Friday, January 30, 2015

Aloes in bloom at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to check up on the aloes at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley (UCBG). While it doesn’t have a particularly large aloe collection—certainly nothing that gets close to the Huntington—it’s a beautiful place to visit at any time of year, but particularly this winter when Berkeley has proven to be a more reliable sunny spot than Davis. After what seemed like weeks of non-stop fog and overcast skies at home, I was so happy to be wandering around in the sun.

The first flower aloe I spotted was right at the entrance, a cat’s tail aloe (Aloe castanea). It was heavily frequented by bees.


Cat’s tail aloe (Aloe castanea)

I spotted an even larger clump behind the gift shop:


Cat’s tail aloe (Aloe castanea)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aloes, hurry up already!

Winter in the Sacramento Valley (USDA hardiness zone 9b; Sunset zone 14) is aloe time. Most aloes are winter bloomers and they grace us with their flowers when little else is in bloom.

Except this year my aloes are stuck in a state of suspended animation because of our weird weather. Usually our winters are sunny and bright (the occasional rain storm excepted). This January, though, has been anything but normal. We’ve had more fog than I can remember, and it’s been extremely dry. After an unusually wet December, January has been the driest on record. More proof that California’s drought is anything but over.

As a consequence, many of our aloes have been in limbo, their flower stalks in arrested development. I need to turn on the sprinklers this weekend to give all our plants a good drink. Otherwise our aloes might continue to sulk and abort their flowers altogether.

Here are some of the aloes I’m waiting for to come into their own:


Unidentified Brian Kemble hybrid from the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday potpourri: of fog, daphne, bamboo, and banksia

It’s not unusual for us to have foggy nights and mornings, but this year the fog has been extreme. Right now the sun is out, but it’s been a rare sight in the past few weeks.

I must admit, though, that I love what the fog does: It makes even familiar sights look mysterious, even unsettling, and it muffles all sound so the world is shrouded in a peculiar stillness.


Trees across the street—morning


Trees across the street—night

Friday, January 23, 2015

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona: Part 3 (2014 edition)

This post concludes my three-part series on the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, Arizona. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

We’re now at the spot indicated by the green arrow in the following trail map (borrowed from the DBG web site) and will be exploring the paths inside the perimeter of the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, including Quail Run Path.


Trail map © 2015 Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ


Ferocactus pottsii

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona: Part 2 (2014 edition)

Part 1 of this three-part series on the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, AZ ended at the Desert Portal, the fat red dot on the trail map below (borrowed from the DBG web site).


Trail map © 2015 Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

Let’s walk on to the Center for Desert Living Trail, the purple trail that takes offs to the right. In the words of the DBG, “this trail showcases ideas and strategies that demonstrate useful, sustainable and harmonious ways to work with nature in the desert environment.”

I think of this section as a residential demonstration garden—things you can do and plants you can plant as a homeowner in a desert climate. There’s also an herb garden and an edible garden; they didn’t look all that attractive in late December so I didn’t photograph them.

Following are a few snippets of things I found interesting in this corner of the garden. There’ll be more photos in my upcoming “agaves at the DBG” post.


Aloe marlothii in Chinese pot

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona: Part 1 (2014 edition)

Even in a state full of natural treasures and scenic wonders, the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, Arizona is a standout. Spanning 140 acres, the DBG features over 21,000 plants in more than 1,400 taxa. Cacti form the largest group, with 10,350 plants in 1,350 taxa. The DBG’s agave collection (subject of a future post) is significant as well, with 176 taxa represented. Several miles of trails allow you to get up close and personal with your favorite desert plants.


On the edge of the parking lot

Unlike the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) in Tucson, which is located miles outside of town and affords fairly pristine desert views, the Desert Botanical Garden is in the middle of the Phoenix metro area (east of Sky Harbor International Airport and north of Arizona State University, Tempe). This doesn’t diminish the experience for me, but the DBG feels a lot more “domesticated” to me than the ASDM. If I had to pick a favorite between the two, I really couldn’t. Both of them are a must-see in my book. As is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, about an hour east of Phoenix, which I visited in December 2013 but didn’t have time for on this trip.


Almost there!

