Saturday, March 3, 2012

Look what I won!

Last November, I joined the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS) and I’ve attended each monthly meeting since. It’s a great group, with a tremendous amount of cumulative knowledge, and I come home from each get-together with renewed enthusiasm.

There is a raffle at each meeting, and I usually buy $5 worth of tickets. Plants are purchased specifically for the raffle, usually from a succulent nursery. At the February meeting, the plants came from The Great Petaluma Desert, a nursery specializing in caudiciforms and pachycauls, or “fat plants,” as they are so lovingly called by collectors.

As luck would have it, one of my tickets was drawn second and I got to pick between a dozen odd but endlessly intriguing plants. This is the one I chose:

Tentacle-like stems

As they often say about children or pets, it’s so ugly, only a mother could love it.

Actually, I don’t think it’s ugly at all. I love the tentacle-like stems and the corky skin.

Scaly skin

And if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s starting to leaf out.

Crinkly leaves

This oddball plant is a Euphorbia decaryi var. spirosticha, a Madagascar native which in the spring is covered with small crinkly leaves and eventually delicate yellow flowers. Take a look at this plant: It’s fully leafed out and in bloom.

Ugly or not is in the eye of the beholder. I’m happy to have it brought it home. And I can’t wait to see what I might win in the March raffle.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Yucca rostrata

As much as I love agaves, the beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata) is my favorite succulent for the landscape. Native to western Texas and northern Mexico, it grows on rocky slopes and ridges and tolerates harsh climatic extremes both in the summer and in the winter. It is reputed to take temperatures below 0°F, making it one of the hardiest of all yuccas.



Yucca rostrata at The Living Desert

Over time—decades, really, since it’s a very slow grower—it forms a trunk to 12 ft. tall. Last year I saw specimens maybe 9 ft. tall at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA, and they were impressive with their circular heads of stiff gray-green leaves. These plants were left in their natural state, i.e. the old leaves were left on to form a skirt much like you would see on a palm tree. In a garden setting, the dried leaves are often trimmed, creating a more manicured effect:

Yucca rostrata at Poot’s Cactus Nursery in Ripon, CA

Over the last few years, I’ve accumulated five Yucca rostrata, ranging from plants in 1-pint containers to the 2-ft. specimen I bought at Poot’s Cactus Nursery in Ripon, CA last November. Four or five years ago, Yucca rostrata was all but impossible to find locally. Now I see it occasionally in independent nurseries. While small plants (typically round 1-pint containers) cost the same as other perennials, about $6, the price of older specimens that have begun to form a trunk quickly climbs into the hundreds of dollars.

120226_Yucca-rostrata linearifolia_06
120226_Yucca-rostrata linearifolia_02
120226_Yucca-rostrata linearifolia_04
My collection of Yucca rostrata

Yucca rostrata seems to be a fairly variable species, especially in terms of leaf color. The standard color is grayish green:

120226_Yucca-rostrata linearifolia_16

A tissue-cultured selection called ‘Sapphire Blue’ is supposed to be particularly blue, but mine (seen two photos above in the terracotta pot on the left) is the same grayish green as the regular form. However, my specimen from Poot’s has a very strong powdery blue cast:

My own Yucca rostrata, purchased at Poot’s Cactus Nursery in Ripon, CA
Close up of the same plant

Above I said I have five Yucca rostrata. However, if you look at the photos closely, you’ll see six plants. The sixth, seen on the right in the next photo, is Yucca linearifolia. Discovered in northern Mexico in the 1980s, it was initially thought to be a subspecies of Yucca rostrata. Since then, some taxonomists have promoted it to species status. Since seed had been virtually impossible to obtain, it was put into tissue culture and is slowly becoming more available.

The leaves of Yucca linearifolia are narrower, less stiff, and greener in color than Yucca rostrata. I can definitely see the difference in my own plants, but in older specimen that difference seems to less pronounced: Looking at these photos, I would have thought that these are Yucca rostrata instead of Yucca linearifolia. In practical terms, these differences are irrelevant because both species are supremely architectural and equally gardenworthy.

120226_Yucca-rostrata linearifolia_10
Yucca rostrata (left) and Yucca linearifolia (right)

Below are some additional photos of Yucca rostrata from various places in Northern California. Since it’s so cold hardy, it has the potential to grace gardens in much of the U.S. and Europe.

120208_CactusJungle_Yucca-rostrata_01 111119_Poots_Yucca-rostrata_002
Cactus Jungle Nursery, Berkeley, CA (left), Poot’s Cactus Nursery, Ripon, CA (right)

111228_UCBG_Yucca-rostrata_03120128_UCBG_Yucca-rostrata- -Agave-scabra_03
University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley, CA

University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley, CA

Yucca-rostrata- -Cassia-artemisioides_01
Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Local avocados!

We love avocados and have long dreamed of having our own tree. We are not alone: growing avocados appears to be the holy grail of many a Sacramento Valley gardener. Every now and then you hear from a friend of a friend of a friend who successfully grows avocados in our area. But I had never met anybody who actually has an avocado tree.

Locally grown avocados, the holy grail for many of us!

Until last Sunday. At a flea market in downtown Davis a guy was selling avocados from his very own tree. He said he had a bumper crop this year because of the mild weather. What’s even more remarkable: This guy is just a regular homeowner, not an over-the-top plant nut like me, and the tree was already there when they bought their house. He doesn’t baby-sit the tree, doesn’t protect it on cold nights, and yet it still produces. My wife and I bought four avocados to try, and they are indeed yummy. I also took some avocado leaves to freeze—they’re used in some Mexican moles and are impossible to find in local grocery stores. (I love making traditional Mexican food.)

This variety is called Bacon

Coming across these locally grown avocados may have pushed us off the fence as far as planting our own tree is concerned. We removed a nectarine tree in our backyard last fall and had already been toying with the idea of replacing it with an avocado. Now it’s simply a matter of choosing which variety:

  • Hass, the regular supermarket avocado with the black bumpy skin, is much too tender.
  • Bacon, the variety we just tried, is a possibility since it’s rated to 24°F.
  • Mexicola is even hardier, down to 20°F.
  • However, based on what I’ve read, my current first choice is Stewart, a compact (8-10 ft.) Mexicola relative hardy to 24°F, producing excellent-tasting fruit.
Avocado leaves are fairly large and have a substantial feel to them

Avocado trees come in type A and B, and both are needed for successful pollination. However, in California avocados are considered self-fruitful (I don’t know why but I’m not complaining). That means that you only need one tree, type A or B, to get fruit as long as you live in a temperate enough climate. Complicated, isn’t it?

If you want to know more, check out the web site for Dave Wilson Nursery in Modesto. It has a lot of useful information for the Central Valley.

And if you thought there are only a few varieties of avocado—after all, in the store you’ll see no more than one or two—check out the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources site. It lists almost 1,000 (!!) known avocado varieties!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Three euphorbias that look like cacti

Very few groups are as large and varied as the genus Euphorbia. According to Wikipedia there are more than 2,000 euphorbia species, comprising everything from annual weeds to trees. The genus also includes the many wood spurges (Euphorbia characias, Euphorbia amygdaloides, etc.) and other familiar sights like the good old poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

Of particular interest to me are the succulent euphorbias, of which there are hundreds of species. I haven’t counted, but I’m sure I have upwards of 20 in my collection. I will do a more comprehensive post about them at a later date. Today I want to focus on three small euphorbias that look just like cacti although they are not related to the Cactaceae family (all cacti are native to the Americas while most succulent euphorbias are native to Africa). The fact that these two completely unrelated plant families look so similar is due to convergent evolution—the Wikipedia article on convergent evolution even uses the example of a Euphorbia obesa and an Astrophytum asterias cactus to illustrate this concept.

If you’ve followed my most recent posts you know that I’m making a concerted effort to better organize my plant collection and to move plants that are currently in small 3- or 4-inch containers into larger pots to make it easier to water them. This past weekend, I created two succulent bowls and I planted a Maihuenia poeppigii cactus into an unusual shallow dish. In addition, I combined three small cactoid euphorbias into a community pot:

  • Euphorbia horrida, which looks like a small barrel cactus
  • Euphorbia makallensis, which as a juvenile reminds me of a Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) although as an adult it forms mounds that look a lot like Euphorbia resinifera
  • Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’, which looks like a cartoon version of a saguaro made out of cheap white plastic


Euphorbia makallensis (left), Euphorbia horrida (back),
Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’ (right)
Euphorbia makallensis
Euphorbia horrida
Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’
Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’
New growth, possibly getting ready to flower

I thought that these three euphorbias complement each other very well so I planted them together in a shallow azalea pot. Voilà, a miniature cactus garden, consisting of three plants that aren’t cacti at all.

