Sunday, May 22, 2011

The restios have arrived

Last week I fessed up to killing a potted Golden Goddess bamboo due to neglect. Instead of replacing it with another bamboo that would just end up being pot-bound in a few years, I decided to go with a restio. To summarize an earlier post, restios are rush-like plants native to South Africa and Western Australia, areas sharing a similar Mediterranean climate. Superficially resembling reeds or even bamboos, they are related to neither. Instead form their own family, the Restionaceae, or “restios” for short.

In our part of the world, restios are definitely a specialty plant. You can’t just walk into a nursery and expect to find a selection of them. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum), which seems to be the most common restio in California, but that’s about it.

I wanted some very specific restios, so I had to go the mail-order route. Luckily, one of the very few nurseries in the U.S. that has a decent selections of restios is located in Fort Bragg on the Northern California coast so I could order plants that wouldn’t have to be shipped half way across the country.

I was very excited when my order from Hortus Botanicus showed up less than a week after I had placed it.

Large box from Hortus Botanicus

The four plants I had ordered were packaged very well. The two in the middle, Rhodocoma capensis, had to be trimmed to fit in the box.

Four restios (left to right):
Elegia capensis, Rhodocoma capensis (2x), Rhodocoma gigantea

Rhodocoma capensis was what I had picked to replace the defunct Golden Goddess bamboo because it appears to be more drought-resistant than other restios—a plus for any containerized plant. The 1-gallon plant was extremely root-bound so I cut off the very bottom of the root ball and made some cuts all the way around. However, since I’m not really familiar with restios, I didn’t want to be too aggressive. I do know that restios, once planted, don’t like to have their root system disturbed so I hope what I did didn’t hurt the plant too much.

Rhodocoma capensis, extremely rootbound

Planting the Rhodocoma capensis in the green pot next to the front door didn’t take long at all. Right now, it looks a bit lost in this large pot, but I’m hoping it will soon resume its vigorous growth.

Rhodocoma capensis in green pot

The second restio I ordered, Elegia capensis, is considered one of the most beautiful members of this plant family. Read this article on the University of British Columbia web site for more information and a few photos.

Elegia capensis culms and branches

Elegia capensis has the potential to become a relatively large plant, 6-8 feet in height, given enough moisture. I planted it in front of our house outside the fence where it will benefit from the run-off from the lawn and inside planting strip. I’m concerned that there might not be enough space there, but it’s hard to know how well it will do in our area so I’m willing to take a chance. If it ends up being an 8 ft. specimen plant, I will gladly remove some of the neighboring plants to make more room.

Elegia capensis in our front yard
Elegia capensis in our front yard

I transplanted the other two restios, Rhodocoma gigantea and another Rhodocoma capensis, into 2-gallon containers for now while I’m trying to determine where they will go. If the Rhodocoma capensis in the green pot does well, I may remove the 2nd Golden Goddess bamboo in the front of the house (planted in an identical green urn) and replace it with the extra Rhodocoma capensis. When the time comes, I’ll know what feels right, and I’ll have the plant I need on hand.

Rhodocoma gigantea (left), Rhodocoma capensis (right)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I planted another restio, Thamnochortus insignis, outside the front yard fence. While it hasn’t exactly exploded, it looks happy and healthy.

Thamnochortus insignis, planted in mid-January

Just the other day I noticed that our neighbor across the street has a restio as well. It’s a Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum), the most common restio around here—although “common” makes it sound a lot more ubiquitous than it really is. It resembles California rush (Juncus patens), which is very popular with landscape designers at the moment.

Chondropetalum tectorum in our neighbor’s front yard

I have not been able to find much information about growing restios in Northern California. Everything I’m doing is based on where and how these plants grow in their native climate, but I know that there’s a lot of trial and error ahead. However, I’m so taken with the unique beauty of restios that I’m willing to do what it takes to make them thrive in our garden.

Related blogs:

Fellow blogger DD recently planted some restios in his San Mateo, CA garden. Check out his blog at

5/30/11 UPDATE:

I put the other two restios (the second Rhodocoma capensis and Rhodocoma gigantea) in pots in the front yard.

