Sunday, July 24, 2011

Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA

Mention Annie’s Annuals to any garden enthusiast in the Bay Area or Sacramento, and they get a dreamy look on their face. I had never been there before, but I’d been drooling over their catalog and web site for years. Located in Richmond in the East Bay, Annie’s Annuals is less than an hour from my house, but it took a visit from my plant-loving mother to get off my duff and go.

Davis was basking under a perfect blue sky when we left, but when we got to Richmond, the area was shrouded in high fog and temperatures were in the low 60s, 20 degrees lower than at home. Richmond gets this kind of fog quite frequently in the summer, and it contributes to what is one of the best growing climates in the entire state. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing and rarely go above 90. No wonder the plants at Annie’s Annuals looked perfect. They truly are in paradise there.

Virtually all plants Annie’s Annuals are in 4-inch containers and were grown at the nursery, typically from seed. Prices at the nursery range from $4.50 to $10.50 and are appreciably lower than on their web site (which is understandable, considering how labor-intensive picking, packaging and shipping is). The nursery is in a less-than-picturesque part of town, but considering how expensive land is in the Bay Area, I didn’t expect it to be any different. Having been to many nurseries over the years, including many who seem to care little for plants or for customers, I would give Annie’s Annuals a full 10 out of 10 as far as cleanliness, health of the plants, display, and especially labeling is concerned. It is very obvious that the nursery is run by people who love plants and who want to make sure their customers know what they’re getting. I wouldn’t be able to name a nursery that is better organized than Annie’s Annuals. For plant lovers, it doesn’t get better than this!

Looking toward the parking lot from right inside the entrance
I love the lavishly landscaped garden rooms…
…and the whimsical garden art
Teetering on the edge of tacky, but still this side of cool
I never used to be a dahlia fan, but seeing this type of dahlias with lots of smaller flowers could make a convert, especially after reading a recent post on Alternative Eden
Every nursery needs a cow!

Annie’s Annuals has a large selection of smaller succulents, with a heavy focus on aeoniums—Canary Island natives that thrive in the mild Bay Area climate. While our aeoniums at home are in their summer dormancy and look a bit ratty, the ones at Annie’s Annuals were picture perfect.

Aeonium ‘Sunburst’
Fantastic succulent combination featuring purple dyckia, aeonium and a mat-forming ice plant (Delosperma nubigenum)
Aeonium species and Delosperma nubigenum
A rare crested form of Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)

To my delight, I found a handful of different Puya species. Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads, just like the pineapple whose fruit we all love. They are native to South and Central America—many of them from Chile—and produce remarkable flowers once mature. Today I bought a Puya mirabilis, the smallest puya and the quickest to bloom, to go with the Puya coerulea I’d bought earlier this year at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale.

Sapphire tower (Puya alpestris). The flowers on this puya are a bluish turquoise color with a metallic sheen that looks unreal. Like all puyas, this species forms a dense mound of overlapping rosettes with spiny leaves.
Close-up of Puya alpestris flowers. The silvery leaves in the background belong to a Puya laxa.

Annie’s Annuals also carries a large selection of exotic plants that aren’t succulents, especially from South Africa. Since our climate is very similar to that of South Africa, many South African natives do really well here. Before my next trip, I will do more research in advance and come prepared with a wish list!


Berkheya cirsiifolia.
This stunning flower grows on top of a wickedly spiny stem. Not a user-friendly plant, but beautiful and exotic and hence very desirable to me.
Senecio cristobalensis.
I almost bought this Mexican native but couldn’t think of a space in our garden that would be big enough to accommodate its mature size (8 ft. tall x 6 ft. wide). But what a statement it makes! Fuzzy leaves, too. Hardy into the high teens.

An entire section of the nursery is dedicated to California natives. It was astounding to see the selection they carry, ranging from large shrubs like flannel bush and ceanothus to small succulents like Dudleya and Lewisia.

Datura metel ‘Belle Blanche’. Daturas are considered weeds by some and they can look gangly in their native desert environment, but with richer soil and regular water they are stunning.
Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Native to many parts of California, they are manna to Monarch butterflies. The flower heads are very showy and fragrant, too. Likes poor, dry soil. I’m thinking of creating an area just for milkweeds in our garden to attract more butterflies.
Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset’. A small succulent from California and the Pacific Northwest (the rosette is about 5 inches across), the flowers are truly spectacular.
Another lewisia with longer and more narrow petals (Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Plum’)
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in a range of colors
Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief’, my favorite poppy color

The range of colors, shapes and textures was simply astounding. While I typically gravitate towards drought-tolerant perennials that are at home in xeric or Mediterranean gardens, I spent quite a bit of time looking at perennials and annuals more typically found in cottage gardens.

Variety of flowering perennials and annuals planted in larger pots so customers can see what the small 4-inch plants they buy will look like
Yellow fig-leaved hollyhock (Alcea rugosa). Unlike the common biennial hollyhock, this Russia native is perennial and blooms from summer through fall. Now I wish I had bought one…
Convolvulus tricolor ‘Royal Ensign’. These flowers are like a beacon that you can see from a hundred feet away!
Cosmidium x burridgeanum 'Brunette'. One of the showiest cosmos I’ve ever seen. An annual, but reseeds.

Considering the smorgasbord laid out in front of me this morning, I had a hard time reeling myself in. While in hindsight it’s clear that I shouldn’t have been quite as conservative, especially considering that Annie’s Annuals is almost an hour away, I only bought seven plants. They’re all very different, though, and fill niches in our garden—including some niches that were created by me buying them :-).


My haul this morning. It includes three succulents (Dudleya pulverulenta, Puya mirabilis, Aeonium hierrense), a native lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), a sweet black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), a coral-colored perennial from Uruguay (Dicipliptera suberecta), and a rare palm-leaved begonia from Brazil that will be confined to a pot because it needs protection in the winter (Begonia luxurians)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ornamental grasses light up IKEA parking lot

The other evening we went to IKEA in West Sacramento, about 20 minutes away. Knowing that their parking lot is landscaped with lots of ornamental grasses, I brought my camera along. By the time we were done with our shopping, it was 7:45pm and the grasses were ablaze with the golden glow of the setting sun. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw such a magnificent sight in what is otherwise a completely ordinary parking lot next to the freeway. It goes to show that beauty is everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')


Giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea)




Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

The strip of deer grass was already in the shade and therefore didn’t light up like the other grasses

Whoever designed the landscaping for this IKEA parking lot made very smart choices. All three grasses are perfectly adapted to our climate (deer grass even is a California native), very drought-tolerant, and maintenance free. Perfect for a wide open asphalt lot that produces a great deal of reflected heat.

Well done, IKEA!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Chaste tree

In our backyard, there is a beautiful small tree that is visible from the dining room window. People invariably ask what it is, and when we tell them it’s a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), they get a blank look on their face—either because they have never heard of this tree before, or they can’t quite figure out what chastity has to do with it.

I had no idea either so I did some research. I love what I found on Wikipedia:

In ancient times it was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, hence the name chaste tree. Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, reports the use of stems and leaves of this plant by women as bedding "to cool the heat of lust" during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husband's beds to remain ritually chaste. […] Chaucer, in "The Flower and the Leaf," refers to it as an attribute of the chaste Diana, and in the 16th century the English herbalist William Turner reports the same anaphrodisiac properties of the seed, both fried and not fried. More recently, this plant has been called monk's pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. There are disputed accounts regarding its actual action on libido, with some claims that it is anaphrodisiac and others that it is aphrodisiac. Because of the complex mechanism of action it can be probably both, depending on concentration of the extract and physiologic variables (see below).

A few years ago somebody posted a note on our local Freecycle site looking for chaste-tree berries, and she did come by and collect some from our tree. I now wonder whose libido she tried to suppress?

All that aside, we love our chaste tree. We bought it as a tiny plant in a four-inch pot, and in the 10 years it’s been in the ground it has grown into compact 15 ft. tree that provides just the right amount of shade for our Asian-themed woodland garden.

