Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A smell vampires ought to love

It’s a clump-forming perennial from South Africa with attractive grass-like foliage and lavender-colored flowers on 2-foot stems that seem to last forever. It grows well in full sun and doesn’t seem to be fussy about soil. While it spreads by rhizome, it does so slowly and predictably, and it’s never invasive. In addition, it’s hardy to 20°F, allowing to be grown in much of California.

Sounds like the perfect plant for many situations, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s eternally popular, both with landscape designers and homeowners. Everybody seems to love it—except me. Don’t get me wrong: I like the leaves and I like the flowers, but I just cannot stand the smell.

I’m talking about society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea). While it isn’t in the immediate garlic and onion family (Allium), it is a distant cousin. The funny thing is that I do love onions and garlic—to me, they taste and smell fresh and, well, alive. Society garlic, on the other hand, smells like garlic that has died and started to rot. It would be the perfect scent profile for vampires if only they liked garlic. But maybe Bram Stoker got it all wrong, and they do.

Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) featuring prominently in the landscaping of a condo complex up the street from us
Society garlic looks beautiful mixed in with lavenders
Close-up of flower
Courtesy of Wikimedia

We all have our personal likes and dislikes, and as much I’m trying to make myself like society garlic, I just can’t get over the smell. Give me lilacs and lavenders any day!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Matilija poppy update

Just last week I posted a blurb about the matilija poppy, a stunning shrub native to Southern California. I don’t typically write about the same plant twice in such a short period of time, but I just found a few more clumps near our house that are in full bloom. Since the flowers are at their absolute peak right now, I simply have to post these photos. Please bear with me and/or change the channel—I won’t hold a grudge. At least not for long.

These particular clumps are adjacent to a park and public tennis courts and must have been planted by the City of Davis. I’m very pleased that an obvious effort was made to use native plants appropriate for our climate.

Since these plants are on top of a slope, drainage is perfect. Matilija poppy prefers dry, sunny spots and cannot tolerate wet feet.

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) adjacent to Walnut Park in South Davis
There are several large clumps in this location

Romneya coulteri is indeed in the poppy family (Papaveraceae), so it is related both to the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and to the oriental (Papaver orientale) and opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).

The petals are like chiffon—they weight next to nothing and flutter in the slightest breeze.


A few interesting tidbits to prepare you for a stint on Jeopardy!: Matilija poppy has the largest flowers of any California native. It was nominated as the California state flower in 1890 but lost to the California poppy, which still holds that title today.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beavertail cactus blooming

After a longer and cooler spring than usual, summer has finally arrived, and our cacti are enjoying the abundance of sunshine.

Some of our smaller cacti bloomed a while ago (check this and this), and now it seems that our prickly pears (Opuntia sp.) are getting into the swing of things well.

The first prickly pear to bloom is a beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) I picked up in January from UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. I believe they had propagated it from seed.

Opuntia basilaris is native to California and the Southwest. We saw quite a few in the wild in Joshua Tree National Park earlier this year. As far as prickly pears go, it’s one of the smaller species, growing to maybe 2 ft. in height. However, a clump can be quite wide and consist of hundreds of individual pads. The coloration is beautiful—a steel gray with a touch of purple, more pronounced in the winter. As the temperature increases, the color seems to become greener.

Opuntia basilaris in Joshua Tree National Park

Our small plant (about 1 ft tall) has had one flower bud for at least a month now but it wasn’t until three or four days ago when the thermometer climbed into the 80s that the bud started to grow larger. Today it finally opened up.

Our potted Opuntia basilaris in bloom

The color is hard to describe. Neon magenta comes to mind. It’s the kind of color your eye is drawn to from quite a distance.

The color is almost unreal
Pollination appears to be mostly by bees

I don’t know how long these flowers will last but I will sure enjoy them.

Here is a photo of an entire clump in bloom, courtesy of Wikimedia:

According to Wikimedia, this photo was taken by Stan Shebs in the “sandy area of Pine Creek Canyon east of the old homestead, Red Rock Canyon, Spring Mountains, southern Nevada (elev. about 1200 m)”

My bunny ears cactus (Opuntia microdasys ‘Albata’) has a bunch of flower buds which I’m hoping will open up soon. I’ll post photos when they do.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Done doing some potting

I spent a couple hours in the morning removing suckers from two of our ornamental pear trees (‘Aristocrat’ and ‘Bradford’) that keep coming up everywhere. What joy! I wrote about this sucker problem before, so the less said on that topic, the better!

