Sunday, July 10, 2011

From lowly weed to ephemeral beauty

We arrived at my in-laws in Mount Shasta, CA yesterday afternoon, and as I was walking around in their backyard, one plant caught my eye right away. 

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In one area of the yard, there is an ocean of seed heads that glow like ethereal lights when backlit by the late afternoon sun. At first glance they look a little like dandelions on steroids, but with perfectly round heads. Looking closer, you begin to see the individual seeds symmetrically arranged around a central spoke. The seeds, technically dry fruits called achenes, have a number of delicate-looking feathery bristles called pappus that help them drift more efficiently on the wind.

These seed heads are so beautiful that you’d expect them to come from an equally beautiful plant. That’s definitely not the case here. The plant is a plain-looking non-native weed called Tragopogon dubius, about 2 feet tall. An import from Europe, it has many different common names, including western salsify, yellow goat’s beard, or just goat’s beard. My in-laws call it “milkweed” although it is not related to the real milkweeds (Asclepias). 

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Actually, the flower, about 2 inches across, is quite handsome up close. While Tragopogon dubius is not closely related to dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), they’re both in the aster family (Asteraceae) and share general similarities.

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If it weren’t for the fantastic seed heads, nobody would be paying much attention to the plant. But while they last, the seed heads are a sight to see, especially backlit and up close. Who would have thought that a lowly weed but be the source of so much beauty!

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Our front yard in early July

I’ve been collecting these photos of our front yard for a couple of weeks now, and I’d better post them before everything starts to wither under the relentless summer sun.

While I’m happy to show these photos to everybody who’s following this blog, my main goal with this type of post is to create a visual reference of our garden so I can go back later to see what it looked like at a specific point in time. I find it enormously helpful being able to gauge progress by comparing photos taken at the same time each year.

If you aren’t taking photos of your own garden already, I highly recommend it. It’s never too late to start your own photo diary.

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Panorama of front yard plantings inside the fence
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Echinacea x ‘Tiki Torch’ and ‘Tomato Soup,’ blazing star (Liatris spicata), and a more compact maiden grass cultivar called ‘Dixieland’ (Miscanthus sinensis 'Dixieland')
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Two maiden grasses in the background (Miscanthus sinensis 'Rigoletto' on the left and Miscanthus sinensis 'Super Stripe' on the right). In the foreground: Stokesia laevis ‘Klaus Jelitto’, Echinacea x ‘Hot Papaya’, and pink rain lily (Zephyranthes grandiflora).
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In the back (left to right): Miscanthus sinensis 'Super Stripe', northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Salvia x ‘Indigo Spires’
In the middle (towards the right): white-flowered Liatris spicata and Rudbeckia fulgida.
In the front (left to right): Echinacea x ‘Fragrant Angel’, California gray rush (Juncus patens)
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Miscanthus sinensis 'Super Stripe' and dwarf Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Little Spire')
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Miscanthus sinensis 'Super Stripe' up close (yes, I love it)
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Canna indica in bloom. What a hummingbird magnet! I started these from seed a few years ago, but unfortunately I can’t remember which species they are.
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Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) producing its annual flush of leaves.
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This specimen is about 13 years old. It was in perfect condition until some of the leaves started to scorch in our recent heat wave. Like humans, plants got used to the mild spring weather that lasted much longer than usual this year.
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Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) on the left, lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus) on the right
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Succulent display table
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Another small cactus in bloom, Obregonia denegrii. I love walking outside and finding a flower where there was none the day before.
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Two of our larger potted cacti: roadkill cactus (Consolea rubescens) on the left, and golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) on the right
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Succulent bed next to front door. The red pot in the upper right is a Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum) trying to find its groove.
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Back: Ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)
Front: Blue Glow agave (Agave attenuata x ocahui ‘Blue Glow’)
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Queen Victoria agaves (Agave victoriae-reginae)
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Ever growing collection of potted succulents near the bamboo corner (see next photo)
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Foreground: Golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa)
Middle: variegated Eureka lemon (Citrus limon 'Eureka Variegated Pink’)
Back (left to right): Bambusa oldhamii, Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’
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Closer view of Eureka lemon (Citrus limon 'Eureka Variegated Pink’), Bambusa oldhamii, and Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’
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Golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) in flower. Click here for more photos.
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Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') in a glazed pot that holds open the gate to the front yard
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Raised bed with tropical foliage plants. I’m not 100% happy with this area. The Kahili gingers (Hedychium gardnerianum) on the right are taking over. I think I will thin them out in the fall and plant another giant elephant ear to complement the one on the left (it’s an Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Borneo Giant’).
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Giant elephant ear leaf (Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Borneo Giant’). This is the first leaf it produced this spring (it has two others now) and it’s getting a bit yellow around the edges.
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Silver Lady fern (Blechnum gibbum). This is a frost-sensitive tropical fern that eventually will grow a short trunk—at least in theory. In our garden it gets knocked back every year by the frost but does come roaring back once the weather warms up in spring.
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After the ‘Mojito’ I bought on the weekend, this is my favorite elephant ear cultivar: Colocasia esculenta ‘Elepaio’, named after the Hawaiian monarch flycatcher. Each leaf is unique, but this one is particularly stunning. I’ve read that it used to be so rare that only Hawaiian royalty had access to it. Thanks to modern technology (i.e. tissue culture), even non-royals like us can now buy it. For me it’s only about 2 ft. tall and hence a good understory plant underneath the Kahili gingers I mentioned above.
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Here’s another photo of an ‘Elepaio’ leaf. Most of them look like this one.

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.

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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.

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Tree-sized blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea)
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Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom (late May)
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Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom
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Flower head (umbrel) consisting of hundreds of individual flowers;
these are not quite open yet…
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…while these are
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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.
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Berries beginning to form (early June)
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Ripe berries (early July)
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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.