Thursday, January 19, 2012

Succulent bowl brightens winter gloom

What I dislike most about winter is that all growth stops or slows to a crawl. It’s not like in the spring and summer when you’re guaranteed to discover something in the garden almost on a daily basis. Walking around in the garden just isn’t much fun at this time of year!

I could write about deciduous perennials that need to be cut back soon to make room for new growth. Or I could write about starting seeds to get a head start on the vegetable garden. But instead I’m going to show you a succulent bowl that brightens the gloomy days of winter with color and texture.

View of entire bowl

I put this bowl together last spring with small plants I bought for cheap at local nurseries and at IKEA. Succulents often look best when combined with other succulents. This is especially true for the not-so-flashy groundcover types, like sedums and intergeneric sedum hybrids. In a pot by themselves, they usually look less than impressive. But in combination with a few “thrillers,” like echeverias or other rosette-forming plants, they add a great deal of depth.

The “spillers” in this bowl are Sedum ‘Burrito’, easy to recognize by its small bluish green leaves packed together tightly on a what looks like rope, and Graptosedum ‘Bronze’ with its small brown leaves.

BACK: Graptosedum ‘Bronze’, Echeveria pulvinata ‘Ruby Blush’
MIDDLE: Sedum ‘Burrito’, Sedum nussbaumerianum
FRONT: x Graptoveria ‘Opalina’ is clearly the star

The “fillers” are Sedum nussbaumerianum, bright green in the photos below, and Echeveria pulvinata ‘Ruby Blush’, the medium green plant with fuzzy leaves.

LEFT: x Graptoveria ‘Opalina’
CENTER: Sedum nussbaumerianum and Echeveria pulvinata ‘Ruby Blush’
RIGHT: Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’

And the “thrillers” are Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’ and especially x Graptoveria ‘Opalina’.

CENTER: Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’
RIGHT: Sedum ‘Burrito’, Graptosedum ‘Bronze’
x Graptoveria ‘Opalina’

Even though this combination already looks good, it will look even better in the spring and summer when the spillers hang down even further, providing a visual counterweight to the size of the graptoveria. And when the plants are finally too large for this bowl, they’re easy to remove and repurpose in another planting. That’s the beauty of succulents!

P.S. This bowl has been outside on our front porch all winter. I covered it with a frost blanket when we dipped below freezing earlier in the week, but normally it sits there unprotected on our patio table.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Freeze update

While last night we didn’t break the 1963 record of 24°F, we did get down to 26°F. But with hundreds of square feet of frost cloth deployed, our plants were as well protected as they can be.

In yesterday’s post I showed what our garden looked like in the daytime. At night, it looked positively surreal thanks to the wild mixture of Halloween and Christmas lights draped over the plants underneath the fabric.


Our lime tree resembled a deformed hot-air balloon that had crash-landed upside down.


Neighbors were scrambling to put their own frost protection in place, or else decided to leave their plants to their own devices. And as a bizarre coincidence, our next-door neighbor’s water main burst in the late afternoon—when temperatures were still well into the 40s. Seeing water gushing down into the gutter felt like a flash-forward to something that might happen after a hard freeze, not before! The city had to shut down the water supply to her house and she spent the night with us. No word yet on what had caused the pipe to burst.

Expectedly, I was a little anxious when I got up this morning. It was darn cold but not quite as bad as I had feared. I decided to leave the frost blankets in place because tonight will be in the high 20s. Therefore, I won’t know for sure until tomorrow if any plants sustained damage. And late tomorrow the first of a series of rain storms will arrive, which means that I need to swap out the frost cloths for plastic tarps to protect the succulents from excess moisture. (Why can’t I be happy growing pansies and marigolds? I would have a much quieter life.)

A cursory exam of the unprotected areas yielded no surprises. The usual suspects got nipped, including Salvia discolor, a Peruvian native with indigo-black flowers, and the calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica). But that happens every winter, and they always come back.

Salvia discolor
Zantedeschia aethiopica

Our queen of the night (Cereus hildmannianus) has some suspicious dark spots. It’s supposed to be hardy to 15°F so I didn’t bother to cover it last night. Time will tell if these spots are harbingers of bad news or just a temporary phenomenon.


We weren’t the only place in Northern California to experience colder than normal temperatures. Many cities on or near the coast that rarely see temperatures in the 30s had near-record lows. With a low of 32°F, Monterey actually broke the previous record for January 17th. Even San Francisco, usually relatively balmy in the winter, got down to 35°F. All in all, last night was a vivid reminder that even though we live in California, we’re not immune to the vagaries of nature. But compared to what other parts of the country are going through at the moment, such as the “storm of possibly historic proportions” hitting the Pacific Northwest, we have nothing to gripe about.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Scrambling for cover

Gardening in a mild-winter climate is great, but I think it makes us much more paranoid about the weather than people in areas where cold weather is a given. 330 days out of the year we don’t worry about frost at all; 30 days we worry but it amounts to nothing; 5 days we worry for good reason—especially people like me who constantly push the limits of our zone.

