Friday, July 8, 2011

Sunflower extravaganza

Davis may be a university town, but its agricultural heritage is everywhere (even in the name of the UC Davis football team, the Aggies). It is surrounded by fields, not just rice to the north and east, but also tomatoes and sunflowers. In fact, Monet would be in heaven right now.

Before starting work this morning, I grabbed my camera and took some photos in two of the ginormous sunflower fields in bloom right now. I’m not a farmer and I don’t really know whether these sunflowers are grown for seed or oil (or both), but they sure are huge—some of the heads are a foot across.

The bees must think they’re in heaven, too. In fact, I saw bee boxes everywhere so there must be dozens upon dozens of hives. The next time I’m at the farmer’s market, I’ll look for local sunflower honey.

If you don’t like the color yellow, this post may not be for you. But if you do, I hope these photos will put a smile on your lips.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Elderberry heaven

Davis is blessed with an abundance of elderberry shrubs (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea and possibly other species). In our part of town, there are elderberries along the greenbelts which presumably were planted by the Parks & Facilities department. In addition, there are elderberries along the dry streambed of Putah Creek; these might be wild.

We frequently take walks on our greenbelt, and in the summer when the elderberry shrubs are loaded with ripe berries we invariably run into people who have no idea what they are. For some reason, elderberries have fallen out of fashion—into obscurity, even. I think it’s a pity because the shrub itself is attractive as a landscape plant, and the berries are a tasty treat if prepared right.

I see people now and then pop a berry or two into their mouth just to spit them out a split second later. Yes, elderberries are very sour as is, and I would never eat them that way. But in pies and jams they are wonderful, adding bright acidity and a pleasantly bitter undertone. They also make great juice which can be combined with other fruit juices (think pomegranate-elderberry!) and they can be transformed into elderberry wine and elderberry liqueur. One year we gave small bottles of home-made elderberry liqueur to our friends for Christmas, and it was a big hit.

If you’ve never tried elderberries, take a look around the next time you’re out and about. Chances are there are some growing right where you live.

Tree-sized blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea)
Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom (late May)
Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom
Flower head (umbrel) consisting of hundreds of individual flowers;
these are not quite open yet…
…while these are
This little guy clearly likes elder flowers.
In some European countries elder flowers are used in cooking. Elder flower fritters are a tasty Southern German treat, for example. Personally, I prefer to wait for the berries.
Berries beginning to form (early June)
Ripe berries (early July)
You’ll want to wait until the berries are this color before picking them. Unripe berries make some people nauseous so be sure to wait until the berries are completely ripe.

Note: The elderberries in these photos are Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea (also called Sambucus mexicana). They are very common in the Western U.S. and are considered to be among the best-tasting elderberries. Other parts of the country (and world) have different species but the culinary and medicinal uses are pretty much the same.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bambusa bambini

With the recent onset of summer weather (and temperatures hovering around the century mark), some of our clumping bamboos in the Bambusa family have kicked their shoot production into high gear.

Bambusa bamboos are native to the tropical and subtropical areas of Asia. The generation of new shoots—a process so aptly called “shooting”—is usually triggered by the onset of the summer monsoons. Since the bamboos in our garden are irrigated on a regular basis, it is the summer heat that triggers shooting rather than the sudden availability of abundant moisture.

The entrance to our front yard is dominated by two Bambusa: Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ (or Baby Blue Bamboo) and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’. Both are putting out shoots that are much larger in diameter than last year. It will be exciting to see how tall they will grow!

110704_Bambusa_Barbellata AlphonseKarr
Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ (left) and
Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (right, behind the gate)

110701_Bambusa-multiplex-Alphonse-Karr_08  110702_Bambusa-multiplex-Alphonse-Karr_03

On Saturday I did some pruning on the ‘Alphonse Karr’. I removed some lower branches to expose the culms (a technique called “legging up”) and cut out some older, smaller culms that were leaning excessively. I think it made quite a difference (“before” on the left, “after” on the right).
Some of the new shoots on this ‘Alphonse Karr’. There are about 10 new shoots in total.

110628_Bambusa-chungii-Barbellata_03  110701_Bambusa-chungii-Barbellata_02

New shoots on Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’. These are approaching 3/4” in diameter.

The Alphonse Karr in our backyard is shooting, too, but the large Oldham’s Bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) outside the front yard fence is still playing coy. I expect it to start shooting very soon, and I’m hoping for culms that are noticeably above 1” in diameter.

Another Bambusa I planted last year is busy as well: Asian Lemon Bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridivittata’). It’s planted in the front yard inside the fence, right next to our now-aging tower of jewels. In fact, you can see the bright yellow culms of this bamboo in many photos included in my original tower of jewels post. The new culms are a pale lemon color (see the culm on the left in the photo below), while the older culms have aged to a rich yellow reminiscent of Painted Bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris ‘Vittata’), a tropical species we can’t grow here.

