Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two new grasses

I couldn’t pass up the Memorial Day sale at Silverado Nursery in Rancho Cordova and added two new ornamental grasses to our collection. Quite a deal at 40% off!

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Melinus nerviglumis (left) and Briza media (right)

The first is ruby grass grass (Melinus nerviglumis, formerly Rhynchelytrum nerviglume). Hardy in zones 8-10, this African native forms a mound about 12 inches tall; the stems are an additional 1-2 feet. Once established, this grass is reputed to be fairly drought tolerant, which makes sense given its origin. It’s a fairly recent introduction to the U.S. (it debuted commercially in 1998), and this is the first time I’ve seen it in a local nursery.

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Melinus nerviglumis

The leaves are fairly ordinary but the flowers are a stunning color of ruby red, hence the plant’s common name. The full potential of this grass is hard to see in a small plant, but check out this site for photos of larger specimens.

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Melinus nerviglumis flower panicle
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Melinus nerviglumis planted outside the front yard fence next to our Mexican bush sage (right). I’m worried about competition from the roots of our accursed Bradford pear tree (visible in the upper left) so I will keep a close eye on the ruby grass. If it shows signs of stress, I’ll move it somewhere else.

The second grass I bought is Briza media, which has a whole slew of common names, some of them quite amusing: rattlesnake grass, quaking grass, cowquakes, doddering dickies, didder, dillies, and many more. This Eurasian native is hardy to zone 4; its most outstanding feature are its seed heads which dangle from thin stems and tremble in the slightest breeze. The foliage is approx. 12 inches tall, the stems rise another 24 inches above that. This is a great grass for the front of the perennial border and makes a beautiful potted specimen, which is how I’m using it.

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Briza media
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Briza media seed heads
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Briza media (right) and Rhodocoma capensis (left),
a recently purchased restio

Side note: The large green urn on the left in the photo above was home to a Golden Goddess bamboo until yesterday, but I removed it to plant a second Rhodocoma capensis that matches the one of the other side of the front door. As much as I love bamboo, these urns were less than ideal for it. I believe the restios are a much better choice.

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Green urns with Rhodocoma capensis.
The Briza media is in the smaller bluish-green pot all the way on the right.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae)

I don’t remember when and where I first read about the groundcover known as silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae). Native to the coastal plains of South Africa, this diminutive plant (only 1-2 inches tall) forms dense mats over time and chokes out virtually all weeds. In fact, this mat supposedly withstands foot traffic and, according to succulent guru Debra Lee Baldwin, is tough enough to park cars on.

Since dymondia has a fleshy taproot that goes straight down, it is drought-tolerant and can cope with temperatures above 100°F. It is relatively slow-growing but regular irrigation, at least in the first year, will speed up its growth. Gardeners who have experience with silver carpet say that it’s worth the wait.

If all these wonderful attributes are true (and I have no reason to doubt they are), dymondia would make a perfect ground cover for much of California where conserving water is always a top priority. That’s why I’m baffled that it’s so difficult to find this plant in nurseries. Is it that nurseries don’t carry it because there’s no demand? But how can gardeners buy it when it’s not for sale?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pomegranates & margaritas

As I walked the dog yesterday, I noticed that two pomegranate trees a block away are starting to bloom. The family that lives there has many fruit trees, but the bright red pomegranate blossoms are visible from quite a distance—as are the fruit in the fall.

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The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is native to the Iranian Plateau and the Himalayas of northern Pakistan and India but has been cultivated since ancient times in the Mediterranean regions of Asia, Africa and Europe. It followed the Spaniards to the New World and has become established in Mexico, Arizona, and California. In fact, the Sacramento Valley’s Mediterranean climate offers perfect growing conditions for pomegranates, as evidenced by the many pomegranate trees all over Davis.

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Our neighbors have regular Punica granatum trees (about 12 ft. tall). These are the trees grown for fruit production. There is also a Japanese dwarf variety called Punica granatum ‘Nana’ which is grown purely for ornamental purposes. It does very well in containers and is reputed to be hardier than its big brother (5°-10°F).

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Punica granatum prefers cool winters and hot summers. Once established, it requires little irrigation to survive but fruit production is greatly enhanced by regular deep watering.

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The fruit begins to ripen 6-7 months after blooming, typically October-November in our zone. Like apples, pomegranates have a long storage life. In fact, they become juicier and more flavorful with some storage. We have friends with a pomegranate tree and they keep us supplied with fruit. Stored in the kitchen, the fruit easily keeps 4-6 weeks. I read that it can be kept for up to 7 months if stored between 32° and 41°F at 80-85% relative humidity.