The first two weeks of January were unseasonably warm. In fact, we had 10 days of 60°F in a row. Now a cold front from western Canada has arrived and temperatures have plummeted. On Saturday afternoon, it was 66°F. This afternoon (Monday) the expected high is 49°F. But it’s really the night-time temperatures that matter. A low of 24°F (-4°C) is forecast for tonight. While that is nothing that would raise the blood pressure of gardeners elsewhere, it strikes fear in our hearts here. Citrus trees are in danger of sustaining damage, not to mention the many tender plants I grow!

Front porch
The plastic tub with various epiphytic cacti is coming inside for the night

I covered my succulent beds and tender potted plants yesterday but the six frost blankets I had weren’t enough. I happened to be near a Home Depot yesterday, but they were in spring mode already and didn’t have any frost blankets left (“but we have some burlap,” the guy in the garden center said). Luckily, Lowe’s appears to be more with it, and I was able to buy a few extra blankets today. This allows me to protect additional plants, such as our sago palm and an equally slow-growing Tasmanian tree fern.

CENTER: Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia antartica)
LOWER LEFT: Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata)

In the first draft of this post I wrote that we weren’t going to worry about our citrus trees. However, after some discussion we decided to protect our lime tree, which is quite exposed on the edge of our driveway. We draped a few strands of incandescent (non-LED) holiday lights on the branches, wrapped the trunk with a packing blanket, and then wrapped several old sheets around the tree.

Wrapped lime tree. Esthetics was definitely not foremost on our mind.
I’m sure Christo would have done a more creative job!

In addition, we asked our daughters to pick all the limes and oranges off the trees because citrus fruit tastes pretty nasty after a hard freeze.

Remaining limes from our tree

I just ran the drip irrigation for 10 minutes or so to lightly water the perennials in the ground because moist soil retains more heat than dry soil. And I’ll be glued to the weather sites for the rest of the day. With any luck 25°F won’t materialize after all, but I’m not holding my breath. It already feels cold outside at 3 pm!

Protecting hose bibs with whatever materials are at hand.
The potted aloe is Aloe striatula. It’s very hardy, able to take temps as low as 15°F.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cycad crazy

Some plants, more than others, have the potential to turn unsuspecting plant lovers into addicts. Orchids are known to do that. Just read Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief or Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever, both probing the depths (or lows) to which orchid collectors will go in order to obtain the rarest of the rare. Cycads fall in the same category, something I wasn’t aware of until recently. For 10+ years, I’d been patiently watching my sago palm (Cycas revoluta) grow at a snail’s pace, but that had been the extent of my exposure to cycads.

Our 10+ year old sago palm (Cycas revoluta) in a large terracotta pot

In late December I re-visited the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, and somehow I ended up focusing on the many cycads they have. The Encephalartos species were particularly impressive with their often fantastical leaves, twisting and recurved, sometimes armed with sharp edges and spines—not to mention the almost otherworldly steely blue color of certain species.

When I got home, I poked around online to see where I might be able to buy a couple of plants. While I found several cycad nurseries in California, seeing their price list almost gave me a heart attack. As I read some more, I began to understand why prices are so high: These are plants that grow incredibly slowly and seed is often hard to come by. Producing a sellable seedling can already take several years!

Typically, cycads are sold by the diameter of the caudex, the woody base or trunk. The price of a sago palm (Cycas revoluta), by far the most common cycad in cultivation and by far the cheapest, with a 2-inch caudex (maybe 2 years old) might be $30. But a 5-inch caudex (5-7 years old) might cost $70, and a 10-inch caudex (10-15 years) $200. In contrast, an Encephalartos horridus, a rare and sought-after blue cycad from South Africa, might cost $300 for a 2-inch caudex, $750 for a 5-inch caudex, and thousands of dollars for a 10-inch caudex.

It appears there is a thriving cycad subculture, with tales of theft, smuggling, and obsession. It is now illegal to import wild-collected cycads, but unscrupulous dealers often try to bypass the system. This article from the New York Times reads like the plot of a bizarre crime novel.

I realized that the only way I could ever afford a more uncommon cycad was to get a seedling or small plant and simply wait for it to grow. That’s exactly what I did. I ordered four small plants, each with a caudex under one inch, and they arrived the other day.

Two of the four are Encephalartos ferox seedlings.

