Monday, August 15, 2011

Queen of the Night getting ready to flower

In March, I found four cactus segments that had been thrown in the yard waste by a neighbor a few blocks away. Never one to walk by a plant that looks like it could be rescued, I schlepped them home (read post) and later put them in pots with free-draining soil mix (read post).

Three were kept in the backyard in a spot where they get only morning sun. The fourth was moved to the front of the house where it gets full sun from early afternoon to evening. I didn’t water the segments at all for couple of months. After that, I began to water very sparingly, once a week or so. While I didn’t see any signs of new growth, the segments didn’t rot either, so I figured I was on the right track.1

July 30

Since there were no external signs of progress to get me excited, I mostly ignored them. However, at the end of June I noticed something completely surprising on the tallest segment: flower buds! Never in a million years would I have expected of any of them to bloom this year; I wasn’t even 100% sure that they had rooted properly.

Now that I had something to focus on, I began to keep a close eye on the buds. As you can see in the next two photos, the growth has been quite rapid.

Left: July 30                                                                Right: August 5

In the week between August 5 and 11, when the next set of photos was taken, the flower stalks (if that’s would you call them on a cactus) doubled in length. Today, on August 14, they are 7 in. long. The bulging part at the tip that will become the flower is oddly beautiful. It reminds me of an elongated purple artichoke in miniature.

August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11

I have no idea when the flowers will open up, but I will be ready with my camera!

Some background:

The cactus is a Queen of the Night (Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus), sometimes also called Peruvian apple cactus because of the shape of the fruit, or hedge cactus because in its native habitat (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil) it forms thick hedges. Its flowers are white, about 6 in. across (that’s huge!), and they are as ephemeral as they are beautiful. They open at sunset and begin to wilt by the next morning.

If the flowers are successfully pollinated during this extremely short time window (the main pollinators being moths and bees, although some sources mention bats), the cactus will produce edible fruit. Check out this short blog post.

1Out of curiosity, I just measured the tallest segment, and it has actually grown about 7 in. since I potted it!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Robert Young bamboo growing poolside

The other day I had lunch at a friend’s house in the East Bay, and I couldn’t help but admire her row of Robert Young bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’) planted against the fence behind her swimming pool. The small leaves provide a tropical backdrop for the entire backyard, and the yellow culms contrast wonderfully with the blue tile of the pool.


Since Robert Young is a running bamboo, the entire planting bed is contained with rhizome barrier to prevent the spread of rhizomes under the fence into the neighboring yard and under the concrete walkway into the planting strip right next to the pool.


Robert Young is said to be a strong grower, especially in warmer climates. However, my friend’s plants are acting more like clumping bamboos, with very little “running” taking place so far. Lewis Bamboo says that this behavior is typical for Seattle, but my friend’s location near Walnut Creek is a far cry from Seattle, considering temperatures regularly climb to 90°F and above in the summer.


These plants have been in the ground for five years, and I would have thought they’d have reached their mature dimensions (40 ft. in height, with a culm diameter of 3 in.) by now. But like so many plants, bamboos have a mind of their own, doing what they want whenever they want it. In addition, homeowners typically don’t care about statistics the way bamboo geeks like us do. All they want is a plant that looks attractive and fulfills its intended purpose. And using those yardsticks, my friend’s Robert Young bamboos are an unqualified success.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Clumping bamboos going great guns

Spring is the time when most running bamboos, like black bamboo and its siblings from the genus Phyllostachys, produce new shoots. By summer, the new culms have reached their final height and have branched out. Running bamboos now pump their energy into growth underground—this is the time of year when the rhizomes “run” horizontally.

In contrast, summer is the peak shooting time for subtropical and tropical clumping bamboos. In their native habitat, this coincides with the onset of the rainy season. While in our climate summers are bone dry, supplemental irrigation ensures that our bamboos’ water needs are met as they send up one new culm after another.

Even though we live in a climate with mild winters where temperatures rarely drop below 25°F, we’re still limited as to what kind of tropical clumpers we can grow. Quite a few of the most spectacular bamboos don’t survive below 30°F, so I will forever lust after the famed Timor black bamboo (Bambusa lako) or Sacred Bali bamboo (Schizostachyum brachycladum).

Nevertheless, many Bambusa species do very well in our climate. In fact, we have five different Bambusa growing in our front yard. All of them are in the midst of their annual shooting cycle, and it’s exciting checking on their progress every day.

Bambusa oldhamii (left), Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ (middle),
Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (right, behind gate)


Oldham’s bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii)

Bambusa oldhamii is the largest clumping bamboo we can grow in our climate zone. It has the potential to grow to 50 ft. with a culm diameter of 4 in. I don’t know if it will get quite that tall here, but I’m hoping for 35-40 ft. This would give us the tree-like effect we’re looking for in front of our house. In fact, this Bambusa oldhamii replaced a tree that had to be removed due to mistletoe damage.