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Many people consider pomegranates to be a royal pain when it comes to opening the fruit and getting at the garnet-colored seed casings (arils) that form the edible juicy parts. Since the juice leaves stains that are hard to remove, this is the method I use: Score the fruit with a knife, submerge it in a bowl of water, and break it in half. Then, while submerged, separate the red arils from the peel and the white pulp membranes. The arils will sink while the pulp floats to the top. The whole process takes me a good 15-20 minutes per fruit but I love pomegranate so much that it’s worth it.

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The seeds (or technically seed casings) are great eaten raw or in a mixed salad. Think baby greens with chunks of apple or jicama, dressed in a tahini vinaigrette and topped with pomegranate seeds and goat cheese crumbles.

In Mexico, chiles en nogada (poblano chiles stuffed with a pork picadillo, served with a white walnut sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds) is a popular dish on Independence Day (September 16th) because the green, white and red of the dish mirrors the colors of the Mexican flag.

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In recent years, pomegranate juice has become widely available in the U.S., mainly because of the marketing efforts of POM Wonderful. Their distinctive “double-bulb” bottle has become one of the most recognizable packaging designs of the last decade. POM’s web site has a wealth of historical information that allows you to trace the “path of the pomegranate” around the world.

I love drinking pomegranate juice and cooking with pomegranate syrup, a staple in Middle Eastern cuisines. However, my favorite use for pomegranate juice is in margaritas, our cocktail of choice in the summer. Commercial margarita mixes are much too sweet and artificial tasting in my opinion. And while I don’t like to brag, I will say that I am a margarita expert, having sacrificed millions of brain cells in the pursuit of margarita excellence.

Making margaritas from scratch—or close to it—is as easy as can be. Here’s a simple but incredibly tasty recipe for pomegranate margarita. It makes a pitcher, enough for 4 tall glasses (I don’t like the traditional shallow margarita glasses and much prefer tall drinking glasses; in fact, pint-sized beer glasses work great).

5 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
5 oz pomegranate juice
3 oz frozen limeade concentrate (in the frozen juice section of the supermarket)
2 oz triple sec (or other orange liqueur)
6 oz decent-quality tequila (it doesn’t have to be reposado or añejo, but stay away from the cheapest tequila; something like José Cuervo Gold is just fine)

Mix in electric blender for a few seconds; then fill pitcher with ice cubes and blend until slushy.


When I started to write this post I had no idea that I was going to end it with a margarita recipe. Come to think of it, that’s actually a pretty awesome closing note, especially on this Memorial Day weekend.

I’ll be sure to enjoy a margarita or two myself!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Castor bean: femme fatale of the plant world

“The castor bean plant is the most deadly of all plants. Eat a single castor bean, or perhaps two if you're an adult, and you'll die — maybe. If you live beyond three to five days, you will probably survive.”

So says USA Today, the authoritative source on all things scientific. OK, I’m being facetious—I love sensationalism as much as the next guy.

Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is no denying that the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) is the botanical equivalent of a black widow spider, but its deadliness is concealed in a most attractive package. In just one season, it grows from a seed the size of a bean into a tree-like shrub that can reach 10 ft. in height if conditions are favorable. Its hand-shaped leaves with deeply cut lobes give it a distinctly tropical look that I find irresistible. It can be grown pretty much anywhere in the United States as an annual, allowing even gardeners in notoriously chilly climes to add a touch of the exotic to their garden.

What makes the castor bean plant so poisonous is a chemical called ricin. I won’t go into detail as to how it works and what effects it has; you can read all about it in this article from Cornell University’s Department of Animal Science.

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Castor bean seeds.
It looks like they’re going to germinate even though they’re not in soil.

Notwithstanding these obviously negative characteristics, I have wanted a castor bean plant for a long time. A fellow blogger was kind enough to send me some seeds, and I planted two of them in 3” pots a few weeks ago. They have sprouted since then, and while the seedlings don’t look much like the adult plant, I’m impressed with their vigor. I will put them in the ground this weekend—in a spot tucked away from the rest of the yard in order to keep out prying eyes and curious hands. While the leaves aren’t as toxic as the seeds, every part of the plant is considered poisonous. But so are tomato leaves, angel’s and devil's trumpets (brugmansias and daturas) found in many gardens, not to mention oleander grown by the thousands in the median strip of Northern California freeways.

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Castor bean seedling

A bit of common sense should go a long way toward keeping everybody safe. For my part, I will remove all but one or two flower clusters as soon as they emerge. I only want a few seeds for next year in case I decide to do it all over again then.


