Sunday, January 29, 2012

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden winter sale

Last week I received notice that the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley (UCBG) is having a “winter overstock sale” until February 5, 2012. Considering that plant sales are to plant aficionados what a red cape is to a bull, I had no choice but to go.

The weather was perfect on Saturday and the views from the top of the UC Berkeley campus just stunning. The Botanical Garden is located a little lower than the spot where the photo below was taken and it doesn’t offer the same sweeping views, but you are able to catch glimpses of the Bay and San Francisco beyond from a few higher areas.

View from the top of the UC Berkeley campus

Before swooping down on the plant tables, I decided to take a few photos to give you an idea of what was available. I was mainly interested in succulents, and two tables were dedicated to succulents. The other tables were perennials and shrubs. I’m sure there are some unique plants to be found there, but I’m not enough of an expert to know for sure. There were lots of California natives, reflecting a rising trend to landscape with plants from our very own state.

Winter clearance sale tables
Winter clearance sale tables

Prices were excellent, ranging from $2 for 4” plants to $8+ for 1 gallons and $15+ for 3-5 gallons. The octopus agaves (Agave vilmoriniana) in the lower right, for example, were $5. That’s a phenomenal price. The Agave americana ‘Mediopicta alba’ on the right were $8 for a 1-gallon plant. UCBG members receive the regular 10% discount off these sale prices.

Aloes and yuccas

In addition to the sale tables, the plant deck had the usual selection of plants: larger succulents prominently displayed on the steps to the gift shop…

Regularly priced succulents on steps of plant deck

…and smaller succulents, perennials, shrubs and trees from all over the world outside and behind the gift shop. Where else can you find three araucaria species (including the monkey puzzle tree), rare South African bulbs (like Haemanthus), carnivorous plants and other curiosities in one place? Sure, a retail nursery has many more plants, but the selection here is quirky and interesting.

More plant tables just outside the gift shop

After initially grabbing a whole bunch of stuff, I decided to err on the side of reason and limit myself to the plants I really wanted. After all, it’s getting more and more difficult to figure out what to do with the plants I buy.

Here’s what I ended up getting. Perhaps not the most exciting selection at first glance, but each plant “spoke” to me on some level.

The first is Crassula lycopodioides. It’s now considered synonymous with Crassula muscosa although it does not have that species’ tight “watch chain” pattern. I was attracted to this plant because I’m looking for interesting groundcover plants capable of filling spaces between larger plants in our various succulent beds.


Crassula lycopodioides


Crassula lycopodioides and Cycas revoluta

The second plant was the ‘Gollum’ cultivar of Crassula ovata. It is easy to recognize by its almost tubular leaves, some ending in what looks like a suction cup. It’s much smaller than the regular jade plant (Crassula ovata) but its overall habit is very similar. ‘Gollum’ is not particularly rare, but I didn’t have one in my collection yet.

Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’

Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’

Speaking of jade plants, my biggest purchase actually was a jade plant. Unlike our specimens, this one has much smaller and rounder leaves, with a much more yellow coloration and a pronounced red margin. It’s clearly different from the species, although the tag didn’t specify a particular cultivar. I’m thinking it might be ‘Hummel’s Sunset’ but I can’t be sure. If anybody has any insight, please leave a comment.

Jade plant (Crassula ovata) with small, round leaves

Crassula ovata stems

Crassula ovata stems

The final plant I bought is a unique hybrid of Agave ornithobroma with—well, that is the question. Some agaves are notoriously promiscuous, and an Agave ornithobroma blooming at UCBG got pollinated by another blooming agave nearby. This is one of the offspring of this botanical one-night stand. Closely related to Agave geminiflora, Agave ornithobroma usually has many thin, cylindrical leaves (see here). This hybrid has somewhat wider, keeled leaves. Hopefully over time it will become easier to figure out who the dad might have been.

Agave aff. ornithobroma

After paying for my plant purchases, I did some exploring in the Mexico section of the garden. I found a treasure trove of agaves, yuccas, beschornerias, and dioons growing in naturalistic conditions. Click here to read that post.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Liberating succulents from smothering grasses

A few years ago—before I started this blog, which is why I have trouble remembering—I bought a six-pack of blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) and planted them in the two small succulent beds in the back yard. At that time, the succulents were small and there seemed to be a lot of space between them that begged to be filled.

Fast forward to 2012. The blue fescue plugs are now clumps 12-18" across and, while attractive in their own right, are covering some of the succulents. After the recent rains, now is a great time for transplanting, and that’s exactly what I did.

Succulent bed 1

In the first set of photos, you’ll see the succulent bed in the northeast corner of the backyard. It is shaded by a row of four bay trees planted against the fence so it only receives about 2-3 hours of direct sunlight in the summer, virtually none in the winter. This is not a logical spot for succulents, but to my surprise they’ve done well—except the fescues and the variegated feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Eldorado') have done even better. Time for the grasses to go!

Small succulent bed in the northeast corner of the backyard
”Before” photo with fescues and variegated feather reed grass
(Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Eldorado')

Fescues dominating the foreground, hiding several aloes, a dyckia, an agave and a yucca

The difference after removal of the grasses is astounding. You can see plants that were all but impossible to see before.