Miniature “cactus” garden

Maybe I should add small figurines of cowboys and horses?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Unusual container for an unusual cactus

One of the plants I bought at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials last month was a strange little cactus from southern Chile called Maihuenia poeppigii (check out this post for more information).

Maihuenia poeppigii
(kudos to those of you you can pronounce it)

At first I thought a handmade hypertufa container along the lines of what you see in the next photo would the most appropriate way to present it. I’ve never experimented with hypertufa before but I’ve been wanting to since reading this post on It’s Not Work It’s Gardening. Hypertufa is right at the top of my “want to do” list for this spring.

Photo source:

Then, as I was going through my stock of plant containers in an attempt to organize and declutter, I came across this unusual looking creation. It’s not deep enough to be called a “pot,” so I’ll call it a “dish.”


I bought it from Stockton potter Steve Pate on a field trip with the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS). While not practical in the utilitarian sense of the word, I think it’s a thing of beauty.


A light bulb went on in my head, and in no time I had made a mound for my Maihuenia poeppigii. I topped it with chunky gravel to simulate what the cactus’ native habitat might look like. (Plus, I like the look.)


Definitely an unusual presentation, but I can already see the cactus spreading out across the mound.


I’m hoping Maihuenia poeppigii will grow slowly so it can stay in this dish for a while, but I know that eventually it will have to be moved.


But by then I should have gotten around to trying my hand at hypertufa.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Whipping up a batch of succulent magic

After exposing my tendency to amass plants in yesterday’s post, I decided to make productive use of my collection and whip up a couple of new succulent bowls. While this doesn’t reduce the number of plants I have, it makes maintenance easier because I don’t have to hand-water quite so many small pots which dry out very quickly in hot weather.

Ingredients: Two bowls I had sitting around, a bunch of succulents, a bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix, and Osmocote Plus 6-month time release fertilizer for a bit of nutrition.

Recipe: Fill bowls with soil, sprinkle in some fertilizer, add plants, done.

I picked succulents with a variety of colors and textures
To my own surprise, I ended up using all of these plants
I often make my own succulent mix (read this post to find out how) but I didn’t have any coir left so I decided to do the next best thing: Black Gold Cactus Mix. Unlike some succulent mixes that contain peat (which I hate because it’s almost impossible to rewet), this product is 40-50% pumice and drains exceptionally well. I also add a sprinkling of Osmocote Plus slow release fertilizer for nutrition. While most succulents aren’t greedy feeders, a bit of fertilizer does result in nicer plants.
Good stuff in this cactus mix!

The result of my efforts, while pleasing, doesn’t make you go wow quite yet. I’m hoping by the time summer rolls around these plants will have filled in nicely. It’s always a fine line between stuffing too many plants in a bowl and not enough. I left a little bit of room for some trailing sedums which will add a vertical counterpoint to the round shapes of the rosettes. Surprisingly, my collection is very light on trailing plants so I need to buy some first.

The green pencil-like stems sticking out of the ground are a Euphorbia leucodendron
Red bowl from a different perspective
I love how the apple green of the aeonium contrasts with the purple of the echeveria (middle) and Graptopetalum pentandrum (right)
The variegated plant in the foreground is an Aeonium decorum 'Sunburst'

I was very surprised to see how many pots I managed to empty. Two of these went in the ground, but all the others were planted in these two bowls. It was very satisfying to see so much progress!

More pots mean more room for new plants—just kidding!

The two bowls are now on top of the fence next to the front porch. While matching bowls would have looked more uniform and elegant, everything about our garden is eclectic and traditional style is definitely not what I’m going for.

Next order of business: Clean and rearrange the display stand
Bowl #1
Bowl #2
The bamboo on the right is Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’)