A couple weekends ago Agave deserti was looking well-watered from the winter rains. This swirling mass of plants appeared to have nominated one of the cluster to go forth and flower.
Flowering is a big deal for these plants. The stalk will rise up something like ten feet from the plants central growth point. When they start out the stalks take on this gorgeous pink and green coloration, which contrasts against the nearly white rosettes of the main plants.
I couldn’t help myself from getting a little abstract and arty with this extreme cropping of this closeup. It’s really such a neat phenomenon that you can appreciate all sorts of ways.
Once it blooms the main growth point dies. Critters relish the seed, so these don’t always get a chance to reproduce that way. Fortunately they have the fallback of throwing one or more pups from the base of the plant. Once a plant has bloomed and pupped a few times you can get a striking grouping of genetically identical plants called a genet. The first photo of this post is a nice example.
The plants were all over the slopes of Plum Canyon at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But occasionally you’d see the agaves setting up household in unlikely places, like this rock cleft. It makes for a nice photo though I’m not so sure about what it bodes for a lifetime anchored in this one spot. The plants didn’t appear any too concerned, however.
I leave you with a closeup of a single plant of a larger genet. Wikipedia says that a single individual out of a genet is called a ramet. I learn something new every day.
Although many agaves grow in perfect, implacable rosettes, so that you can almost see a mathematical purity in their patterns, the desert agave seems to celebrate a looser, wilder approach to life. You can almost envision a vortex of desert wind blowing just looking at these leaves.
All in all a gorgeous species!
I’ll have more desert plant photos as I work through the files on my camera…
Fill in the blank:
California coffeeberries are __________
versatile in the landscape
important members of the ecosystem
boring as dirt
Coffeeberries, Frangula californica (aka Rhamnus californica) are common plants in California native plant gardens. The plants stay green and leafy all year and provide a welcome evergreen background for other species that go through more extravagant bloom-and-bust cycles. They’re tough plants, and you can find clones that tolerate higher water parts of the garden as well as areas that subsist on natural rainfall.
The species produces berries that progress from red to purple to black over the course of the summer. Any plant that produces berries is likely to be an important food source for wildlife. Earlier in the season, in flower, it keeps pollinators happy.
But until recently, I’d viewed them as fairly uninteresting plants, and I’d have answered “3” to the fill-in-the-blank above. I had none in the garden.
That changed a couple years ago with the introduction to the garden of several plants of two different clones. In the wilds the typical form can get pretty large–fifteen feet tall in the shade, and more, and even wider. But garden selections let you have smaller coffeeberries that won’t need constant pruning to keep them at a reasonable size.
I picked a couple plants of the classic ‘Eve Case’ cultivar, which has reported garden sizes of four to ten feet, depending on water and sun exposure. It’s a fairly informal plant, with fairly coarse leaves spaced fairly far apart on its stems. “Woodsy” would be an apt description for it.
I also tried the cultivar ‘Tranquil Margarita,” which is offered by Las Pilitas Nursery. The nursery’s website gushes about this one: “It is the most beautiful coffeeberry I’ve ever seen. (At first I didn’t realize it was a coffeeberry!) Leaves are clean, shiny and rich looking. The whole plant looks like it belongs next to an English Tudor in London.”
Hyperbole? I think not. In describing plants for a California garden, saying a plant could look great in a Tudor garden could almost be seen as an insult. But I really really like this plant. So far it’s been a good, clean grower, nice and upright. For me it’s been faster than ‘Eve Case,’ but a gopher attack on the roots my Eve’s doesn’t render this a scientifically meticulous comparison.
There are at a few other cultivars that are out in the marketplace. Most common is ‘Mound San Bruno’–or ‘Mount San Bruno’–which grows fairly low and wide, with a pretty dense habit and typical fairly coarse leaves. ‘Seaview,’ a parent of ‘Eve Case,’ is an older variety that is reported to be a good, taller groundcover. (I haven’t observed any of this cultivar. There’s also a version of it called ‘Seaview Improved.’) ‘Leatherleaf’ has thicker, darker leaves than the typical form. ‘Little Sur’ gets mentioned occasionally, but I don’t see it listed on lists I’ve consulted. It’s probably one of the smallest versions.
There are probably other varieties and cultivars out there. If you have space you can always grow the unadulterated, unselected form of the species and earn bonus points for supporting genetic diversity.
So there you have it, the humble coffeeberry. I don’t think anyone would call it the sexiest thing with leaves, but as I get older I’m more and more attracted to plants that are sturdy and subtle over flashy and disposable horticultural one night stands. Treat the plant with respect and it’ll be there for you for many mornings to come.
It’s time for my annual tribute to the winter sycamore trees. The week of rain leading up to Christmas has left most of the trees bare, their leaves on the ground.
So, when life mainly gives you fallen leaves, that’s mainly what I’ve taken photos of this year. I won’t call this great art but I do like the square shot of the bare branches…maybe a little Jackson Pollack or Harry Callahan…
The question I’ve been asking myself a lot this season: Is it just my imagination, or do the leaves more often than not land butter-side-down, with their top sides usually against the dirt? Maybe the way they’re weighted? Or are they unstable if they land on their stems so that the wind blows them over?
Before the holidays got in full swing I got some pitcher plant seed and seedlings from Rob of The Pitcher Plant Project. Rob is super-enthusiastic about the genus Sarracenia and his blog bounces along with his energy. Check it out!