Two Encephalartos ferox seedlings. The one on the right is the regular type with flat leaves, the one on the left is a variety with wavier leaves from the town of Chiputo in Mozambique. They were both $8.40 each on sale at A&A Cycads so I got one of each.
Look at the taproot of this Encephalartos ferox seedling! It’s massive compared to the size of the leaves.
Larger Encephalartos ferox
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The other two are an Encephalartos longifolius x horridus hybrid, and a Cycas panzhihuaensis seedling.

110212_Encephalartos-Longifolius-x-Horridus- -Cycas-panzhihuaensis_02
LEFT: Encephalartos longifolius x horridus, a naturally occurring hybrid (although this one was produced in the nursery)
RIGHT: Cycas panzhihuaensis, a very cold-hardy sago palm relative from China that develops icy blue leaves (click here to see adult specimens in China)
110212_Cycas-panzhihuaensis_01 110212_Cycas-panzhihuaensis_03
Cycas panzhihuaensis seedling, again with a long taproot
 110212_Encephalartos-Longifolius-x-Horridus_01 110212_Encephalartos-Longifolius-x-Horridus_05
Encephalartos longifolius x horridus,
slightly larger than a seedling with a taproot that looks like a turnip
Mature Encephalartos longifolius x horridus at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

Based on the information I received from the sellers, I planted the new arrivals in pure perlite (the two Encephalartos ferox) and pure pumice (the other two). No real reasoning behind the choice of perlite vs. pumice; I just wanted to give both media a try. The goal is to use a very fast-draining medium to prevent rot that might otherwise enter through broken roots. As extra insurance, I watered thoroughly with a fungicide solution.


Although all four plants are hardy in our climate, I’m pampering them for the time being, bringing them inside on nights below freezing. I will plant them in my fast-draining succulent mix later in spring.

I wish I could say that I’ll have an update for you in a few months, but these plants are such slow growers that I don’t expect much to happen for a while. But I’ll be ready with my camera when they produce their next flush of leaves. And in 20 years I might have specimens that are as impressive as what I saw at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

P.S. One of the most impressive cycad collections in the country is at Lotusland, the 37-acre estate of the late opera diva Ganna Walska outside of Santa Barbara, CA. In addition to the cycad collection, Lotusland also has amazing cacti, succulent and other themed gardens. We’re planning a trip there this summer.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What an odd little cactus!

In yesterday’s post about my visit to Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond, CA, I forgot to mention what is possibly the strangest plant I bought. When I first saw it on one of the succulent tables, I thought it was a euphorbia or some other stem succulent from Southern Africa. However, it turned out to be an actual cactus! (In botanical terms, cacti are exclusive to the New World. While many African euphorbias look like cacti, they are not in the cactus family.)


This particular cactus has a real tongue twister of a name: Maihuenia poeppigii. It is native to the higher elevations (above 6000 ft.) of southern Chile where it may be covered with snow for several months. It can withstand temperatures down to 5°F and, curiously enough, tolerates quite a bit of water since it grows in areas with high rainfall alternating with periods of drought. However, coming from a high-altitude environment, Maihuenia poeppigii doesn’t seem to like hot summers too much. This means that I will need to give it afternoon shade when temperatures get into the 90s and beyond.


Maihuenia poeppigii forms dense mats consisting of hundreds of segments. The flowers, which appear in spring, are large (2 inches across) and lemon yellow in color. They are followed by 3 inch edible fruits (check this photo).

Maihuenia poeppigii in flower
Source: Wikipedia

My idea for this odd-looking cactus is to plant it in a shallow hypertufa dish and add pieces of rock to imitate its natural environment. What a great incentive for me to finally delve into the art and science of hypertufa!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting some goodies at Annie’s

I had a business meeting in the Bay Area today, and I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond. I visited Annie’s for the first time last summer and I fell in love with this quirky nursery. Unlike Green Acres, a large general-purpose nursery in Sacramento which I blogged about a few days ago, Annie’s specializes in the rare and the usual.

Not a lot is in bloom at this time of year, but each plant is described in great detail so you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting. The plant labels are exemplary, as you will see below, and I wish more nurseries made an effort to provide useful information like that to their customers.

To start with, here are some photos that show the overall layout of the nursery.

In this panorama you can see about two thirds of the nursery. There is more on the left.
Annie’s signature cow, this time sporting a hat
This area is near the entrance; the gift shop and cashier trailer is on the left (not shown)
The succulent area, my first stop. While they carry a few agaves and aloes, the real focus is on groundcover succulents (many types of ice plants, sedums, intergeneric sedum hybrids, etc.), aeoniums and puyas.
Puya chilensis, 3 ft. chartreuse flower heads on 12 ft. stalks when mature  (click here for a photo). It’s a stunning plant, but too large for our garden. Instead, I opted for a smaller and I think even more beautiful Puya venusta. Be sure to check these photos to see the spectacular flower of Puya venusta and other puya species.
Aeonium holochrysum, 1 ft. rosettes on 3 ft. branching stems. One of the rarer aeoniums; in fact, I’ve never seen one anywhere else. More frost-sensitive than other aeoniums, so not a good choice for our garden.
I know a thing or two about succulents, but I had never even heard of greenovias, let alone seen one! Annie’s carries two species; the one in the two photos above is Greenovia aurea. What a stunner it is (click here for more photos)! I didn’t buy one because I wasn’t sure how it would do in our hot summer climate. But it will definitely go on my wish list for next time. (Further research has revealed that the genus Greenovia is now lumped in with the genus Aeonium.)

I had seen a tree euphorbia (Euphorbia lambii) at Ruth Bancroft Garden last year (click here to see a photo of their plant) and was hoping to find a source. One of these babies went home with me. Soon I’ll have my own 6 ft. Dr Seuss tree! It will most likely occupy the spot in our front yard succulent bed where this yucca had been.
Still hard to find in regular nurseries, tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii) was well represented at Annie’s. My specimen bloomed last May and June and produced lots of seeds. I’m sure I’ll have seedlings pop up near where the mother was planted, so I didn’t buy a replacement.
110211_AnniesAnnuals_Echium-wildprettii- -pininana-Mr-Happy_01
 110211_AnniesAnnuals_Echium-wildprettii- -pininana-Mr-Happy_02
However, I did buy one of these echiums: a hybrid between Echium wildpretii and Echium pininana called ‘Mr. Happy’. I will plant it in the same spot where my Echium wildpretii had been.
I get the biggest thrill out of finding plants I’d never even heard of before. Case in point: this Hebenstreitia dentata. I wonder how many nurseries in the country carry it? The flowers are quite unique, and even though it’s a short-lived perennials, I bought one to try as a container plant.
Pelargoniums are not that unusual per se, but this one (Pelargonium denticulatum) combines beautiful flowers with very interesting leaves. It’s from South Africa—of course!
This Linaria reticulata 'Flamenco' is from North Africa, for a change. It’s an annual, but apparently it self-sows readily. What a cheery plant! How come you never see it in regular retail nurseries?
Another cheery plant: Alonsoa meridionalis 'Apricot' from Chile. A short-lived perennial, but a prolific bloomer in zones 9-10. Self-sows, too.
This one did go home with me: Salvia canariensis var. candidissima. The leaves are super fuzzy, like lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) but pointier. Grows 4-6 ft. tall and wide and tolerates heat, drought and poor soil. Sounds perfect for our climate!
Passionflower, anyone? You’ve come to the right place. I saw six unusual varieties, my favorite being Passiflora edulis ‘Frederick’ for its breathtakingly intricate flower. I just may have to rig a trellis against a section of fence so I can grow one of these!
This Bolivian sunflower (Tithonia diversifolius) was another nice surprise. I’ve grown Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) before and love it, but it’s an annual and I hate having to replace it year after year. In contrast, Tithonia diversifolius is a perennial and would potentially give us years of enjoyment. The reason why I ultimately decided not to get it: it’s simply too big, growing to 10-12 ft. tall and wide.
Another eye-opener was the impatiens table. When I hear the word “impatiens,” I think of run-of-the-mill low-growing annuals planted in rigid formation together with petunias and pansies. These plants are definitely not your grandmother’s impatiens! They are perennial shrubs, some 5 ft. tall! Definitely a new discovery for me.
Impatiens tinctoria—rare, hardy, and fragrant—jumped out at me but it dislikes heat, so not the best plant for Davis
Impatiens sodenii ‘La Vida Rosa’ is the one I bought (the plant on the right). It has an impressively thick stem already and was bursting out of its 4 inch pot. It will go in the backyard between the two bamboo stock tanks.
Another surprise: two orchid cactus (Epiphyllum sp.) cultivars. ‘King Midas’ was the one I chose. Huge golden-orange flowers in the spring (5-7 inches across). It will go in a hanging basket on our front porch. Availability appears to be limited; Annie’s web site lists it as unavailable.

Unfortunately, my time at Annie’s was limited today, but Richmond is only an hour away. There are many more plants to be explored. Annie’s web site lists 490 different species as “available now,” but I know for a fact that the nursery carries many additional species that aren’t available on the web site.

View of the “California natives” section. I love the pattern made by the different color plant tags (each color stands for a different price).

If I were to choose, I’d say Annie’s Annuals & Perennials is my favorite nursery in Northern California. No other place carries as many rare plants and oddities as they do. This post barely scratches the surface of what they have. If you are ever in the San Francisco Bay Area, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Annie’s. And if you live farther afield, there is always their website, Many plants can be mail-ordered.