Native to the Mediterranean and hardy to zone 7, the chaste tree does superbly well in our climate and deserves to be grown much more widely. It is at its most beautiful in July when it is covered with flower spikes that bear a superficial resemblance to butterfly bush (Buddleia). Some chaste tree varieties have flowers that are violet, others are almost white, but my favorite is the kind we have with vibrant purplish blue flowers.

During the day, the tree is abuzz with all kinds of bees, including very large black bumblebees. I love ducking under the branches, now weighed down by the blossoms, and being surrounded by a symphony of bee sounds.

Chaste tree in bloom in our backyard
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) in front of our chaste tree
The branches are beginning to intermingle with the potted black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) visible in the large pot in the photo above
Flower spikes

The chaste tree is beautiful even when there are no flowers. Its leaves are delicate and elegant, and they give off a faint aroma that I would describe it as a cross between sage and eucalyptus.

Speaking of leaves: They have fooled people, both in times past and now. Early settlers in the West Indies confused the chaste tree tree with the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). And a guest of ours who shall not be named once was equally confused when she thought that our chaste tree was a giant cannabis plant! Looking at the leaves alone, none of these guesses are that far-fetched (see photos below).

Chaste tree leaves
Leaf close-up
Cannabis leaf
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Castor oil plant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If left to its own devices, the chaste tree tends to develop multiple trunks, each with many branches, eventually resulting in a large round shrub. However, it can easily be shaped into a proper tree and takes very well to pruning. Ours has two trunks growing in a V, and we keep the interior open and airy.

If you live in an an area with relatively mild winters (zone 7 and above) and are in need of a small tree to act as a focal point, look no further!

V-shaped trunk of our chaste tree.
The bamboo behind it is Drepanostachyum sengteeanum.
Looking towards the dining room window. The lower branches will need to be pruned this year, as does the chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) growing next to the chaste tree—some culms are so heavy with leaves that they all but hide the granite lantern.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A drive through the redwoods

On our way home from our recent trip to the Southern Oregon coast we took a detour through the Northern California redwoods. Located in the northwestern corner of California, Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) protect 133,000 acres (540 km²) of pristine redwood forests, including 45% of all remaining old-growth stands of coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).

Managed jointly by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, RNSP consists of Redwood National Park proper, plus Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. I’ve visited this area many times, and while all of these parks are full of unique natural beauty, my favorite is Jedediah Smith State Park just outside of the Crescent City, an unassuming town 20 miles from the Oregon border.

Cutting through the heart of Jedediah Smith SP, Howland Hill Road offers one of the most spectacular drives in California. This 12-mile dirt road takes you from one breathtaking sight to another, allowing you to view centuries-old redwoods up close. While the road is narrow, there are plenty of wide spots so you can pull over and get out of the car. 12 miles doesn’t seem like much, but I guarantee you, you will stop so many times that you should allow two hours—and much more if you plan on taking any of the wonderful hikes.

I prefer overcast skies when visiting the redwoods; sunlight creates harsh contrast which makes it difficult to see details. Fortunately, this area receives close to 70 inches of rain a year, which means plenty of cloudy days. A light mist would be even better, but unless you live in the area, you have to take what you can get.

We were lucky—the sun didn’t come out until we were at almost through—and I managed to take a number of photos that I’m very happy with. I hope you will enjoy them, too!

While the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) doesn’t quite reach the massive girth of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), it is the world’s tallest tree. A coast redwood nicknamed Hyperion is currently the world’s tallest at 379 ft. (115 m).
One of the most beautiful roads in the country
My mother for size comparison
This tree had a diameter of 10 ft.--impressive but nowhere near the 26 ft. of the Lost Monarch, considered the world’s largest (albeit not tallest) coast redwood
Two more giants
Many people are so awed by the large trunks that they forget to look up!
I think the view of the tree tops is the most spectacular sight of all…
…especially when several trees touch at the top
A fallen giant.
The other half is on the other side of the road.
Dead redwoods become a refuge for deciduous trees which find rich nutrients inside the decaying redwood trunk.
I bet this forest didn’t look much different 500 or 1000 years ago!
Interesting mushroom attached to the trunk of a redwood. Does anybody know what kind it is?

More posts from our trip to Southern Oregon: