Sunday, March 18, 2012

A visit to Sacramento Capitol Park: camellias

California gained statehood in 1850 and Sacramento became its capital in 1854. (Between 1850 and 1854, the government had tried out several cities—San Jose, Vallejo and Benicia—and found each one inadequate as a capital.) Construction on the California State Capitol, modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., began in 1860 and was completed in 1874.


The Capitol sits at the western edge of Capitol Park, a 40-acre expanse of lawns, walkways, trees, shrubs and monuments. Special collections include the Civil War Memorial Grove, established in 1897 with saplings transplanted from Civil War battlefields; the World Peace Rose Garden featuring 600 bushes from 140 varieties; and the Pioneer Camellia Grove, planted in 1953 as a living memorial to the early builders of California.


Camellias have been inseparably tied to Sacramento since the 1850s. According the Camellia Society of Sacramento:

The first Camellias [...] arrived in Sacramento, February 7, 1852. They were imported from Japan by James L.L.F. Warren, a seed store proprietor, at Front and J Streets. James Warren’s first plants came to Sacramento by circuitous route. They were shipped from New York to Panama, across the Isthmus to the Pacific and again by ship to San Francisco by riverboat to Sacramento.


The plants thrived in the fertile river soil. After an initial wave of popularity, public interest in camellias waxed and waned, but after annual camellia shows were started in 1924, Sacramento has had a steady love affair with these flowering shrubs and has been known as the “Camellia Capital of the World” since then.


The peak of the blooming season is usually the end of February or early March (the 88th Sacramento Camellia Show was on March 3rd and 4th this year). Capitol Park is said to have 800 camellias, including heirloom varieties no longer commercially available, and many of them were still blooming their heads off when I was there on Saturday, March 17th.


It’s quite an experience seeing so many different flower colors and shapes. In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Camellias, Stirling Macoboy lists these flower styles: “Single,” “Semi-Double,” “Anemone,” “Peony,” “Higo-Form Single,” “Rose-Form Double,” “Formal Double.” Being a camellia agnostic, I had no idea there was so much diversity in what to me is “just” a flowering shrub.


I can tell you that camellias, like rhododendrons and azaleas, should be kept moist but not water-logged and that they need slightly acidic soil rich in humus. I won’t be able to give you expert advice beyond that, but there are plenty of resources on the web.

Instead I want to show you some of the stunning camellias I saw at Capitol Park in hopes you will fall in love with them, too.

Reproduction of the Liberty Bell
Statue of Thomas Starr King, a “Unitarian preacher credited with keeping California from seceding from the Union at the dawn of the Civil War.”
Statue of Father Junipero Serra. In typical revisionist fashion the plaque describes him as “the first Franciscan missionary to whom California owes an everlasting tribute—he brought civilization to our land and in deed and character deserves a foremost place in the history of our State.”

The carpets of fallen flowers underneath and around the trees were a magic sight.


Here are some of the varieties I found particularly beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no idea what they’re called.


I came across this heart of camellia blossoms on the edge of the Pioneer Camellia Grove. Clearly a romantic at work!


Check out part 2 of this post: Other treasures I found in Capitol Park, including a bunya-bunya.

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.