Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tohono Chul really is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets for desert plant lovers

Recently two different people asked me if I had ever been to Tohono Chul Park in Tucson and, if so, what I thought of it. The answer is easy: yes, and I love it.

I visited Tohono Chul for the first time in 2013, then in 2015, and again last December. If it were in a different town, Tohono Chul would be the leading botanical attraction. The fact that in Tucson it's relegated to a lesser tier speaks volumes about the quantity and quality of parks and gardens available there. Tucson not only has a national park (Saguaro National Park), a world-class zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden all rolled into one (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), another botanical garden (Tucson Botanical Gardens), a campus-wide arboretum (University of Arizona), and a score of smaller parks—not to mention great nurseries. Not bad at all for a city of 500,000!

I think Tohono Chul can easily hold its own, even in a crowded field like that, and deserves to be much better known among out-of-town visitors. I have a feeling, though, locals are quite happy to have Tohono Chul mostly to themselves and let the tourists flock to Saguaro National Park and the Desert Museum!

Horse sculpture by Kioko Mwitiki in the Cactus Circle Garden. The cactus, appropriately enough, are Pachycereus marginatus aka Mexican fencepost.


Tohono Chul Park is a 49-acre “living museum” that was once the home of a Tucson couple who fought hard to preserve a slice of native desert. Today Tohono Chul—“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham—combines nature with art and culture. Miles of trails wind through natural areas and demonstration gardens while three art galleries, classroom facilities and a fine-dining tea room offer attractions for people who are less plant-crazy.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A crisp Arizona morning at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

In the last couple of days, Arizona saw plenty of rain and snow. Flagstaff set a new snowfall record for Thursday, February 22. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum west of Tucson posted photos of snow-covered cactus, as did the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, east of Phoenix.

The weather was much less severe when I was at Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) on December 30. It was  cold, as you can see below, but the sun was out and the air temperature had climbed into the high 40s by the time I left at noon: not as warm as during previous visits in December, but just fine for walking around. In fact, I was so into the plants and scenery all around me that I didn't have time to think of anything else.

You might say that I was in my element!

Monday, February 18, 2019

...which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

Mirror mirror on the wall, which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

"All of them," would be a good answer. Or, "that changes daily." Or, "depends on the mood I'm in."

My answer is even more diplomatic: I'll let you be the judge!

Below are most of the aloes in our garden that are in bloom, very close, or at the tail end.

Aloe marlothii, flowering for the first time ever. It looks like the flowers will be more yellow than red, which is what I was hoping for.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Rain is good—until it's too much

The biggest threat to our plants in the winter is usually the cold. This winter, the lowest nighttime temperature we've had was 30°F, as well as multiple nights right at 32°F. It's ironic, then, that something else has turned out to be the biggest problem—something we were begging Mother Nature for just a few years ago: rain.

In a region where the specter of drought is always a lurking presence, rain is a good thing. Until it isn't. In just the last few days, we've had flooding up and down California (Valentine's Day was the wettest day in Palm Springs in 76 years!), landslides, sinkholes, not to mention toppled trees and more minor incidents.

Nothing so dramatic happened in our little corner of the world. But considering we've had 12.5" of rain since December 1 (vs. 3.7" the year before),  I've become increasingly worried about rot from the excessive rainfall, especially after the 'Desert Love' incident. On Wednesday, I decided to grab what plastic sheeting I could find in the garage and drape it over some of the more vulnerable xeric plants in the front yard. I know it was more to make myself feel better than to effect any real rain protection for the plants, but sometimes that's all we can do.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Finding Nemo the rare Mount Diablo manzanita

I seem to have a thing for plants that start with A: Aloe, Agave, Acacia, and now Arctostaphylos aka manzanitas. With smooth or peeling bark ranging in color from cinnamon to chocolate, contorted branches, stiff leaves in hues from apple green to silver, and masses of small bell-shaped flowers in late winter frequently followed by tiny fruit resembling little apples (hence the Spanish name), their presence cannot be denied.

