Friday, March 16, 2012

Redbud in full bloom

Like many flowering shrubs, Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) looks fairly plain most of the year, but for a few weeks in the spring, it’s a head turner. Right now, the greenbelt near our house—and many yards in town—is a riot of magenta. The rain we’ve been having for a couple of days makes the color pop even more.

Here are the photos I came back with when I grabbed my camera and dashed out into the noontime drizzle. I love how the redbud stands out both against the California buckeyes that have already leafed out and against the majestic oaks that are still bare. In my book, there are few shrubs can can compete with Western redbud when it comes to spring color!

Great contrast with bare valley oak (Quercus lobata)
Western redbud is a popular landscaping shrub in our area
It is native to the Sierra foothills and coastal ranges of California where it grows on dry slopes
The leaves are heart-shaped
This specimen has barely started to leaf out,,,
…while this one is in full bloom
Seed pods left over from last fall
Do flowers get any more magenta than this?
Redbud flowers have always reminded me of lupines, and I just found out that they are actually related: both are in the pea family (Fabaceae)
Bees are crazy about these flowers although on this drizzly day I didn’t see any
Redbud against a fully leafed out California buckeye (Aesculus californica)
What a great color against the green of the grass and the brown of the bare oak trunks
A perfectly shaped specimen
I’m glad to see so many redbuds planted in our subdivision

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Leopard plant a bright spot in the garden

Our backyard has many shady spots, and farfugiums are my favorite group of foliage plants for moist shade. Previously lumped into the genus Ligularia, farfugiums have large, leathery leaves that look both primal and exotic at the same time. In our climate they stay evergreen, but they can handle fairly harsh winters (at least down to zone 7) and come back reliably year after year. After all, they’re native to the mountains of Japan where it does get quite cold.

Farfugium japonicum comes in different incarnations, and I’ve written several posts about them before (1 2 3). I love the giant variety (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’), the variegated variety (Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’) and especially the mottled variety (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) commonly called “leopard plant.”

My leopard plant is in a 7-gallon terracotta pot and even though we’re at 40% of our normal precipitation right now, it looks better than it ever has. In the early morning and at dusk, it’s like a beacon with its bright yellow spots.

Potted leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) in our backyard

The leaves with the vivid yellow spots are new leaves. They do fade a little as they get older.


I’m still waiting for an all-yellow leaf, but some of the ones below are at least 50% yellow.


If you live in zone 7 or above and have a shady spot that gets regular water, I cannot recommend farfugiums highly enough. In addition to the cultivars mentioned above, there are quite a few others, including one with curly leaves (Farfugium japonicum ‘Crispatum’) and one with beautifully mottled leaves (Farfugium japonicum ‘Kaimon Dake’). Check out Alternative Eden’s great collection.

Cultivation notes:

In warmer climates, farfugiums should be kept away from the hot afternoon sun. But even without direct sun exposure, their large leaves tend to wilt when the air is hot (90°F and above). This is perfectly normal. As long as the roots are moist, the leaves will perk up as soon as the temperature drops down into 80s or 70s.

In the fall, farfugiums develop flower stalks with yellow daisy-like flowers (farfugiums are in the aster family, Asteraceae). The flowers are cheery but not very showy, and many gardeners remove the flower stalks altogether. I don’t bother and just let them be. I haven’t noticed any seedlings on any of my seven farfugiums, so I’m not sure how fertile the seeds are.

Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’ with flower stalks

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mediterranean spurge

The other day I was at a friend’s house and I was admiring the Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii) in their front yard. It was in full bloom and it stole the show from all the other plants in its vicinity.


It turns out that their plant is a seedling courtesy of the plant in their neighbor’s yard:


That plant, in turn, is a volunteer from seed that came from further down the street.

That should answer the question whether Mediterranean spurge self-sows. I’m not sure I’d call it invasive (quite a few people do), but it certainly gets around.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii is hardy to zone 7 and can grow 5 ft tall and 4 ft wide. It prefers full sun and isn’t particular about soil as long as there is good drainage. It its native habitat (Greece and Turkey) it grows on rocky hillsides. In cultivation, I think it looks best as a solitary specimen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My one and only hellebore

As you know, I live in a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and cool but mild winters. According to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map, we’re in zone 9b. This means that I can grow a wide variety of plants that might be considered exotic elsewhere, such as citrus and subtropical clumper bamboos. The flip side of the coin is that perennials that make gardeners yawn in the states like Missouri—like lilacs, peonies and hostas—are amazingly difficult to grow here because it just doesn’t get cold enough. I dream of having gunneras of monster proportions in my yard, but it will never happen!

Lenten roses, or hellebores, fall in the same category. I’ve tried several over the years, but the result was always the same: eventual demise. The UC Davis Aboretum appears to have better luck than I do!

I had just about given up on hellebores when I came across this listing on

Helleborus 'Janet Starnes'
Named by Phillip Curtis Farms (a wholesale nursery no longer in business) for plantswoman Janet Starnes of Molalla, Oregon, who found the original in a batch of seedlings. To quote their 1999 wholesale catalog, "shining blue-green leaves are dusted with galaxies of white and dark green stars. New leaves, almost cream colored, are fringed with pink; older leaves darken to a marbled green. Clouds of soft green flowers in early sping. Named for the Janet Starnes." Blooms on the previous year's growth. The flowers are showy, but the main attraction is the unusual foliage. Some gardeners cut off the flowers at the ground in early spring to allow a better view of the creamy colored new growth. Cold hardy to -10°F.

I was hooked by the bit about “galaxies of white and dark green stars.” Since I was ordering some other plants from them anyway, I thought I’d take a chance. The plant I received was small, but I put it in the ground in the backyard near our two cordylines.

In December, it looked like this. I love the mottled foliage that stays evergreen year round, and I didn’t really expect more than that.

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’ in December 2011

However, in January flower buds started to form:

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’ in January 2012

Now, in mid-March, the plant is in full flower:

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’ in March 2012
Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’ flowers

Jaded gardeners may think that these greenish-white flowers are nothing to write home about, but I vehemently disagree. I think they are stunning!

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’ flower up close

This is the first hellebore I’ve managed to keep alive for more than a season, and to me it’s eye candy year round.

Monday, March 12, 2012

First 2012 plant sale at UC Davis Arboretum

Even in our mild winter climate, gardeners are eager for spring to arrive so they can get their hands dirty. That was evident yesterday at UC Davis Arboretum’s first plant sale of the year. The line was already many dozens long when the doors opened at 9 am, and when we checked out an hour later, each of the 12+ cashiers was busy ringing up sales.

Stunning cherry blossoms just outside of the UC Davis teaching nursery where the Arboretum plant sales are held
There were no plant tags so I don’t know what these trees are, but the blossoms were just magnificent

I go to most plant sales at UC Davis Arboretum so I have a good idea of what to expect. However, since this is the year of the Arboretum’s 75th anniversary, the number and variety of plants seems to be larger than ever before. Just take a look at the plant list for this sale: It’s 15 pages long.

Some of the many aisles of plants
Plant sizes range from 4” to 5 gallon containers

My first order of business was to check out the succulents. Sometimes their succulents are very small, such as the Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ below.

Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’. Small plants in 4” pots.
These will take a long time to grow to a decent size.

However, the echeverias were a really nice size, especially these Echeveria ‘Afterglow’. I couldn’t leave without one.

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’
Echeveria ‘Afterglow’

They also had an aloe I’d never heard of before: Aloe ‘Estrella del Mar’. It must be a locally created hybrid because the only link I found on Google was to a UC Davis Arboretum page.

Aloe ‘Estrella del Mar

Aloe × spinosissima is a local favorite and it’s in bloom right now all over town. The Arboretum Terrace in downtown has particularly showy specimens.

Aloe × spinosissima

As always, the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory was represented with their own selection of plants. Checking out their sale tables is always a personal highlight, and I’ve bought quite a few unusual plants from them over the years. This time they had more agaves than before, including two standouts: Agave ‘Sharkskin’ (Agave ferdinandii-regis × Agave scabra) and an unnamed cross between Agave parrasana and Agave colorata.

Agave ‘Sharkskin’
Agave parrasana × colorata
Check out the beautiful bud imprints!
Lots of small cacti, most of them Echinopsis hybrids
Echinopsis ‘Johnson hybrid’
Graptopetalum amethystinum
I recently saw this fleshy succulent at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden
The offerings at the Botanical Conservatory tables go beyond succulents. These are pitcher plants, carnivorous plants hardy enough to grow outside in our climate.
120310_UCDArboretum_Veltheimia bracteata_03
I was happy to find a tray full of Veltheimia bracteata, a South African bulb with flowers that resemble small kniphofias (see further down)

Back in the main sales area, I came across this striking foliage plant called Rumex sanguineus subsp. sanguineus. I had never seen it before and knew nothing about it. Apparently it’s native to Europe, northern Africa and southwest Asia and new leaves can be eaten like spinach. It’s considered invasive in some parts of the world but I still love the leaves. The Annie’s Annuals website has a beautiful photo of an adult specimen.

Bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus subsp. sanguineus)

The teaching nursery has quite a few demonstration beds and the plants are now coming into their own (they were planted about four years ago when the new facility opened). This Arbutus ‘Marina’ is a favorite of mine. It shares its smooth red bark with its relative, the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), a tree native to the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. The flowers and fruit are similar to the Mediterranean strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), which is also a popular street tree in town.

Arbutus ‘Marina’
Click here to read the story behind ‘Marina’
Arbutus ‘Marina’

Deserving to be used more widely in landscaping, flowering currants are putting on quite a show at this time of year.

120310_UCDArboretum_Ribes-aureum malvaceum_02
LEFT: Golden currant (Ribes aureum)
RIGHT: Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum), a California native

I’m not the biggest fan of rosemary as a landscaping shrub, but the selection displayed at the teaching nursery, called ‘Mozart’, is a much deeper blue than regular Rosmarinus officialis. It offset the California white sage (Salvia apiana) very nicely.

Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Mozart’ and Salvia apiana
Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Mozart’

And finally, what would spring be without California lilac (Ceanothus). There are many choices selections on the market that combine the best of bloom color and growth habit. At the one end of the spectrum are low-growing groundcovers, at the other end large shrubs or even small trees as tall as 15 ft.

Unidentified low-growing ceanothus
Unidentified low-growing ceanothus, combined with autumn sage (Salvia greggii)

While I’ve become very selective when I got to plant sales, I still find plants that interest me. Here’s what came home with me yesterday:

Clockwise from bottom left:
Aloe ramossisima
Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’
Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’
Veltheimia bracteata
Echeveria ‘Afterglow’
Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’
Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’
A particularly beautiful specimen of this shrubby aloe. I even have a spot in the ground for it!
Aloe ramossisima
A branching aloe to 6 ft in height, closely related to the quiver tree but with less of a central trunk (and smaller)
A much larger specimen of Aloe ramossisima photographed at Poot’s Cactus Nursery
120310_UCDArboretum_Veltheimia bracteata_04
Veltheimia bracteata
Veltheimia bracteata in flower
Photo source: Wikipedia

Many people all over the world have sansevierias as house plants. Their common names include snake plant and mother-in-law’s tongue. While it may seem a bit of a stretch, sansevierias are actually succulents and come from pretty inhospitable places in Africa. I had never owned a sansieviera before, and while I wasn’t exactly looking for one, I couldn’t pass up the specimen below. Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’ is a low-growing selection that forms tight rosettes of whitish leaves with green mottling. Very attractive, I think. As an added bonus, it tolerates low light levels, which makes it ideal for a dark corner on the front porch.

Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’
Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’