Here is the second Rhodocoma capensis:

Second Rhodocoma capensis in green pot next to the front yard (I removed the Golden Goddess bamboo that had been in this pot for three years)
This is what the front of the house looks like now with the two Rhodocoma capensis

And here is the Rhodocoma gigantea:

Rhodocoma gigantea, looking a bit lost in this large glazed pot. Hopefully it will fill in quickly.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

More cacti in bloom

Many of my posts this week were fairly depressing, dealing with hail damage, me inadvertently killing a potted bamboo, and such. Today I want to change the focus to something more uplifting to get you and myself in a positive frame of mind for the weekend.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a few photos of my Red-Headed Irishman cactus (Mammillaria spinosissima) beginning to flower. In typically mammillaria fashion, the tiny flowers form a ring that goes all the way around the cactus. This ring is now complete and looks fantastic.

Mammillaria spinosissima, about 6” tall
Mammillaria spinosissima
Mammillaria spinosissima


Two other small mammillarias are blooming. The first one goes by the impossibly complicated name Mammillaria camptotricha cv. Marnier-Lapostollei. It has very odd-looking spines which aren’t even that prickly—more like bristles on a brush. It’s only a couple of inches wide and tall but it already has a couple of offsets along the side. The flowers are tiny but otherwise look like mammillaria flowers.

Mammillaria camptotricha cv. Marnier-Lapostollei
Mammillaria camptotricha cv. Marnier-Lapostollei


The next one is Mammillaria elongata 'Julio', currently about 3” tall and looking like a pickle with star-shaped bristles. Even this juvenile cactus is flowering freely, with tiny pinkish blossoms. As with the other mammillarias described above, the flowers are arranged in a ring around the upper ⅓ of the cactus. You can see a couple of small babies at the base.

Mammillaria elongata 'Julio'
Mammillaria elongata 'Julio'


The last cactus I want to show you isn’t even a cactus, technically speaking, but rather a euphorbia. In other words, it’s in the same genus as the woody spurges and—yes!—the ever-popular poinsettia. Euphorbia horrida looks very similar to star cacti (genus Astrophytum) of which I bought two at the Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA earlier this spring. Click here to see photos of these superficially similar cacti.

While astrophytums have large and colorful flowers, Euphorbia horrida has tiny and unassuming flowers. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it must be enough to keep the species going.

Euphorbia horrida
Euphorbia horrida

I’m pretty excited that so many of the small cacti in my collection are blooming already. That’s the kind of pleasant surprise that makes gardening so enjoyable!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hail damage update

Last Sunday, we had a brief but intense hail storm unlike anything I had ever seen in the 14 years we’ve lived in Davis. Check out this post for details. 

Initially it looked like the damage would be fairly minor, but as you can see in the photos below, quite a few of our soft-leafed succulents (especially agaves and aeoniums) are dinged up. Luckily, the weather is warm and dry now so I don’t expect any rot to result from this as might have been the case in the winter. In addition, I’m telling myself that these are garden plants, not exhibition specimens, but I can’t help being a bit frustrated by the blemishes. If only I’d been with it and thrown blankets over the more sensitive plants. On the other hand, the hail came and went so quickly—and I was so busy taking photos of it—that I probably wouldn’t have been able to get to all of them anyway.

Succulent bed next to the front door. Everything looks fine from a distance…
…but up close you can see the dings caused by the hail stones, like on this Agave lophanta ‘Quadricolor’
Closeup of Agave lophanta ‘Quadricolor’ leaf
Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’
Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ closeup
Even the very narrow leaves on this Agave dasylirioides sustained damage
This is one of my very favorite succulents, Mangave ‘Bloodspot’. The damage is a bit harder to see because of its speckled leaves, but it’s there.

In addition to these and some other agaves, our dark-colored aeoniums show very visible damage. Their leaves are soft and sensitive anyway; the epidermis must be very thin indeed.

Aeonium 'Zwartkop' looks pretty dinged up
Aeonium ‘Voodoo', similar to ‘Zwartkop’
but with more green in the center and leaves that are less “black”
Even this gray-green Aeonium haworthii shows hail damage,
and its leaves are noticeably thicker than ‘Zwartkop’ and ‘Voodoo’

Interestingly, the plants that got hit the hardest are the nasturtiums in our backyard. I had just commented on them the other day. Their leaves are super thin, and it looks like the hail stones went right through.

Nasturtiums with punctured leaves

And yet, the largest-leafed plant in our garden, Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum,’ escaped unharmed. Its leaves are fairly thick and rubbery, and the hail stones must have simply bounced off.

Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’

As ugly as it is, the damage to the succulents is purely cosmetic. However, since agaves and brethren aren’t exactly the fastest growers this isn’t something that will disappear over night.