To reward myself, I decided to tackle a few potting projects I hadn’t gotten around to yet. The first one was simple: Put the 1-gallon Puya coerulea var. violacea I bought at the last UC Davis Arboretum plant sale in a larger and nicer container.

Puya coerulea var. violacea in its 1-gallon nursery container

Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads and hence related to pineapples—the top of a pineapple looks quite similar to this puya. Most puyas are native to Chile and given time and space will form large clumps and eventually produce stunning flower stalks. This spring several large puyas were in bloom at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden but unfortunately I never got around to seeing them. My puya is a smaller species and will produce a more modest flower stalk, seen in this photo. But that’s a number of years down the line.

A couple of years ago I was given the green pot seen in the next photo and I never knew what to do with it—it simply didn’t go with any plants I had. However, it seems to be a good match for this puya, so that’s where it went.

Note: Puya leaves are heavily serrated. Wear thick gloves when handling them!

Puya coerulea var. violacea in new pot


Project 2 involved a rather brightly colored strawberry pot my wife bought last year at Panama Pottery in Sacramento. In the top I had planted a dwarf aloe called ‘Pink Blush’ and in the pockets a bunch of cobweb hens and chicks (Sempervivum arachnoideum).

Strawberry pot with Aloe ‘Pink Blush’ and Sempervivum arachnoideum

As you can see in the next photo, the Sempervivum arachnoideum are doing extremely well…

Sempervivum arachnoideum offsets

…at least in three out of the five pockets. The plants in the other two pockets have died, leaving ugly gaps.

Dead pockets…

The solution was simple: Simply detach some of the offsets from the other pockets and stick them in the empty pockets. Add a little bit of soil on top and water. They should put out new roots in no time considering how pleasant the weather is at the moment.

…with some Sempervivum arachnoideum offsets

The third project was a fun one. During our trip to Southern California in February, I bought a beautiful fish hook cactus at Mariscal Cactus & Succulents in Desert Hot Springs. Since I didn’t quite know where to put the cactus, it sat in its 5-gallon nursery container all this time. Last week I bought a nice square terracotta pot at Panama Pottery’s spring sale so I was finally ready to repot my fish hook.

Fish hook cactus (Ferocactus wislezenii)

I used the same technique I’d followed in early February when I repotted a large golden barrel cactus.

Step 1: Place the cactus sideways on wadded up newspaper. This fish hook cactus has even longer spines than the golden barrel and I was very careful to protect them well. The last thing I wanted was for the spines to get damaged or break. That would have seriously impacted the looks of the cactus.

Protect the spines with wadded up newspaper

Step 2: Wrap a blanket around the cactus and newspaper and tie it with a strap, belt, etc.

Wrap in blanket and tie with strap

Steps 3: Remove the old pot. While I had to struggle with the golden barrel cactus, this one came right off. Not a lot of roots considering how large and heavy the cactus is!

Remove from pot

Step 4: Plop the plant into its new pot and remove the strap, blanket and newspaper. Fill up with loose, well-draining soil. Done!

Put in new pot

Here’s the fish hook cactus in its new home on our front porch, next to two of my favorite agaves. They make quite a beautiful trio!

Ferocactus wislezenii with Agave celsii (top right) and Agave ‘Blue Flame’ (top left)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Karley Rose fountain grass

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you will have gathered that I’m a big fan of ornamental grasses. One of my recent favorites is an oriental fountain grass cultivar named ‘Karley Rose’ (Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'). It was discovered by David Skwiot of Sunny Border Nurseries and named for his daughter, Karley Rose. This grass is patented and therefore only available from licensed growers. Fortunately, many nurseries now carry it.

The regular oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale) is an attractive, hardy grass that grows in just about any soil and is quite drought tolerant once established. Like most ornamental grasses, it needs close to full sun to flower well. In early summer it starts to produce flower spikes with whitish to pinkish blooms that radiate from the foliage in an elegant arch. Unlike other fountain grasses, such as Pennisetum setaceum and some cultivars of Pennisetum alopecuroides (especially the beautiful ‘Moudry’), Pennisetum orientale does not seem to self-seed much, if at all, and hence is not a garden bully.

‘Karley Rose’ is even better than the regular Pennisetum orientale. It has deeper green foliage, its flowers are larger and more purple, it blooms longer, and it’s supposedly even cold hardier.

Here’s a video extolling Karley Rose’s virtue, courtesy of Great Garden Plants:

I put a couple of ‘Karley Roses’ in the ground last year and they’ve grown tremendously. Here’s a photo of our biggest clump:

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose' in our front yard in late May

Our neighbor across the street has four ‘Karley Roses’, and they look stunning backlit by the setting sun:


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bamboo muhly in full flower

In December I raved about bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), a grass native to southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico that looks remarkably like Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata subsp.aztecorum). Check out my original post for more information about this unique grass and for photos of what our plants looked like back then.

Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) next to our driveway in December 2010

Things look very different this spring. Our bamboo muhly, especially the one planted in the ground next to our driveway, is in full flower. Now don’t get too excited about the word “flower.” Like many grasses, the flowers produced by bamboo muhly are nothing to write home about. They’re inconspicuous, brownish gray, and completely dull.

What is very strange this year is not the appearance of flowers per se, but rather the sheer abundance of them. In fact, from a distance, it looks like the plant is dying.

The same plant in full flower in May 2011
Flowers galore. I wonder if there will be fertile seeds?

Looking closer, you can see that new leaves are actually emerging, but the overall effect is still a bit depressing. In fact, my wife asked me recently when I was going to remove this eyesore!

I tried to find information online about this flowering phenomenon, but I wasn’t successful. This is our third year of growing bamboo muhly. Last year, the flowers were much more sporadic, appearing in between healthy leaves so they were barely noticeable. This year, the plant shed all its leaves as the proliferation of flowers was emerging. In fact, it is acting very much like a bamboo going into a mass flowering phase, which often results in the death of the plant.

The good thing is that in spite of its common name, bamboo muhly is not a bamboo. I’m hoping that after 5 or 6 weeks of constant flowering, we’ll soon see a healthy crop of new leaves which will restore the plant to its usual self: a billowing mass of a lacy green leaves.

Signs of new leaves emerging

Related posts:

  • A few updates (10/23/11)
    See how the the bamboo muhly has made a complete recovery.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Welcome back, sun!

The Sacramento area has had the strangest weather this past spring. Temperatures 20-25°F below normal; rain and hail in the valley, and snow in the mountains; thunderstorms and even funnel clouds. These are not weather phenomena we see here very often at this time of year. In fact, an editorial in today’s Sacramento Bee compared our May weather to—gasp!—Portland, Oregon and added that by “exporting their weather” Portland may be “exacting some kind of cruel retribution” for “the flood of Californians that have moved there in the last decade.” That made me laugh because Californians are indeed considered a suspect bunch by many Oregonians.

Today, however, the sun is out and the sky is full of puffy white clouds. While some of them do look a bit menacing, the weather is supposed to finally return to normal, with temperatures in the 80s forecast for later this week.

I grabbed my camera during lunch time and snapped some photos in which the sky features prominently. It’s so good to see some blue after what seemed like weeks of incessant gray.

Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)
Emerging culms of pigskin bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis)
Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’)
Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’)
Two coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) across the street

Monday, June 6, 2011

Poker time

Red hot poker time, that is. I’ve been meaning to write about this wonderful South African native all spring. Red hot poker, or torch lily, belongs to the genus Kniphofia, of which which there are about 70 different species. Only a few of them are commonly grown here in the U.S. The most frequently seen species is Kniphofia uvaria. It comes from an area with winter rainfalls, which coincides with our weather pattern. This species is easy to distinguish from other kniphofia species because its leaves are keeled (i.e. they have a U-shaped groove).

Flower closeup

Red hot pokers are closely related to aloes but they are not succulents. In addition, they are much hardier than aloes—down to zone 6, according to some web sites. They’re not fussy about the type of soil but good drainage is a must to prevent crown rot, especially in areas with very wet winters. They need full sun to flower, and even though they will survive periods of drought, they grow much better if given regular water in the hot months.

Red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) outside our front yard fence.
You can see three clumps in this photo.
This photo was taken this morning (6/6/11) and the flower spikes are almost done blooming

Red hot pokers have thick rhizomes and fleshy roots and don’t like to be disturbed or divided. Experts say that after division they will need a year or two to settle down before they bloom again. Division isn’t really needed until flower production begins to slow.

Flower spike just emerging from the foliage (April 2011)
One of the smaller clumps. This one was planted from a 4” pot two years ago. This is the first year it’s bloomed.

