly overnight, daytime temperatures jumped from the 60s to the high 70s and low 80s. By mid-week, we’re expecting high 80s. Tomatoes love the heat, and the two commercial varieties we planted just a week ago (Sun Gold and Yellow Pear) are flowering nicely now. In fact, Sun Gold is already setting fruit!

The heirloom seedlings we received from a friend are still small but just today I spotted new leaves forming on most of them so the prognosis is good.

Sun Gold flower…
…and first fruit

Bamboo updates tomorrow.