Asian Lemon Bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridivittata’)

Since we had a much cooler and longer spring than usual this year, plants aren’t following their customary schedule (tomatoes, for instance, are woefully behind). But with nothing but summer weather in the forecast, the stragglers should soon catch up, including the Bambusas who seem to be taking their time getting going.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Red, white, and blue

Happy birthday, U.S.A.!

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Woodie Guthrie

Echinacea ‘Tomato Soup’
Echinacea ‘Fragrant Angel’
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mojito, anyone?

How do you survive a heat wave like the one we’re having? Stay cool, do as little as possible, and relax with a refreshing drink. Next to the margarita, my favorite summer drink is the mojito. It’s quick and easy to throw together. There are many variations on the theme (this one claims to be the “real” mojito), but here’s how I make mine:

1 sprig of mint (about 6 leaves)
1 tablespoon baker’s sugar (aka caster sugar)
Juice of two limes
2.5 oz rum
4-5 ice cubes
club soda


Put the mint leaves in a highball glass and add the sugar. Use a muddler (the handle of a wooden spoon works well, too) to gently mash the mint leaves and sugar together; the idea is to release the essential oils in the mint, not to shred the mint to pieces. Add the lime juice, ice, and club soda. Stir briefly and decorate with more mint. This makes a fairly sour mojito, so add more sugar if you like.


Reading this post, you’re probably wondering if I’ve had a mojito too many. After all, this is supposed to be a gardening blog, not a Happy Hour guide.

Actually, there is a method to my madness. The mojito inspiration came from a trip to Green Acres nursery in Sacramento yesterday. My mom is visiting, and I wanted to show here what is arguably the largest nursery in the Sacramento area. At Green Acres, I found a plant I’d only read about: a new elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) cultivar called—you guessed it!—’Mojito’. The leaves are absolutely stunning with their contrasting green and black flecks. The stems are mottled, too! Needless to say I ended up buying one.

Colocasia esculenta ‘Mojito’
I’ve never seen such beautiful leaves
The intricate variations are amazing
Can you tell how much I like the leaves?
The stem is mottled, too

I ended up putting my ‘Mojito’ in a large clay pot and placed it next to my variegata aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata') and 'Shiroshima' bamboo (Hibanobambusa tranquilans 'Shiroshima').

Potted ‘Mojito’ in our backyard

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Golden lotus banana is blooming!

While the golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) doesn’t produce edible fruit, it is very cold-hardy and produces what I think are among the most beautiful leaves on any large-leaf tropical.

In an earlier post I showed photos of the winter damage to our specimen and how it was starting to come back. In the three months since that post, it has positively exploded. The pups (offsets) surrounding the mother plant have been sending up leaf after leaf so the clump now takes up twice as much room as it did last year, making for a lush focal point in that corner of our front yard.

But the most exciting development is that the mother plant has started to flower. Check this blog post for a detailed description of the process. Unlike the plant in that post, ours looks much more lush because the central trunk is surrounded by a good two dozen pups in full leaf.

Here are some photos showing the development of the mother plant in the last month:

June 9, 2011
The two largest leaves on the central trunk are beginning to lower into a horizontal position. That was the first indication that something was up.
June 9, 2011
Instead of regular leaves (typically new leaves are larger than the ones before), the central trunk is producing short stubby leaves as the top of the trunk is beginning to swell.
June 11, 2011
More swelling in the center.
June 22, 2011
The flower structure is beginning to take shape.
June 25, 2011
First hint of color on the bracts.
June 28, 2011
Now you can clearly see the flowers amidst the bracts.
July 1, 2011
More bracts are peeling off the “artichoke” in the center.
July 1, 2011

According to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the lotus-like inflorescence lasts up to 250 days. At some point after flowering the mother plant will die, leaving the pups to carry on. I don’t really know if the trunk will simply rot away—that’s another one of those exciting discoveries gardeners like us get to make on a regular basis—but I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

June 28, 2011
Entire clump with flowering “artichoke”
June 28, 2011
Looking at this photo, it’s easy to see why Musella lasiocarpa is revered as a sacred plant by Buddhist monks in Southern China.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Roadkill cactus

Yes, that is its actual name. Whoever named it certainly had a sense of humor. It’s called roadkill cactus because the pads are so flat that it looks like they’ve been run over by a car.

I had never seen a roadkill cactus before, but when I spotted this one at Lowe’s a couple of weeks ago, I had to have it. There are actually two plants in the pot, and they do look a bit like cardboard cutouts of a cactus drawn by a child.

The current Latin name of this cactus is Consolea rubescens. From its former name, Opuntia rubescens, you can tell that it is related to the prickly pears of the American Southwest. Roadkill cactus is native to Florida and the Caribbean and can take more water than its desert-dwelling cousins. The downside is that it’s much less cold hardy (zone 9b) than the prickly pears but I think that mine will be fine in its spot on the front porch.

I just love my roadkill cactus!

Roadkill cactus (Consolea rubescens) after I repotted it. It’s currently 18 inches tall (not counting the pot) but it has the potential to grow to 10 feet. I wonder how long I will be able to keep it in a container?
The marks on the pads resemble tire tracks left by a car
In this photo…
…and in this one you can see how flat the pads are