Friday, December 9, 2011

Sand lily (Veltheimia capensis)

The November meeting of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society featured a presentation by Nick Wilkinson of GROW Nursery on cold-hardy aloes and agaves. Nick also brought along a great selection of plants for sale, most of them hard to find in regular nurseries. I bought several, but the one I’m most excited about is this unusual looking specimen:


It’s a Veltheimia capensis, and I must admit I had never heard of it before. It turns out it’s a flowering bulb from the western part of South Africa, its common name being “sand lily.” It grows and blooms in the fall and winter and goes completely dormant in the summer (its leaves dry up completely).

It was attracted by its wavy leaves, shown to good effect in the following photo from Wikimedia (although my plant has much bluer leaves):

Photo: Wikimedia

For me, the leaves would be attraction enough, but the flowers are even more stunning. They look like a cross between the flowers of aloes and red hot pokers (Kniphofia).


To see more flower photos, check out this blog post from Diana Studer in South Africa. The Ruth Bancroft Garden web site also has a short article about the sand lily.

This following botanical illustration from the early 1800s is a remarkably faithful rendition of what the sand lily looks like.

Illustration of Veltheima capensis in “Les Liliacées” by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (published from 1802-1816)

Right now, my specimen is still in its 1-gallon pot. It’s outside in a sunny spot although I did bring it inside the last few nights when it was just below freezing. In the ground, it should be hardy to the mid to upper 20’s.

The bigger question: Where to put it? It needs full sun in the fall and winter to bloom well, and in the summer it needs to be kept dry. Maybe I’ll create a special spot in the succulent bed next to the front door.

I’m very happy to have this rare and unusual lily in my collection.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I ♥ limes

Winter is my least favorite season, but there’s one aspect that I like: fresh local citrus. Our Washington navel oranges won’t be ready for another month, but our limes are ripe now.

Our tree, a Bearss or Persian lime (Citrus latifolia), is on the edge of our driveway right by the sidewalk. There it gets about 8 hours of sun in the summer. We put it in the ground about 10 years ago as a smallish 5-gallon plant, and for the first five years it didn’t have a single fruit even though it flowered sporadically. I was very close to removing it when it finally started to produce. It must have heard and understood my threat!

Our Bearss lime tree next to the driveway
Notice the tall, gangly shoots on the right; they’re water sprouts from the root stock the lime is grafted onto. These are vigorous and thorny (unlike the Bearss lime) and take away energy that would otherwise be put into the grafted tree. As you can see, I haven’t been very good at removing the water sprouts this year, but I will do so this weekend.

John T. Bearss developed this seedless variety in 1895 in his nursery in Central California. It’s hardy, thornless, and produces relatively large fruit with a long shelf life. In fact, when you buy a lime in a U.S. grocery store, it’s almost always a Bearss lime. The only other lime variety of commercial significance is the Key lime, and it’s significantly smaller.

Commercial operations harvest Bearss limes when they’re still green, but we leave ours on the tree until they turn yellow. That’s when they are fully ripe. On the outside, they are virtually indistinguishable from a lemon at that point (in fact, they’re a dead ringer for a Meyer), but the inside is still green and the flavor is limey perfection.

Ripe limes on the tree
On the outside, it looks just like a Meyer lemon…
…but inside it’s greener (although this particular one doesn’t look very green in this photo)

As much as I love lemons, I actually find limes to be even more versatile. They’re great in beverages and baking, and they’re indispensable in cooking (we make a lot of Thai-inspired dishes). Since we only pick what we need when we need it and leave the rest on the tree, we can usually make lime season stretch into February. The day we pick the last lime is a sad occasion; it means we’ll have to make do with store-bought limes for the next nine months. They’re still good, but not quite the same.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What are these white blankets?

Last night we had our first freeze of the season. As is so often the case, the weather people on TV made a big deal out of it (apparently they don’t have much else to report), and I did get swept up in the frenzy. I hauled out my stack of frost blankets and covered many of my succulents. I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry even though virtually every plant that is left outside can handle temperatures down into the upper 20s.

Succulent display table next to the front porch
Succulent bed in the front yard
One of the stainless steel tables in the backyard…
…and my potting bench—although currently it is covered with potted cuttings

I also moved some potted plants up against the house…


…and a few others went in the dining room for the night where they joined the tropical plants I’m overwintering there (Mimosa pudica, currently sulking, Begonia luxurians, and two angel-wing begonias).


The official nighttime low for Davis ended up being 30.5°F. Yes, below freezing but barely. There was frost on the lawn this morning and the neighbors’ roofs were white, but since temperatures were only below freezing for a few hours, I don’t think any gardener around here lost anything—unless they left out their tropical orchids.


While this ended up being much ado about nothing, I’m ready for winter now, and my frost blankets are ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Actually, I’m leaving them in place until tomorrow since tonight is supposed to be another cold one.

One note about frost blankets: The ones I use are made of polypropylene. Since they are very light, they don’t put as much weight on plants as a sheet might, especially as it absorbs moisture from the air. The information given by various manufacturers varies, but frost blankets seem to add 2-4°F of protection. In my case, that’s typically enough to prevent leaf damage to succulents or tender perennials.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cactus fruit tasting

I’ve posted several times this year about four segments of a Queen of the Night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus susp.hildmannianus) I rescued from the yard waste pile. One of them produced four show-stopping flowers and then set three fruits. Two of these grew and gradually changed color from green to purple to pink. I kept an eye on them because I wanted to pick the fruit at the right time in order to taste it. Like most cereus, this species has edible fruit.

Cereus hildmannianus_03
One of the four segments I brought home and potted up
The largest segment bloomed in August. Three flowers opened at the same time and I hand-pollinated them using a small paintbrush. My efforts were successful.
 111022_cereus_hildmannianus_fruit 111203_cereus_hildmannianus_fruit
The two “good” fruits in late October (left) and in early December (right)

Yesterday I finally picked one of the fruits, which was the size of a kiwi. I realized right away that I had waited a bit too long because the underside was split. My friend Candy of Sweetstuff’s Sassy Succulents had warned me about that. I now wish I had picked it before Thanksgiving. Oh well, another learning moment.

Split underside. I had waited a little too long.

Most of the inside looked perfectly fine, but there were some brown spots at the end. They look worse in the next photo than they were in real life. I scooped out the flesh with a spoon, cut off the brown parts, and served it up to the family sitting at the breakfast table. While not exactly clamoring to try it, everybody humored me.


So what it did taste like? The consistency was much like watermelon, the seeds adding a nice, pleasant crunch, much like kiwi seeds do. I expected the flavor to be sour, but it wasn’t. “Perfumy” was all I could come up with, but my 13-year old daughter hit the nail on the head: honeysuckle! Not like people eat honeysuckle on a regular basis, but if you’ve ever sucked on a honeysuckle flower, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Overall, a refreshing taste but not exactly a wow experience. Still, if I had a large crop I’d make cereus margarita!

Related posts

3/10/11: Cactus rescued from the gutter
3/28/11: Potting rescued cactus sections
8/15/11: Queen of the Night getting ready to flower
Queen of the Night goes out with a bang

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Here and gone

Today was a busy day in the garden. The first order of business was removing a 4 ft. Yucca gloriosa from the succulent bed next to the front door. While I liked the architectural look of this yucca and its current size, I knew that it couldn’t stay in this spot forever, considering its size potential and relatively fast growth rate. Since the base of the plant was getting thick and woody, I was afraid digging it out would become progressively more difficult so I bit the bullet this morning. Contrary to what I had expected, our trusty pry bar dislodged the root ball quite easily and I was able to lift out the plant unharmed. I wrapped the root ball in plastic, listed it on Freecycle, and by 1pm it had been picked up. Hopefully it will have a good home somewhere else.

Yucca gloriosa—here…and gone
I was surprised by the dainty roots. I had expected much thicker, woodier roots.

The big question is what to plant in this spot. I don’t honestly know. For now, I’ve put the Yucca rostrata I bought a few weeks ago at Poot’s Cactus Nursery in Ripon, CA where the Yucca gloriosa had been to see if I like it there. Yucca rostrata has the potential to grow to 12 ft., which would be too big for this spot as well. But it’s a veeeeery slow grower; it could take 20 years for it to reach its mature height.

Yucca rostrata where
the Yucca gloriosa had been

Next on my hit list were two red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) outside the front yard fence. While I love their flowers, their foliage looks weedy to me. In addition, the two clumps you see in the photo below—tight and manageable this past spring—had become sprawling and quite invasive. I had been going back and forth all fall between dividing them or removing them altogether, and I finally decided to go all the way and find a new home for them.

Kniphofia uvaria in the spring of 2011
111203_kniphofia1 2_before
Look at how large and weedy the clumps had gotten!

The clumps were actually small colonies. The one on the right consisted of at least 10-15 individual plants. Offsets were coming up against the fence! As with the Yucca gloriosa, I used the pry bar, but it was much harder going and required more physical exertion than I’m used to. Luckily, my wonderful wife helped and eventually we had both clumps out. I posted them on Freecycle and I hope somebody local will give them a new home.

111203_kniphofia1 2_gone
After the red hot pokers had been removed

I replaced the right clump with an Elegia capensis, a restio from South Africa that I had planted against the fence on the left. (Read this post about the restios I bought this spring.) Unfortunately, it had been overshadowed all summer by taller plants and was languishing. I’m hoping this new spot will be more to its liking.

Elegia capensis where one of the
red hot pokers had been

Unless you know what a mature Elegia capensis looks like, you might not think that it looks like much based on the photo above. Here’s a photo I found of a stunning specimen growing in the north of France. I hope that my plant will look at least half as good in 3-5 years!

Elegia capensis growing in Brittany, Northern France
Source: Visoflora

The final plant that got the boot today was this large clump of Silver Arrow maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’). This was the hardest decision for me since I truly love this grass. However, in spite of me dividing it last spring, it had simply gotten too large for its spot. Its stalks were so heavy this summer that they flopped forward and smothered the plants in front of it. My wife really wanted it gone and before I knew it, she was swinging the gold old pry bar.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’, summer 2011

After a good deal of joint prying and tugging, we were finally able to lift out the clump intact. It also went into the curb and got posted on Freecycle. So far nobody has come to get it. If it doesn’t find a taker, it’ll be picked up on Monday morning by the City of Davis yard waste crew and will become compost. What a shame…

Where the Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ had been. I won’t plant anything there for now because I think the emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’) on the right will eventually expand to this spot.
Silver Arrow and red hot pokers in the curb, waiting for takers

Removing plants that are a familiar sight in your garden can be a surprisingly emotional thing. It was no different for me today. But I kept reminding myself that a garden is a dynamic environment, always evolving, and change is good.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Black oaks in the fog

If I had a large property, I would plant a grove of California black oaks (Quercus kelloggii). You find these magnificent trees, some up to 80 ft. tall, in many places in Northern California but they often grow side by side with conifers, which in my opinion takes away from their beauty.

My favorite “pure” stand of black oaks is in Mount Shasta along the road to Castle Lake (be sure to check out this photo to see how spectacular this landscape is). I’ve photographed this stand for many years, in various seasons, and the mood differs greatly depending on the prevailing color.

Green dominates in the summer…


…while in the fall it’s yellow.


But these trees are at their most ethereal in the late fall and winter when there is the fog. I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time on Thanksgiving morning. The photos below capture the mood of the place—majestic, mystical, eery.


Within 15 minutes, the sun started to chase away the fog. First the light turned almost pure white—a blinding glare—then the fog was gone and the forest looked a lot more ordinary.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nocturne in the fog

I haven’t had much free time this week due to work that didn’t get done over the Thanksgiving break. Since it’s dark by 5:30 p.m. these days, there’s little opportunity for garden-related activities after work. I have a long list of chores for the weekend, including repotting of some bamboos and removal of two overly large clumps of Kniphofia uvaria. I’m also thinking of creating another succulent bed in the backyard—not 100% sure about that one yet. And let’s not forget the drifts of leaves everywhere, especially after the super windy day we’ve had today. They need to be dealt with, too.

What I did do the other night was take some photos of our yard and the neighborhood since it was really foggy. As I was patiently waiting for each 30-second exposure to complete, I couldn’t help but be in awe at the silence that fog brings. While we live in a reasonably quiet part of town, there’s always noise from somewhere; sometimes we can even hear the train although the tracks are miles away.

Not so when there is fog.

What I did hear was the almost otherworldly honking of geese flying overhead. Since it was dark and the fog was thick as pea soup, I couldn’t see even a trace of them. I kept wondering if they were real or if I was imagining them. It was a very Edgar Allan Poe moment!

Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) in front of our house
Baby blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata) in our front yard
Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) next to street light
Succulent rain cover (read this post for more info)
Dwarf Cavendish banana (Musa acuminata 'Dwarf Cavendish')
Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) on the left
and bamboo muhly grass (Muhlenbergia dumosa) in the pot on the right
Looking down the street
Dropping off library books