“After” photo

Small dyckia species with many offsets

This Agave montana ‘Baccarat’ was all but invisible. It’s easily doubled in size (it was planted from a 4" pot) but due to a lack of direct sunlight, its form is much more open than it would otherwise be. Still, beautiful coloration and nice scalloped edges.

Agave montana ‘Baccarat’

For comparison, here are a couple of mature specimens of Agave montana ‘Baccarat’ (photo taken from the website of Yucca Do, the nursery that introduced ‘Baccarat’ to tissue culture). If my smallish plant ends up looking like that, I’ll be very pleased.

Mature Agave montana ‘Baccarat’
Photo: Yucca Do Nursery

Here’s another agave that was partially covered: Agave funkiana ‘Blue Haze’. From the photos I’ve seen, it has an open habit like that even in full sun. More evidence that many succulents are able to handle shade remarkably well.

Agave funkiana ‘Blue Haze’

What did I do with the fescues I pulled up? I planted them 15 feet away in the same general area, just behind the bamboo fence. Here you can see two of them. The others (from the succulent bed described below) are to the right.

Relocated Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’

Succulent bed 2

In the same corner of the backyard as our Asian-inspired woodland garden there is a narrow (12” deep) planting strip that in the past proved challenging to use. A few years ago I planted a combination of aloes and agaves, and they’ve thrived in this mostly shady spot. But, as was the case with the bed above, so have the fescues.

“Before” photo with fescues completely hiding Agave parryi ‘Truncata’

This Agave parryi ‘Truncata’ was almost impossible to spot between the two clumps of fescue. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit etiolated but I’m hoping that it will tighten up over time and eventually form its trademark artichoke look. (This area might be too shady, resulting in a looser habit.)

Uncovered Agave parryi ‘Truncata’

The same thing happened to this Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’.

Fescue hiding an Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’

I had no idea it had grown to such a nice size—it was a pup I took off the mother plant next to our front door.

Uncovered Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’

While not obscured by the fescues, this Aloe cameronii × maculata hybrid has positively exploded. I love its long, strappy leaves and its rich green color.

Aloe cameronii × maculata

Here are two more aloes at the head of this narrow planting strip. They have thrived as well. Aloe nobilis, in the foreground, was a 1-gallon plant on special at Target, and Aloe glauca came to me as a cutting. I love how their different colors complement each other.

120127_Aloe-glauca- -nobilis
BACK: Aloe glauca
FRONT: Aloe nobilis

Aloe glauca

The next aloe, Aloe microstigma, is at the other end of this succulent bed. It think it’s one of the nicest looking smaller aloes. It used to be relatively hard to find but its availability has improved in recent years. I even saw one at Home Depot last year, and there’s nothing more mainstream than that.

120127_Aloe-microstigma_05 120127_Aloe-microstigma_06

Aloe microstigma

And finally here is a stitched panorama of the entire bed, post fescue removal.

Backyard succulent bed outside the dining room

Friday, January 27, 2012

New plant introductions for 2012

It’s the time of year when new plants are being introduced in catalogs and online. While I don’t get as many paper catalogs as I used to, I receive a regular stream of email newsletters from many online sellers. For me, this is a great way of keeping up-to-date on what’s new and hot.

Here are some plants that jumped out at me in recent weeks: some because they’re beautiful or intriguing, others because they’re…interesting.

Agave gypsophila ‘Ivory Curls’

Agave gypsophila is one agave I’ve wanted in my collection for a long time. It’s uncommon in cultivation and difficult to find. Xeric Growers has now introduced a selection with creamy margins which is even more spectacular than the species. At $39.99 it’s expensive, but it will go on my wish list nonetheless.

If you like agaves, click here to check out the other goodies Xeric Growers sells.

Agave gypsophila 'Ivory Curls'
Photo: Xeric Growers

Agave potatorum 'Cameron Blue'

Introduced by Rancho Tissue Technologies, this tissue-cultured selection offers beautiful scalloped leaves and bud imprints. This is one agave I would love to have. Rancho Tissue has many offer drool-worthy agaves in their catalog.

Agave potatorum 'Cameron Blue'
Photo: Rancho Tissue Technologies

Colocasia esculenta 'Black Coral'

I’m a sucker for “black” plants even though it’s often difficult to use them effectively in the landscape (they tend to get lost against a dark background). With its dark color, shiny surface and impressive corrugation, this looks to be a showstopper of an elephant ear. Introduced and offered by Plant Delights Nursery. If you’ve never visited their web site, you’ve got to check it out. Their selection of plants is quirky, idiosyncratic and one of a kind.

Colocasia esculenta 'Black Coral'
Photo: Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.


Echinacea ‘Guava Ice’

I truly love echinaceas. Together with salvias, they’re probably my favorite flowering perennial. And I’m not alone, considering the veritable tidal wave of new cultivars in recent years. I still remember seeing ‘Tiki Torch’ in Sunset Magazine about five years ago. I was so obsessed, I actually spent $15 on a small plant!