I’ve learned my lesson and will be better prepared the next time—although it could be a year or two or even longer before we have hail again. Aside from occasional high winds, our area isn’t prone to extreme weather. In fact, even thunderstorms are so infrequent that I get a thrill out of them when they do occur.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bamboo surprise

In the spring of 2010, another bamboo aficionado sent me a length of rhizome (no culms) from Phyllostachys viridis, the all-green version of the popular Robert Young bamboo. The rhizome was a good foot long and looked fresh and viable, but I wasn’t sure whether it would survive. I buried it in a 22-inch galvanized steel tub and half forgot about it. Much to my surprise, new shoots came up within a month and turned into regular culms with an abundance of leaves, including a 7 ft. whip shoot that more or less grows horizontally (on the left in the first photo below).

Since Phyllostachys viridis is hardy to -5°F, it comes as no surprise that it wasn’t fazed by our mild winter. What did surprise me is how drought-tolerant this running bamboo is. While I did water it when I thought of it, that certainly didn’t happen with any kind of regularity. Considering that the soil depth in the tub is around 9 inches, I’m amazed that the plant remained lush and green throughout the summer, fall and winter. You can’t ask much more of a bamboo.

Hold on—yes, you can. You also want big culms. And it looks like this champ that came from such humble beginnings is going to deliver in that respect as well.

Phyllostachys viridis in 22-inch galvanized steel tub

Take a look at what’s coming out of the ground!

Massive shoots

It’s hard to get a sense of scale from these photos, but the biggest two shoots are very close to an inch in diameter.

This shoot is 1” in diameter at the base
Another 1” shoot

For comparison, that is double the diameter of the culms produced this spring by our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).

I have no idea how tall these culms will get considering that the plant’s rhizome and root system is severely constrained by the tub, but I could be in for yet another surprise.

Since this bamboo has the potential to turn into a true giant (50 ft. with 3” culms), I’m thinking it will soon have to go to my in-laws where it will have room to run.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I killed a goddess

A Golden Goddess, to be precise.

Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’ is a clumping bamboo that has a reputation for being super easy to grow in moderate climates (it’s hardy to 15°F or so) and virtually indestructible. All true, unless you don’t water it. It does not like that at all!

091221_Bambusa multiplex 'Golden Goddess' 1
Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’ (one in each of the green pots) in its heyday last October
The Golden Goddess to the left of the front door in May, looking very brown

Apparently the two drip emitters in the pot had been closed the all way so the plant didn’t get watered for an unknown period of time. Maybe a week, maybe two. Eventually the roots had extracted all the moisture they could from the soil and the leaves began to curl—a warning sign I missed. After that, it wouldn’t have taken long for the leaves to dry up and turn brown. Containerized plants are much more dependent on us humans for their survival needs, and I completely failed this Golden Goddess.

I must add here that the plant had grown tremendously since I put it in this pot almost three years ago. It had extended to the edge of the pot and would have needed to be divided soon anyway. I could have tried to revive the plant, betting on its remarkable will to live, but in all honesty I didn’t want to put up with an eyesore in such a visible spot for what could have been months. So I made the decision to remove the plant altogether—a process that turned out to be a bit tricky because of the container’s urn shape. Reminder to myself: For bamboo, always use a V-shaped container that is wider at the top than at the bottom so the whole plant slides out easily.

The first step in the removal process was to cut off all the culms, taking care not to drop too many leaves all over the succulent bed. The resulting pile of culms looked less impressive than I had expected.

Removed culms
Plant after I’d cut off all the culms

The next step was to get the rhizomes and roots out of the pot. In an effort to get this over with as quickly as possible, I got out my reciprocating saw. After making a dozen cuts or so I was able to yank out the rhizomes, which, I should add, were fairly dainty. A few more turns with the saw left the roots in manageable pieces and soon they were pulled out, too.

Culms, rhizomes, and roots at the curb, waiting for yard waste pickup

I saved a few of the most promising rhizome sections and repotted them. The rhizome buds in the next photo look good and will hopefully produce new culms. Time will tell.


The green pot is empty now and the bow window looks very exposed. But this is just temporary. Plans are to move the Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata subsp. aztecorum) barely visible on the right all the way over to left where the purple fountain grass currently is. The Mexican weeping bamboo will soften the corner with its lacy leaves and be able to deal with the late-afternoon sun better than the fountain grass did.

The green pot will be home to a Rhodocoma capensis, an upright yet bushy restio from South Africa, which—unlike many other restios—is fairly drought-tolerant. It only grows to 5 ft. so it won’t be the massive presence the Golden Goddess had been. I’ll post an update after I’ve planted the restio. In the meantime, the empty pot is a reminder that nothing in a garden is—or has to be—forever. Change is good.