Here is Northern California, red hot pokers are a common sight along the coast where they have naturalized in many places. They’re not that common in inland gardens, so when I bought a bag of bare-root Kniphofia uvaria from one of the big box stores 3½ years ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I believe the bag contained six rather sad-looking chunks of rhizome. I stuck them in the ground outside the front yard fence and forgot about them. For the first couple of years we got healthy foliage but no flower spikes. Then, in year 3, we had a few flowers, and I was thrilled. Year 4 (this year) was when they finally came into their own. They’ve been producing spike after spike of brilliant two-tone flowers since April and are just now beginning to fade. I love dramatic, exotic-looking plants, and Kniphofia uvaria certainly fits the bill. Even though it only blooms 2-3 months out of the year and the foliage by itself isn’t all that attractive, I’m still happy to have five clumps now.

A few tips:

  • Remove fading flower spikes to encourage the production of more spikes.
  • Do plant red hot poker in full sun. I planted another bag of bare-root material in a semi-shady spot in our backyard, and some floppy leaves is all we ever got.
  • If you want flowers sooner, buy gallon-size plants. They should flower within a year or two. I bought one in a 4” container a couple of years back, and it flowered for the first time this year. Seed is available in stores and on the Internet, but I read that it takes many years (5-6) until you have mature plants that bloom.


Foliage—not the most stunning in the world.
It would probably be best to plant red hot poker in the middle or towards the back of the border and hide the foliage behind a more attractive plant.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bye bye calla lilies

We have a row of calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) lining a narrow planting strip on the north side of the house. We planted them over 10 years ago from bulbs given to us by friends, and they have multiplied many times over since then. They go dormant in the summer and wake up again when cooler weather and rain return in the fall.

My favorite calla lily photo of the year, taken in April

This spring, we’ve had the weirdest weather in recent memory—temperatures as much as 20°F below normal, and rain much later than usual. Calla lilies love this kind of weather and they’ve stuck around longer than they usually do. However, in the last week ago their foliage has begun to droop and lean, and the last few flower spathes have started to turn brown.

Calla lilies getting a bit long in the tooth…
…becoming gangly and flopping forward

Taking advantage of a break in the rain, I decide to cut down the foliage earlier this morning. I felt a bit sad since I really enjoy the many flowers we get every year. It felt a bit like saying goodbye to a friend who is moving to another country for six months.

Now the planting strip is bare and looks bleak. I wonder if there’s anything I can plant for the next six months? Maybe some shade-tolerant annuals? This side of the house never gets direct sun, although our neighbor’s house acts like a giant reflector, bouncing the afternoon sun right into our side yard and bathing it in bright indirect light.

Planting strip after I cut down the foliage. Any ideas what I could plant there in the summer?
Bulbs (technically rhizomes) from plants that were growing behind one of the air conditioners.
Free to a good home!

Side notes: I just read that calla lilies, native to Southern Africa where they grow in marshy areas, are only deciduous when water becomes scarce. That’s certainly the case along the Central California coast where they have become naturalized; there they go dormant during the summer when there is little to no rain fall.

Related posts:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Look closer

Today I’d like to invite you to take a closer look at the plants around us.

All too often we focus primarily on the big picture: what the entire garden looks like, or certain areas of it. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a holistic view of the garden is necessary to make smart design decisions. However, don’t forget to stop and not only smell the proverbial roses (which we don’t grow), but also look at the intricate details of leaves and flowers. This macro world is full of beauty and wonder.

Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata)
Variegated Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius 'Janet Starnes')
Aeonium ‘Kiwi’
Aeonium ‘Jack Catlin’
Rock purslane (Cistanthe grandiflora)
Whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’)
California buckeye (Aesculus californica)
Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
Blue speedwell (Veronica umbrosa)
Sea urchin sedum (Sedum lineare)
Soap aloe (Aloe maculata)
Red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria)
New growth on violet prickly pear (Opuntia gosseliniana)
Tequila Sunrise columbine (Aquilegia skinneri 'Tequila Sunrise')
110603_astilbe bee

Deutschland astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii 'Deutschland')

Fanal astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii 'Fanal')
110603_calla bee
Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
Giant elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Borneo Giant’)
Imperial taro
(Colocasia esculenta var. antiquorum 'Illustris')
Scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale)
Pigskin bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis)
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Coneflower (Echinacea hybrid)