While some manzanita species are present in other western states as well—the prostrate kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is even found in the polar regions of North America, Asia and Europe—the biggest concentration is in the California Floristic Province (CFP) which stretches from southwestern Oregon into northern Baja California. According to the Field Guide to Manzanitas, 104 of 105 currently recognized Arctostaphylos taxa (species and subspecies) are native to the CFP. (The 105th, oddly enough, grows only at the top of several volcanic craters in Guatemala, thousands of miles from its closest manzanita neighbor.)

The county where I live, Yolo, is home to only one species (the common manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita subsp. manzanita), but some of the biggest manzanita hotspots are an easy drive away: Sonoma County (17 species and subspecies), the greater Bay Area (27), and Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties (27). It's one thing seeing plants you like in a residential or public garden, but it pales compared to the real deal: seeing them grow in their natural habitat.

Even though I've done some reading and have seen different manzanita species in botanical gardens, my practical skills at identifying them are virtually non-existent. Some species are very distinct, but many others (especially subspecies) are difficult to tell apart. The best clue is location: the native habitat of a manzanita is probably the best criterion in order to narrow down the possibilities.

Softly undulating hills dotted with oak trees are a typical landscape feature in our part of California

With that in mind, I decided my first manzanita outing of the year should be to a spot that only has two species: Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near the city of Antioch in the East Bay.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Desert Love in trouble

Philosophical question of the day: Is déjà vu a good thing? 

Yahoo has the answer: "For your own safety," one user writes, "'deja vu' should be understood for the same reason a venomous snake should be understood, or more mysteriously, an unidentified creature." 

 What now?

"Sometime it happens right before a seizure," somebody else says, "but that is very rare. So don't think you are going to have a seizure."

Whew, good to know!

"It is neither, or both, depending on your reaction," states a very smart person. "It is an experience that can awaken an awareness of what is going on in your life, and you need to just pay attention! There are things to be learned."

Time for a learning moment—maybe.

Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue' in February 2018

Almost a year ago I lost an Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue' and an Agave 'Snow Glow' to rot. I was never able to figure out definitively what happened. I removed the rotting carcasses and drenched the area with two kinds of fungicide. Then I planted an Aloe africana and an Agave 'Desert Love', a Plant Delights hybrid involving Agave ovatifolia, Agave parrasana and possibly Agave asperrima.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Let the light in: much-needed bamboo thinning taming

The three clumping bamboos in the front yard (all of them Bambusa species) are happy and healthy even on a much less generous watering regime than in the old days before the drought. That, in turn, makes me happy because I love the lushness they contribute to our garden.

For most of the year, I just let the 'boos do their thing. In the winter, however, when the sun is low in the sky, it becomes obvious how much the Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides 'Viridi-vittata') shades the smaller succulent mound. Take a look at the photo below to see what I mean.

The Asian lemon bamboo is a fairly dense clump of culms and leaves:


It looks great, but it creates more shade than the other plants need or want.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

New Hans Hansen ×Mangave releases for 2019

I was very excited to find two boxes at the front door last week, especially since I didn't know they were coming:


My mystery mangave benefactor was wondering if I'd like to trial the latest creations from Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan where mangave wizard and plant genius at large Hans Hansen practices his hybridization magic. Except for one plant in the box, ×Mangave 'Mission to Mars', they were all new to me.

Opening boxes is a truly exciting thing. Maybe I should up my game and start producing unboxing videos like so many people on YouTube, but for now this is the best I can do:

Box 1

Friday, February 1, 2019

Photo of the Day: shoutout to the humble jade plant

Photo of the Day for Friday, February 1, 2019:

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

The jade plant (Crassula ovata) is so common here that it gets very little respect. It's even worse in the Bay Area where it grows so effortlessly that some consider it a weed.

I must admit that I'm not always good to our jade plant either. It's not an automatic drip, so in the summer it gets water whenever I think of it—which maybe as infrequently as once every six weeks.

And yet, it takes no offense and it holds no grudges. Instead, it flowers for weeks on end, bringing a smile to my face whenever I walk by.

Humble jade plant, I see you, and I will be more kind to you.