I’d visited the DBG for the first time on my December 2013 trip and couldn’t wait to go back. This time I managed two visits on two consecutive days and ended up taking over 700 photos. I’ve whittled them down to 120, which I will show you in three consecutive posts. A fourth post on agaves is in the planning stages.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cold tolerance of agaves

Yesterday’s post, ASDM: Agaves in the snow, prompted me to do a little bit of research into the cold tolerance of agaves. There’s a wealth of information available online and in books, but much of it is in bits and pieces. I attempted to compile a list that is as complete—and hence as useful—as possible. The tab “Sources” in the spreadsheet below lists the sources I relied on most; where they disagreed with regard to the cold hardiness of a given species or cultivar, I picked the mean value and rounded it up.


Agave ovatifolia, the whale’s tongue agave, is one of the best choices for cold and wet winters

My hope is that this list will be a useful reference for your own trials. Please bear in mind that cold hardiness depends on more than just temperature. For the majority of agave species, the most crucial factor aside from the absolute air temperature is how wet or dry the soil is when a cold spell hits. Completely dry soil allows agaves to withstand colder temperatures than they would be able to tolerate if the soil is wet. The worst-case scenario would be a deep freeze following rain, especially if the soil is heavy and has poor drainage.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

ASDM: Agaves in the snow

New Year’s Day in Tucson started out with a bang: a dusting of snow in the foothills and mountains! I will never forget driving over Gates Pass that morning:


There was less snow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), but still enough to make a place I’m fairly familiar with look new and different.

In my previous post I showed you how the Desert Museum protects its tender cacti. This post is all about agaves—agaves in the snow. I think agaves are great at any time of year, but a coating of that white stuff from the sky makes them look extra special.


Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

ASDM: Cacti with dog food bags and other curious sights

When I woke up in my downtown Tucson hotel room on New Year’s Day, I saw a slight dusting of snow on the cars in the parking lot. An hour later I was in the Tucson Mountains snapping one photo after another: The mountains had become a winter wonderland, and even the locals seemed giddy with excitement.

When I arrived at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) on the western edge of the Tucson Mountains, the air temperature had climbed into the high 30s and what little snow had fallen there was beginning to melt. Still, I was able to get many good pictures of the desert the way I’d never seen it before.


The original car in which Hal Gras, the first public relations director of the Desert Museum, brought animals to schools, hospitals, etc. to spread the word about the the new institution

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bach’s Cactus Nursery, Tucson, AZ

Bach’s Cactus Nursery (8602 North Thornydale Road, Tucson, AZ 85742) was my first stop in Tucson on my recent desert road trip. I’d visited this nursery in December 2013 and couldn’t wait to go back. The weather was much different this time: overcast, noticeably colder, with rain in the forecast (which arrived that afternoon and then turned to snow overnight).


Frost cloth and other means of protection against the cold were a common sight throughout the nursery:


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunnylands Center and Gardens, Palm Springs, CA

In virtually every respect, Sunnylands Center and Gardens is the polar opposite of family-run Moorten Botanical Garden. The two things they have in common—both are located in the Palm Springs area and both showcase desert plants—are eclipsed by their differences. Moorten is 1 acre in size, Sunnylands 200; Moorten looks to be run on a shoestring budget, Sunnylands is flush with money; Moorten is visited by normal folks like you and me; Sunnylands is a “high-level retreat center” for the likes of President Obama.

And yet, both places are outstanding destinations for succulents lovers. Moorten very much looks like a private garden—which it once was and, and its heart, it still is—while Sunnylands showcases landscape design on a grand scale and scope. Where else can you see many hundreds (maybe even thousands) of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) all lined up like soldiers at a parade?

Only 70 species of desert or desert-adapted plants are used in the 15-acre garden in front of and behind the newly built 15,000 sq. ft. visitor center, but to achieve the desired color and texture effects, over 53,000 individual plants were installed. The plant procurement process took an entire year and involved five nurseries in California and Arizona. The details of such a large-scale project are fascinating; the articles listed under “Further reading” at the bottom of this post make for riveting reading.

I won’t go into the history of Sunnylands and billionaires Walter and Leonore Annenberg who owned the property before they converted it to a non-profit foundation; this Wikipedia article has all the basics in case you’re interested. What is important to remember is that landscape architect James Burnett was inspired by the Annenberg’s love of Impressionist painting and arranged the plants like an “Impressionist canvas.”