Bambusa oldhamii in front of our house

Bambusa oldhamii forms a tight clump, so even a mature specimen has a relatively compact footprint (check out these photos I took in Sydney, Australia). This makes it a great choice for smaller suburban lots like ours.

Our oldhamii was planted just 1½ years ago as a 5-gallon plant, and its development has been nothing short of phenomenal. The fattest of this year’s culms is over 2 in. in diameter.

The tallest of this year’s culms…
…and the fattest (2 in.)


Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’)

As speedy as Bambusa oldhamii’s growth has been, Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ has been equally impressive. Check out these posts to see its explosive development: October 2010, March 2011, July 2011.

New culms on Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’

New culms are covered with a white powder which gives them a bluish coloration. In my book, this is one of the most attractive of all the tropical clumpers that can be grown outside of the tropics.

The downside about Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ is its availability, or lack thereof. In our neck of the woods, it grows as well as any of the common clumpers like Alphonse Karr, and yet none of the Northern California bamboo nurseries carry it. I hope this will change soon; with its gorgeous culms and its elegant leaves, this could become a very popular landscaping plant.

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Bambusa chungii  ‘Barbellata’ is called Baby Blue Bamboo because of the bluish coloring of the new culms…
…but it could also be called Hairy Bamboo! The hairy culm sheath will fall as soon as branches begin to emerge.


Alphonse Karr bamboo (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’)

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ is probably the most common clumping bamboo planted in our area. It is widely available, matures quickly, and has an attractive overall look. It is also hardy to 15°F so it can be grown in more places than other tropical clumpers. (Bambusa oldhamii and Bambusa chungii, for instance, are only rated to 21°F.)

We have two Alphonse Karrs. The one in the front yard, right behind the gate, was a large division from a local homeowner; it has been in the ground for 1½ years. The one in the backyard was bought as a 5-gallon plant from Madman Bamboo; it has been in the ground for 2 years. Both specimens are a couple of years away from their mature size when they should reach a height of 20 ft. and a culm diameter of 1½ in.

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ in the front yard…
…and in the back yard where its vicinity to the clothesline is an issue


Asian Lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’)

Asian Lemon bamboo is a relatively recent introduction, and its availability in California is quite limited. I was lucky to find a 15-gallon plant last year and I’m happy to see that this year’s culms are bigger than last year’s. I think this specimen is still a few years away from maturing, but according to the American Bamboo Society’s Species Source List, it should reach a height of 25 ft. with a culm diameter of 1 in. (the new culms are ¾ in. already).

This is a beautiful bamboo, and the yellow coloration of the culms is much more vibrant than that of Alphonse Karr. In terms of hardiness, it’s rated to 21°F. If you come across a specimen in a nursery, grab it. You won’t be disappointed.

Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’

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It’s easy to see why its common name is “Asian Lemon Bamboo”


Emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’)

The final clumping bamboo in front of our house is Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’. It’s a form of weaver’s bamboo (Bambusa textilis) and experts are still debating as to how different it really is. In Florida, it’s being sold as emerald bamboo because of the deep green color of its culms. It’s one of the hardier Bambusa varieties, rated 18°F by the American Bamboo Society.

Emerald bamboo is also a fairly tall bamboo (to 40 ft.) with a mature culm diameter of 2½ in. It forms a very tight clump with a small footprint which allows it to be planted in relatively small spaces—like the spot between our fence and the street light (see photo below). However, I’m already planning on removing the large maidenhair grass this winter because there isn’t enough room for both of them.

Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ behind the street light

I bought our emerald bamboo last winter from Bamboo Sourcery, which at the time was having a going-out-of-business sale (they reopened this spring). I only paid $40 for a 15-gallon plant, which is a very good deal.

This year’s culms are not only twice the diameter of the old ones, they are also remarkably beautiful. They have have whitish pinstripes—not common for emerald bamboo but I’m not complaining!

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Pretty impressive new culms, and beautiful striping on the culm sheaths and the actual culms.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tower of jewels: new beginnings

In May, our tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii) finally started to bloom. I had been waiting for this since I planted it in the fall of 2009. Tower of jewels is a drought-tolerant biennial from the Canary Islands; in year 1 it produces a rosette of soft gray-green leaves, and in year 2 the rosette elongates into a cone up to 8 ft. tall (ours was only about 5 ft.) eventually covered with small flowers. Check out my original post; it has lots of photos of the flowers.

May 18, just past its peak

Like all biennials, tower of jewels dies after setting seeds. And it is a seed-making machine! I have no idea how many there were, but probably thousands. Check out this post from June about the seed production stage.

June 11, done blooming
June 16, seeds

By mid-July, the flower cone had dried up completely, and I’m sure quite a few seeds fell off into the surrounding planting bed. No seedlings yet as far as I can tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some pop up later in the year.

July 24, completely dried up

Initially, the flowers were as soft as the leaves on the rosette had been—they had the same tactile quality as lamb’s ears. However, as they began to dry up, what was left became hard and prickly, unpleasantly so. In fact, after touching the plant, tiny barbs remain in your skin—much like what happens when you touch one of those soft-looking Bunny Ears prickly pears (Opuntia microdasys 'Albata').

At the end of July, I cut down the top ⅔ of the tower (wearing thick gloves!) and stripped off the seed heads onto a tarp spread out on the lawn. My mother, who was visiting at the time, separated the seeds from the chaff and we ended up with a nice little pile.

July 24, Christmas tree-like skeleton remaining after we had harvested the seeds

Then something curious happened. This is what the remaining ⅓ of the tower looked like after I had cut off the top:

July 24, topped tower

By early August, new leaves had begun to grow from the stalk!

August 3, new leaves?


Actually, I had hoped that this would happen. I’d read a post on Dave’s Garden by a gardener in Southern California who reported a second bloom after cutting off the top of the tower. I have no idea if my tower will bloom again or whether it will simply expend its remaining energy on a few leaves, but time will tell.

In the meantime, I placed some seeds in a pot filled with well-draining soil, and after three weeks six seedlings have come up. I will coddle them along until they’re big enough to go into their own pots and eventually in the ground. I’m not sure I have room for six towers of jewels, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

August 10, seedlings

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fancy California sister

Yesterday, my daughters (10 and 12) proudly brought me a dead butterfly they’d found in my in-laws’ driveway. It was not only beautiful, but also in beautiful condition, so I put it in a glass dish and photographed it. I’m not very experienced at photographing insects and other small critters, so the fact that this one was dead certainly helped. One could say it was very cooperative!

I only know a few common butterflies by sight, and this one was not one of them. I sent a photo to fellow garden blogger Alan of It’s Not Work, It’s Gardening because I knew he is quite the insect expert. Alan was able to identify it using the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, and it’s a California sister (Adelpha californica). Gotta love the name! I wonder where it comes from? Is there also a Nevada sister, or an Arizona sister? Or maybe an hermana mexicana?

Never mind, I just read that the name comes from the fact that the coloring of the wings resembles a nun’s habit. Personally, I’ve never seen a nun wearing orange, but what do I know? Maybe they are referring to a Hare Krishna sister? They do like orange!

Apparently the California sister prefers oak woodlands (the larvae eat oak leaves) and can also be found in conifer forests between 3000 and 7000 ft. The adults prefer things like rotting fruit, aphid honeydew, and even dung over flower nectar. It’s clear that butterflies have a much more interesting lifestyle than I suspected!

Anyway, I really enjoyed taking a closer look at this butterfly, and I hope you’ll enjoy the photos. The inside of the wings has a metallic iridescence that is particularly stunning.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chusquea up close

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve been planting bamboo at my in-laws’ place in Mount Shasta, mostly running bamboos that would be much too invasive in our tiny suburban yard. I’ve also planted two species of chusquea, a clumping bamboo native to South America. Chusqueas need cool summer nights to thrive, and Mount Shasta is just the place.

Last fall, I planted a Chusquea gigantea, and it’s put out a number of new culms this year that are noticeably thicker than before. It is known to be a vigorous grower, so next year we may see 10 ft. culms.

Chusquea gigantea and Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’

On a recent trip to Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Oregon, I picked up a Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’, and it’s currently planted about 12 ft. from the Chusquea gigantea. In hindsight, I wish we’d allowed for a bit more space because it, too, can become quite large. I will most likely move it by another 6 ft. during our next visit, just to be on the safe side.

Chusquea culeou ‘Roja’, planted just a month ago

As I was checking out the bamboos at my in-laws this past weekend, I was drawn to the details that are easy to overlook when you focus primarily on the overall picture. The way new branches burst out of the nodes on the culms can be quite dramatic, especially on chusqueas which have many more branches than other kinds of bamboo. The photos below are all of the Chusquea gigantea at my in-laws.

New culm. The culm sheaths are being pushed off by new branches.
Somewhat older branches that have already spread out like an umbrella
Newly emerging branches
Whorl of new branches
The most delicate new branches have a vivid light green appearance. For some reason, they remind me of tender new lettuce seedlings.
Yet another bundle of branches emerging
The culm sheaths—the papery husks covering the culms as they emerge from the ground—are attractive in their own right. I love the irregular black splotches.
The sheaths begin to tear as the branches emerge…
…and often they hang on at a rakish angle before finally falling off

I hope you enjoyed this closer look at bamboo anatomy.