The stream of new introductions is never-ending, and while I don’t love every single one, I typically don’t hate them either. But ‘Guava Ice’, developed by AB-Cultivars in the Netherlands and now sold by Plants Nouveau and other sources, is pushing my tolerance a bit. The color looks oddly faded, and the fluffy bits and pieces look like my hair when I first get up in the morning. If I wanted this look, I wouldn’t have to buy ‘Guava Ice’. All I’d have to do is look in the mirror.

Echinacea ‘Guava Ice’
Photo: Plants Nouveau

Kalmia latifolia ‘Starburst’

I must admit I’ve never seen a kalmia (mountain laurel) in my life before. They’re native to the eastern half of the country, and I’m not sure people even grow them here in California. Based on looks, they should be much more popular. Maybe they’re heat-intolerant? That’s the only explanation I have. This introduction from Briggs Plant Propagators in Elma, Washington looks to be particularly stunning. Hardy to zone 5, it would be perfect at my in-laws’ in the mountains of Northern California.

Kalmia latifolia 'Starburst'
Photo: Briggs Plant Propagators

Kniphofia 'Echo Rojo'

Finally a reblooming red hot poker! Not only does this selection by Itsaul Plants claim to be especially free-flowering, it also looks to have narrower and hence more attractive leaves than the species. Still 4-5 ft. tall x 2 ft. wide. If I ever see ‘Echo Rojo’ for sale locally, I’ll pick one up to replace the overgrown clump of Kniphofia uvaria I dug out last month.

Photo: Itsaul Plants

Lantana ‘Sunny Side Up’

I used to love lantanas. In our previous house, we had always had lantanas, and I didn’t care that in our climate they can get invasive if you don’t trim them occasionally. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I haven’t looked at lantanas in over 10 years. However, when I saw this introduction from Plant Introductions, Inc., I looked twice. I’ve never seen this color combination in a lantana before, and it’s fantastic (yellow and white happen to me among my favorite flower colors). Based on Plant Introductions’ Chapel Hill Yellow, ‘Sunny Side Up’ is supposed to flower prolifically from spring to frost and offer better cold-hardiness than annual cultivars.

Lantana ‘Sunny Side Up’
Photo: Plant Introductions, Inc.

Musa xishuangbannaensis ‘Mekong Giant’

Who doesn’t get excited about a newly discovered species of cold-hardy and giant banana from China? This is how Plants Nouveau describes it:

Mekong Giant grows much taller than other hardy bananas, reaching 15 feet in zone 6. In more southern climes, it can reach 40’ tall with trunks up to 20 inches in diameter.

This new selection gets its hardiness honestly, for it was selected from seedlings whose native range goes from the northern most point of the Tibetan Plateau, to southern, tropical regions along the Mekong Delta into Vietnam and Cambodia. The fruits are purple and the trunk is streaked red to purple, creating a perfect accent to the lush, deep olive green tropical foliage.

Musa intinerans var. xishuangbannaensis
‘Mekong Giant’
Photo: Plants Nouveau

Pennisetum 'Cherry Sparkler' and ‘Skyrocket’

I love regular purple fountain grass (Pennisetum × advena ‘Rubrum’) as much as the next guy. I have two in containers and one in the ground and I look forward to its cheery plumes every summer. Now Itsaul Plants has introduced two sports, and I’m not sure what to think.

‘Cherry Sparkler’ has leaves that start out green and white and assume an increasingly purple blush as the light intensity increases. Beautiful or just odd? I can’t make up my mind.

Pennisetum 'Cherry Sparkler'
Photo: Itsaul Plants

‘Skyrocket’ has green and white leaves and whitish plumes. Much more to my liking!

Pennisetum ‘Skyrocket’
Photo: Itsaul Plants

Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Charm’

How many of you have sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ in your garden? Probably many, myself included. It comes back every year and it blooms reliably in the fall. However, it’s just a tad boring. Intrinsic Perennial Gardens to the rescue! Their 2006 introduction of a variegated sport, called ‘Autumn Charm’, is finally becoming more widely available. Bluestone Perennials has it in their 2012 spring catalog.

Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Charm’
Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Many more plants are being introduced this spring. To see a sampling, check out American Nurseryman Magazine.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Yesterday (January 25, 2012), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the 2012 version of their Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This is the first revision since 1990, and based on data collected since then, the zone boundaries have shifted in many places. To many gardeners, this confirms a trend they’ve noticed themselves: Winters are getting milder than they used to be, allowing them to grow plants that even 10 years ago might not have survived the winter. Newspapers all around the country are reporting on this phenomenon today. Here are just a few:

What does this mean for you? Probably not much because you already know what works in your garden and what doesn’t. But you might see plants in local nurseries that didn’t show up in the past because now they can “officially” be grown in your area.

My zone is still 9b. As the San Francisco Chronicle article above says, things didn’t really change much in California.

Click here to read the USDA’s press release.

Click here to access the interactive 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map with convenient zip code search (US only).

2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map home page
Detail page for Northern California, accessed by clicking on the map on the home page or by making a selection in the State dropdown menu

P.S. According to his latest newsletter, Tony Avent, the owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC, was involved in developing this new zone map. Be sure to read it for some interesting insider tidbits.