The video above is an unedited slideshow of all the photos I took at Sunnylands. I thought I’d offer this an option in addition to the selection of edited and processed photos below. Be sure to view the video at the highest resolution for the crispest image quality.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs, CA

Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs, CA is something quite rare: a privately owned botanical garden. Most are either public or run by non-profit foundations. Even more amazing: Moorten Botanical Garden has been around, and in the same family, since 1938 – that’s 77 years. If nothing else, that level of persistence and perseverance deserves kudos!


The garden is the legacy of Chester Moorten, who came to Palm Springs in the 1930s because of his health, and his wife Patricia, a biologist interested in desert plants. Nicknamed “Slim” because of his skinny build, Chester had been one of the Keystone Kops and had Hollywood contacts. The Moortens were friends with Walt Disney, who had property in Palm Springs, and did landscape design for the likes of Frank Sinatra.


Avid collectors, the Moortens went on plant-hunting trips as far south as Guatemala and eventually opened their property as a botanical garden in 1938.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A walk through Tucson’s Civano community

On New Year’s day, when all the nurseries and most public gardens in Tucson were closed, I finally had time to take a walk through the Civano community located on the southeastern edge of the city.

I first became aware of Civano through landscape designer Scott Calhoun’s appropriately titled book Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand. Published in 2005, it “chronicles the struggles and triumphs of one family as they design and construct a home and garden in the desert.” That home, as you might guess, is located in the community of Civano, which was then under construction.


Beautifully written and illustrated, Yard Full of Sun captured me the first time I read it, and I’ve wanted to see Civano for myself ever since. (Here is an excerpt of the book, which is still available from the usual sources.)


What’s so special about Civano, you might ask.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

One last succulent feast before heading home

I spent my last night on the road in Palm Springs, and before I started out on the 7-hour drive back to Davis, I made one final stop: Mariscal Cactus & Succulents. This nursery is located on the outskirts of the small town of Desert Hot Springs, north of Palm Springs and just a few miles off the I-10. We’d stopped there briefly on our February 2011 trip to the Southern California desert, and I was hoping the nursery was still there. It was.


While they do have a few tables with smaller plants (1 gallon and smaller), their main focus is on large plants, mostly 15 gallons and 24 inch boxes. This is where you’d go if you want specimen-sized succulents for instant impact. We have nothing like it in Northern California.


I was the only customer there and spent a leisurely hour roaming the multi-acre nursery. This is what I saw:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Desert visions

Today I started the long drive home from Southern Arizona. I spent all day driving through the desert—Southern Arizona, Central Arizona, then Southern California. There’s something about the monotony of the landscape that seems to heighten and dull your senses at the same time. After a while you’re not quite sure whether you’re wide awake or deep in a dream—a fever dream.


I manipulated these images to reflect this feeling of spatial and temporal disorientation. Click each one to see a larger version.

Follow me on Instagram

“Resistance is futile,” was the motto of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Well, I resisted for a long time but I’ve finally given in and joined the 150 million folks who are already using Instagram.

The goal is not to replace this blog—far from it—but to utilize yet another social media channel to share photos I take on my cell phone. Instagram offers a variety of tools to process photos, add effects, etc.—all on the fly, right from your mobile device. The image quality isn’t great, but these pictures are primarily meant to be consumed on a small mobile display anyway.


I started to use Instagram at the beginning of my Southern California/Arizona trip and have had a lot fun with it over the last five days.

To follow me on Instagram, search for “succulentsandmore” in your mobile app. Or, from your desktop, go to

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Snow in Tucson

So, how often does it snow in Tucson?

I asked a bunch of people today, and their answers ranged from once a year to once every three years.

As you may remember from yesterday’s post, it had started to rain in the afternoon. The rain never stopped, and when I looked out the window at 11pm just before going to bed, it was turning to snow.

This morning, while there was no snow on the ground here in downtown Tucson, there was some on the cars in the parking lot of my hotel. I left at 8 a.m. and headed west towards Gates Pass (3,172 ft.), which crosses the Tucson Mountains before dropping down to the flats where both the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Western Unit of Saguaro National Park are located.

I knew I was going to see some incredible sights in the Tucson Mountains as I was getting closer:


And I was right: