Sunday, October 31, 2010

Macro photography

For the last few weeks I’ve been borrowing two macro lenses from a friend, and I’m having a blast photographing plants and flowers around the garden. Here are some of my favorites.

Perennial Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Perennial Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Rose leaf sage (Salvia puberula)
Bog sage (Salvia uliginosa)
Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus)
Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus)
Spider web hens and chicks (Sempervivum arachnoideum)
Tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii)
Quadricolor agave (Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor')
Variegated elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Elepaio’)
Giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’)
Golden lotus banana leaf (Musella lasiocarpa)
White Queen caladium (Caladium bicolor 'White Queen')
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum')
Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa)

Recently I declared baby blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’) to be my favorite bamboo at the moment. Close runner up is a montane (or “mountain”) bamboo from Yunnan province in southwestern China: Borinda fungosa, or commonly called “chocolate bamboo”. This is a medium-sized clumper with a mature height of 14-18 ft., hardy to about 15°F, with lime green leaves that have the classic bamboo profile. When exposed to sun, the culms turn a rich reddish brown, hence the common name. After the branches are fully leaved out, the culms gently arch under the weight of the leaves, forming a lush canopy of green.

Borinda fungosa culm turning a rich red when exposed to sun. This photo was taken at Man Man Bamboo nursery where I obtained my plant. The most beautiful specimen I’ve seen was at Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol; their 15- and 25-gallon plants had 0.5-inch culms that truly were chocolate-colored.

Montane bamboos hail from higher elevations (often 7000 ft. or higher) where daytime temperatures rarely exceed 80°F. Therefore, they don’t generally do well in hot climates, especially where the humidity and night-time temperatures in the summer are high. Fortunately in our climate where summer temperatures routinely hit 100°, we are able to grow montane bamboos relatively easily because we cool off into the 60s at night and our humidity is very low—in the summer sometimes even below 20%. The key is to plant montane bamboos in spots where they’re protected from the scorching afternoon sun.

The biggest issue we face in the Sacramento Valley is drought. Since it typically doesn’t rain from April or May to late October, we rely on irrigation for pretty much everything we plant. No bamboo is truly drought-tolerant but some, including Borinda fungosa, make do with less water than many other species.

This photo was taken on 12/10/09
right after I planted our Borinda fungosa

Our Borinda fungosa came in a 25-gallon pot so it had a large root ball already. I planted it in our shade garden off the dining room where it fits in perfectly among the hostas, ferns and columbines. I amended the planting hole with lots of compost and a good dose of time-release fertilizer. Compare the photos above and below. Nice progress in the first six months!

Half a year later on 5/9/10

In June I bought a Japanese granite lantern and put a low bamboo border around the shade garden, which gave the area the serene Asian atmosphere I had been after. For me, Borinda fungosa has the most beautiful leaf profile of any clumping bamboo, and I find it perfect for this spot.

On 7/3/10; noticeably more leaves than in May

The final two photos are from this morning. There are many more leaves now, and the culms are bending under their weight.

Today, on 10/29/10; the culms are bending under the weight of the leaves…

In the summer, our Borinda fungosa produced a good half dozen new culms. The tallest ones are around 10 ft. and are just beginning to leaf out. Since we’re entering our cold-weather season, I expect them to stop their growth very soon and to continue leafing out in the spring.

…leaning protectively over the other woodland plants

I’m very pleased with the way our Asian-inspired shade garden has turned out, and Borinda fungosa is an integral part of it. Looking out at this area from the dining room makes me happy, and that’s what gardening is all about.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Farfugium, oh farfugium

I just love saying “farfugium”. It has such an odd yet intriguing ring to it. My wife thinks I make up botanical names, maybe because I prefer using the Latin names to the common names—which don’t exist for many of my favorite plants, especially bamboos and, well, farfugiums.

Farfugiums in our woodland garden

Farfugium is a genus of plants mainly grown for their interesting leaves: some are plain green and giant, some are mottled or speckled, some are wavy or even curly like Italian parsley. Farfugiums are native to Japan and eastern Asia where they grow along stream banks and in moist meadows. They are definitely not drought-tolerant and hence not inherently suited for our Mediterranean climate. However, I’ve found that they do quite well in our water-retentive clay soil—amended with lots of compost—as long as they are protected from the sun. Their environmental requirements are pretty much identical to those of the other plants we have growing in our Asia-inspired shade garden: bamboos, hostas, ferns, astilbes, and grasses such as Japanese forest grass and various sedges. For me, farfugiums can’t be beat when it comes to foliage effect, and I wouldn’t want to be without them.

Large leaves on Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’,
looking especially beautiful when wet

Interestingly enough, farfugiums are in the Asteraceae family. Their leaves look nothing like asters, daisies or sunflowers (all members of the Asteraceae family as well), but the flowers definitely show a resemblance. Farfugiums bloom late in the season; in fact, my two giant farfugiums are getting ready to bloom now. Personally, I find the flowers to be rather weedy-looking and I’m glad they’re often hidden below the leaves. Many gardeners simply remove them.

Flowers on Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’

Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ has the largest leaves of any farfugium. Leathery, kidney-shaped and a rich green, they can be 1 ft. or more across. I’ve noticed that they do droop on particularly hot summer days, even if the soil is moist, but as soon as our evening breeze kicks in, they perk right up again. The clump below has been in the ground for almost two years now (it started out as a small plant in a 4-inch pot) and has definitely sized up this year.

My hand on a Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ leaf

At this year’s UC Davis Arboretum spring sale I bought another Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ in a 1-gallon container and planted it in a corner of our back yard behind a Chinese pistache tree. Immediately behind it is a variegated flowering maple (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii') and to the left is a potted ‘Koi’ bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’). The larger the farfugium gets, the more stunning the contrast will be with the much smaller bamboo leaves.

Our newest Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’

Back in our Asia-themed woodland garden, we have two other Farfugium japonicum. One is probably the best-known member of this species; it even has a common name: leopard plant. All it takes is a quick look at its leaves to know why. This one, Farfugium japonicum 'Aureo-maculatum', has impossibly bright yellow spots. In fact, my eyes are sometimes tricked into thinking that the leaves have giant burn holes in them!

Farfugium japonicum ‘'Aureo-maculatum'

Another leopard plant is in a pot in the far corner of our back yard (the word “far” should be taken with a grain of salt, considering how small our yard is). It has upsized dramatically since the spring when I planted it from a 1-gallon container.

Farfugium japonicum ‘'Aureo-maculatum' leaf

My favorite farfugium is also the most frustrating and difficult to grow: Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum'. With its variegated leaves, it lights up a dark spot like nothing else. (The images below are of our own plant, but the most striking photo I’ve ever seen is this one.)

Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum'

However, because of the lack of chlorophyll in the white areas, it grows much more slooooooowly than the other varieties and just seems fussier overall. Occasionally, you even get an all-white leaf that’s much smaller than the others.

Completely white leaf; some critter took a little nibble on the left side

This spring, our ‘Argenteum’ was attacked repeatedly by what we came to assume were rats. They chewed off the stems of new leaves at near ground level and left the leaves lying on the ground. A couple of days later, the chewed-off leaves were gone, too, with no trace left behind. My completely un-scientific explanation: The rats are attracted by the white areas in the leaves at night and think they make a tasty bite. I can’t prove it, but the result is quite similar to what rats did to our winter garden last year.

Farfugiums are very popular in Japan where dozens of cultivars are grown. More and more are coming to our shores, and I can’t wait to add to my collection in the years to come.

Note: Should you try to buy Farfugium japonicum cultivars like the ones described above, be it in a nursery or online, please be advised that they might still be sold under their previous botanical name Ligularia tussilaginea. Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ used to be known as Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’, Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum' as Ligularia tussilaginea 'Aureomaculata', and so forth. Farfugiums were split off from the genus Ligularia about 20 years ago because they have different cultural requirements from true ligularias, which don’t reliably grow in our climate because it gets too hot in the summer.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What’s happening to my tower of jewels?

No, I’m not talking about a private body part :-). The tower of jewels I’m talking about (Echium wildpretii) is a stunning plant from island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. It grows natively at elevations just below the tree line on Mount Teide, the third largest volcano in the world and at 3,718 m (12,198 ft.) the highest point in the Atlantic Ocean.


Tower of jewels in bloom at UC Davis Arboretum, May 2009

Growing conditions in the wild are sunny and dry, which makes Echium wildpretii a natural for our climate. In fact, it is a celebrity plant here in Davis, having being featured several times in our local newspaper. If you’ve ever seen one in bloom, you’ll understand why. In the second year of the life of this biennial plant, a flower stalk up to 7 ft. tall rises from the greenish gray rosette of fuzzy leaves which itself is as much as 2 ft. across. The spike is covered with many hundreds of pink to red flowers which attract bees and birds alike. After the flowers have gone to seed, the tower eventually falls over and dies. However, due to the copious amounts of seed produced, a new generation will soon come up.

Fallen tower of jewels

These were my expectations when I planted a tower of jewels in our back yard in the summer of 2009. The plant was small—it had come from a 4-inch nursery pot—but it grew steadily. I was a bit surprised when it didn’t bloom this spring since, technically, 2010 is the plant’s second year of life. However, the leaves continued to grow, and in the summer the rosette looked like a sculptural masterpiece.

Tower of jewels in our back yard, July 2010

I was convinced that growth would simply continue until next spring when the bejeweled flower spike would magically emerge from the leaves.


Last week I noticed that the leaves had gone limp seemingly overnight as if the plant were dying of thirst. That certainly couldn’t be the case, considering that our tower of jewels, though drought-tolerant, did receive supplemental water and is planted in heavily amended loose soil where it had been happy for over a year. Nothing had changed, except its will to live. Maybe its internal alarm clock had gone off, signaling the end of its life. Since it’s a biennial, it’s only supposed to be alive for two years. But then, it’s also supposed to flower and produce seed to keep the cycle going. I'll probably never know caused the demise of my beloved tower of jewels, but looking at the drooping mess makes me sad.

Plant in our back yard, October 27, 2010

I do have an ace up my sleeve, metaphorically speaking. I have a 2nd tower of jewels in our front yard. It was planted just about a year ago and is smaller than the moribund one in the back yard. But the leaves have had a growth spurt lately so maybe this plant will flower next spring. I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to gardening!

Tower of jewels in our front yard, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ornamental grasses lighting up the yard

Considering that today is October 26th, a lot plants are still looking good in the yard. Many salvias are still in bloom, and I noticed new buds on many of our lavenders. Given mild temperatures, lavenders bloom here into December.

For me, however, the stars of the show in late fall are our ornamental grasses. I love their plumes rising high above the leaves. They will continue to look good even when the flowering perennials have quit for the winter.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’; we have  two clumps outside the fence in the front yard, and one inside. This cultivar is supposed to be on the smaller side for a miscanthus, but ours has topped 4 ft. already.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’ (right) inside the front-yard fence
with Heliopsis helianthoides (left). This ‘Rigoletto’ is noticeably smaller than the one outside the fence, which gets quite a bit more sun.
Closeup of a miscanthus plume

Closeup of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Super Stripe’. Beautiful striping in the leaves. I wish this would grow faster and taller. Maybe next year!

Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’. Planted just this summer from a 1-gallon container and already 3 ft. tall.

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’ being shaded by the floppy culms of our Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’)

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', the good old purple fountain grass. A little past its prime but still looking mighty good in a pot in our front yard.
Calamagrostis arundinacea var. brachytricha (Korean feather reed grass) in our back yard next to the potted ‘Koi’ bamboo; this grass has been one of our favorites this year due to its fluffy plumes that look particularly gorgeous when backlit

All the grasses above need as much sun as possible and generally don’t do well in the shade.

I’ll write a separate post about the shade-tolerant grasses we have in our back yard, but here are two favorites that I happened to photograph today.

Hakonechloa macra 'Albostriata', commonly known as Japanese forest grass or Hakone grass. This is my favorite shade grass. There are several cultivars, including an all-green one, a greenish-yellow one, and ones with yellow or white stripes. This is the white-striped cultivar. It will eventually grow to 2 ft. or so. We have it planted in several shady spots in the back yard. This one is at the base of a clumping mountain bamboo (Borinda angustissima).

Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’, a variegated sedge that fits in well with the Asian theme in this corner of our back yard

One of my favorite online nurseries, Santa Rosa Gardens in Florida, had a clearance sale a few weeks ago, and I snapped up a bunch of grasses at $1.99 each. I transplanted them from their 4-inch nursery containers into 1-gallon pots where their root development will continue throughout the winter. They’ll go in the ground in early spring so by summer they’re on their way to getting established.


Sale plants from Santa Rosa Gardens

Monday, October 25, 2010

Late-shooting bamboos

Fall is finally here and our current temperatures are a far cry from the 95°F+ we had just two weeks ago. Still, several of our bamboos have new shoots. While most running bamboos—and the clumping mountain bamboos like the fargesias and borindas—shoot in the spring and early summer, many tropical and subtropical clumping bamboos like the bambusas shoot in summer and into fall. Having said that, maybe our recent mini heat wave tricked them into shooting even later than they normally would? As is so often the case, bamboo seems to do what it wants when it wants.

Bambusa dolichomerithalla 'Silverstripe'
in 5-gallon nursery container,
bought 6 weeks ago from Bamboo Sourcery. This shoot, like many bambusa shoots, is fairly plain-looking. Contrast that with the Asian lemon bamboo shoot below.

As long as temperatures continue to be mild, there’s hope that the shoots will continue to grow, albeit slowly. On the other hand, the plant might just give up on a new shoot and stop supplying it with water and nutrients so it dies off.

Bambusa oldhamii (common name: giant clumping timber bamboo)
new shoot on the left--it’s already about 8 in. tall.

The Asian lemon bamboo shown below was planted just a couple of months ago in what was for us the middle of summer. Maybe that is why it’s shooting so late? According to the information I was able to find, it’s supposed to shoot much earlier (April or May).

Bambusa eutuldoides 'Viridivittata'
(common name: Asian lemon bamboo)
Closeup of the same new shoot.
Look at the stunningly striped culm sheath.
It will fall off when the branches develop.

The bamboos above are all in the genus bambusa, native to the low-elevation subtropical and tropical regions of Asia. However, I also have one montane bamboo that is still shooting. “Montane” or “mountain bamboos” are higher-elevation species from the Andes or the Himalayas. Unlike the bambusas, they don’t like prolonged summer heat—especially in conjunction with high humidity—and need to be grown in the shade in our climate. Some montane species are among the hardiest of all (like many fargesias), others are surprisingly wimpy when it comes to the cold (like my ‘Teague’s Blue below and many chusqueas).

Most montane bamboos shoot very early—some fargesias as early as January in our climate. That’s why I was surprised to find a new shoot on my ‘Teague’s Blue’ so late in the season. I doubt that I will grow to maturity this year; I’ll cover it with leaves to protect it as much as possible so it can resume its growth next spring.

Himalayacalamus hookerianus ‘Teague’s Blue’