5/22/11 UPDATE:

The restio, Rhodocoma capensis, has been planted. Click here for photos.

5/30/11 UPDATE:

I removed the second Golden Goddess and replaced it with a Rhodocoma capensis as well. Click here for photos.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Backyard snapshot

After taking a look at what our front yard looks like in mid-May I want to do the same for the back yard. It’s very useful having these photos as a reference to look back on six months or a year down the line.

As is the case in the front yard, we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 4+ years. However, since a significant portion of our backyard is in dry shade, it’s proven to be relatively difficult to find the right mix of plants that thrive in these conditions. Competition from trees make matters worse, necessitating frequent irrigation or container plantings. Still, every challenge is an opportunity—or a riddle, as the case may be. While I’m happy with the state of the front yard, the backyard continues to be a work in progress. I know that eventually we’ll have that lush oasis I’m dreaming about, and in the meantime I’ll learn a thing or two about gardening in the face of adversity.

The first set of photos are of our Asian-inspired area in the side yard just outside our dining room (which also opens to the front porch). This area is mostly shade and plants have to be able to compete for water and nutrients with yet another unwelcome Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana). This is not a city tree but because of the location having it removed would be very costly so we’ll continue to put up with it.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) towering above the granite lantern, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in a pot to the right of the lantern, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant'), and another clumping bamboo (Borinda angustissima) all the way on the right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) on the left, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant') on the right, and chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) in the back
Plants of note in this photo:
I love how our chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) has come into its own, defining this space without dominating it
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Potted Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var dissectum 'Red Dragon'), giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’)

The next photo looks towards the dining room window (there’s a sliding door just to the right of the window, which you can’t see). This shallow planting bed gets morning and midday sun so I planted some smaller succulents there. Right now, the bed is dominated by nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) that reseed every year. Once summer arrives the leaves turn brown and I rip them out, but enough seeds will have fallen to ensure next year’s crop.

Plants of note in this photo:
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), bamboo muhly grass(Muhlenbergia dumosa) in the pot in the background

In the next photo, the big pot on the left is our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) which produced 10 ft. culms this year. These culms have begun to leaf out, almost merging with the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) behind it. The smaller pots on the right contain lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), which we use for cooking, and Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’).

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’)

Moving counterclockwise from the potted black bamboo, you’ll find a variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’), carpets of lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’) and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and a juvenile blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera) so heavy with leaves that the culms bend over under the weight.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’), shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’)

Next to the Borinda papyrifera is our Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’) that gave us a beautiful show this spring…

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’),
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera)

…flanked on the left by yet another clumping bamboo (Fargesia robusta), finally putting on some height in its 3rd year in the ground.

Plants of note in this photo:
Fargesia robusta

Continuing counterclockwise, we have our potted Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’), described several times in earlier posts, and a planting bed currently dominated by a Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’). Also seen in the photo below (middle bottom) is a Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue').

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue'), Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’), Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’)

Our backyard is dominated by four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis) under which not much will grow. For years we put up with a rather barren wasteland but in recent years we’ve been adding more and more containers with leafy plants. As the plants grow, the fence will gradually be obscured, giving the illusion that our backyard is deeper than it actually is.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
White Dragon bamboo (Fargesia apircirubens 'White Dragon') in the dark-brown urn, Yushania maculata (to the right of the middle bay tree), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) in the red bowl, variegated aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata') and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in an urn you can’t see, Shiroshima bamboo (Hibanobambusa tranquillans ‘Shiroshima’) in the back on the right, Sasaella masamuneana ‘Albostriata’ in the clay pot on the bottom right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) in half barrel, foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Myers') in the blue pot, Rufa bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’) in the red pot on the right

The final photo is of the area to the left of the bay trees, extending to the corner of our property. This area is characterized by dry shade; the extensive root system of the nearby bay trees sucks up a lot of the available moisture so I’ve had to increase irrigation times. However, after some trial and error this is shaping up to be a pretty nice looking area full of shade-loving (or at least shade-tolerant) plants. The use of containers in the background adds vertical interest. I consider this to be a work in progress and will post updates in the future.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Dwarf green stripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus) in the upper left, leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) in front of it, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata), Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in the clay pot in the center, astilbe (Astilbe sp.) in front of it, greater wood rush (Luzula sylvatica) on the right. Barely seen behind it is a Teague’s blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus 'Teague's Blue’).