Wikipedia has a lot of information about the the castor bean plant, castor oil, and ricin.

Also check out this humorous article about a Orem, UT gardener who was questioned by Homeland Security for growing a castor bean plant in his front yard. This is one of those News of the Weird-type stories you come across on the web.

And finally don’t miss this intriguing article about a woman from Eureka, CA who has a “horticultural Death Row” in her garden.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bamboo surprise: update

A little while ago I wrote about a bamboo experiment that has yielded surprising results. Last year I planted a piece of rhizome with no above-ground growth in a 22” tub, not expecting much. Maybe precisely because I had such low expectations, I was taken by surprise when fat shoots 1” in diameter began to emerge.

In just a week, the shoots have grown into 4 ft. culms and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. Today it rained (a very rare occurrence for late May) and the extra moisture will be like fuel on fire. I can’t wait to see how tall these culms will eventually get. The limiting factor may be the fact that there is less than 9 inches of soil in that tub!

This bamboo is a running species, Phyllostachys viridis. It is a giant and has the potential to grow to 50 ft. with 3” culms. I’m planning on planting this bamboo at my in-laws’ property in Mount Shasta later this summer, but by then the culms might be too tall to fit in our van!

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Phyllostachys viridis last week…
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… and this week
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The culm sheath—the casing covering the emerging culm to protect it and the developing branches from damage—sure looks weird on this species.
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The culm sheaths are striped and mottled even though the culms are just a plain green.

Actually, culm sheaths are an important feature to distinguish one bamboo species from another. Nobody really knows why the culm sheaths on many bamboo species have a truly unique look. Maybe they help camouflage the emerging culms so animals don’t see—and hence eat—them?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I love leaves

At this time of year all our attention seems to be on flowers. Obviously there is good reason for that, as my post from yesterday shows. In the grand scheme of things, however, flowers come and go while leaves are there year round—or at least most of the year.

I was amazed by the variety of leaves in our garden, not only in terms of size and color, but also shape and texture. These photos are just the tip of the iceberg, but they give you a good idea of what I’m drawn to.

We have plants whose leaves are small…

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Creeping wire vine (Muhlenbeckia axillaris)

…and large.

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Giant elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhizos ‘Borneo Giant’)

Frilly…

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Foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii')

…and curly…

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Lemon-scented pelargonium (Pelargonium crispum)

…and flat.

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Greater meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium)

Rough…

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Puya coerulea var. violacea

…and soft.

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Purple Dragon dead nettle (Lamium maculatum 'Purple Dragon’)

Earthy…

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Green rhubarb (Rheum x coltorum)

…and ethereal.

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Green Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)

Solid…

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Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’

…and variegated.

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Variegated aralia (Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’)

Minimalist…

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Yellow Buddha belly bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’)

…and extravagant.

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F.M. Joyner caladium (Caladium bicolor ‘F.M. Joyner’)

Here in the northern hemisphere, Mother Nature is offering us a veritable smorgasbord right now. Don’t forget to stop and take it all in!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What’s blooming

After a weekend that went by much too quickly and a busy Monday at work, I enjoyed a quiet stroll through the garden with my camera and macro lens. So many plants are in bloom now, and I love looking at flowers up close. The palette of shapes and hues really is endless.

I hope these photos will brighten your day like they did mine. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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Tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). Click here for a post on this very special plant.
Our tower of jewels is about done blooming, and I’m hoping for a rich harvest of seeds
so I can keep the cycle going.
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Hot Lips sage (Salvia macrophylla ‘Hot Lips)
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Indigo Spires sage (Salvia farinacea x longispicata ‘Indigo Spires’)
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Electric blue sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)
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Purple Dragon dead nettle (Lamium maculatum 'Purple Dragon')
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Noble aloe (Aloe nobilis).
Lady bug busy eating aphids.
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Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
climbing through a pot of horsetail rush (Equisetum hyemale)
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Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus).
Nasturtium are edible and add a spicy note to a salad of mixed greens.
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Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica).
Many people think calla lilies are a cliché, but for me they are the epitome of floral elegance.
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Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Quite a name. I wonder what the story is behind it.
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Another shot of Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).
The seeds came on the wind from across the street—last year it was one plant,
this year it’s a few dozen. Invasive, yes, but who can resist this beauty?

What’s blooming in your yard? What are your favorites?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Elegia capensis in our front yard
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 modernistgardening.info.


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:

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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)
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This is what the front of the house looks like now with the two Rhodocoma capensis

And here is the Rhodocoma gigantea:

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