Rob’s a couple years ahead of me in making his own custom hybrids and has some really cool plants coming along. Here are some shots of the seedlings he sent me.
These first all come from the cross of Sarracenia Bug Bat x Diane Whittaker. This cross combines the seriously snakey-looking hood of S. minor with the frilly hood and wild patterning ofS. leucophylla. The plants are young, but you can begin to see what promise they have. You can also see some of the variation that’s possible in a complex hybrid.
Two views of a seedling from the complex cross of Sarracenia ((purpurea ssp. pupurea x jonesii) x (leucophylla x rubra ssp. gulfensis)). All four parents of this hybrid share a rare recessive genetic mutation that prevents the leaves from producing red pigments, leaving this hybrid green green green from chlorophyll. One of Rob’s special interests is in these so-called “anthocyanin-free” (“AF”) plants, and I think they’re pretty amazing too. It really focuses your attention on the architecture of the pitchers.
And the plants kept going… Here are some first-year seedlings of the cross of Sarracenia Godzuki x ((flava x oreophila) x flava var. rugelli)…
And finally a big pile of seed from some really interesting crosses:
S. oreophila “Veined” x Adrian Slack
S. (oreophila x Royal Ruby) x Adrian Slack
S. leucophylla x Adrian Slack
S. (leucophylla x oreophila) x Brooks Hybrid
S. (leucophylla x oreophila) x (Ladies in Waiting x Judith Hindle)
S. Bug Scoop x Brooks Hybrid
S. alata, Texas x flava var. maxima
They’re now in individual bags of damp sphagnum moss in the lower veggie crisper of the fridge. A couple more weeks of the cold treatment and then they’ll be ready to pot up.
If I manage to keep all the plants and even half of the new seedlings I germinate alive I’ll be up to my ankles in hungry young carnivores. To some people this might sound like a 1950s B horror movie, but as far as I’m concerned life doesn’t get much better than that!
This must be the year for my prima donna plants to finally decide to bloom. First it was the first bloom for me of the Agave attenuata over the winter. Now it’s this echium’s turn.
This is Echium wildpretii, which has gone from five feet tall two weeks ago to over seven and a half feet.
It’s also known by various common names, including tower of jewels, red bugloss, and–in Spanish–tajinaste. “Tajinaste”: what a gorgeous sounding name, way more musical than bugloss or “tower of jewels,” which sounds a little square to me, like a plant name from a 1927 seed catalog. Tajinaste is endemic to one Atlantic island, Tenirife, off the northern African coast.
This echium species is described as a biennial. Many plants described that way will put up leaves the first year and then bloom the second year from seed, after which the plants produce huge amounts of seed and then die.
Although it’s been known to flower in the second year, this plant’s usual interpretation of the term takes “biennual” literally as “two years,” keeping you waiting that long from sowing to flowering. And there’s one plant in the front yard that looks like it’s going to be taking an additional year. Biennial? I think not.
Still, worth the wait, don’t you think?
The plant grows in spirals. Here you can see the spiraling new flowers.
During the two years you wait for it to bloom, you get to look at an attractive mound of lance-shaped coarse gray leaves, usually eighteen inches to twice that across during its second growing season. When nature withholds flowers you can always look at and photograph leaves. So here’s some of my little crop of Echium wildpretii plant photos.
As you can see it’s an attractive plant even when out of bloom. It has low water requirements and looks clean until its final, spectacular exit. After a few months it turns from a big dramatic plant into a big dramatic dead plant with tendencies to topple even before its deep tap root decays.
Its reputation is that it’ll send seeds everywhere at that point, so this might not be the best plant if you live near the edge of a dry natural area. A related echium, pride of Madeira, (E. candicans) has established itself as a pest in some coastal areas of Southern California. I’ll get to see how bad it really is after these plants finally give out later this summer. I’ll worry about that later, but for now I’ll sit back and enjoy the plant.
I now have a new appreciation for the work of field botanists.
A couple weekends ago I had a chance to work on a rare plant survey on the slopes of Viejas Mountain in eastern San Diego County. I enjoy seeing plants out in their wild habitat and the description of the task sounded downright idyllic: You go out to trailless edges of the county, enjoy the scenery, and all the while look for rare plants.
The plant of special interest for this trip was San Diego thornmint, Acanthomintha ilicifolia, a plant found only in a smattering of places in California and bits of northern Baja. And the plant is even more selective than that. It only grows on clay lenses–gently or moderately sloped areas of clay soil that has washed down from nearby areas. The surrounding chaparral plants for the most part don’t care for these soil conditions, so they create openings for this rare annual to colonize.
The project was to get a population count of thornmint from areas where they’d been sighted more than a decade earlier. Comparing today’s numbers against the earlier censuses would give you an idea of how well the plant is doing in the wilds.
Our assignment was population 51, a cluster of adjacent stands on the western edge of Cleveland National Forest, just outside the city of Alpine. (Looking back on the suburban sprawl I thought it looked a little like the photos of Area 51 taken from Freedom Ridge.)
Most of the spread had burned in one of the recent major wildfires to go through the county and was in the state of growing back—pretty successfully, since travel got to be tough some of the day. Whenever the chaparral parted and the soil conditions looked right, you scoured the ground for thornmints, which at this point in their lifecycle were mostly 1-4 inches tall, with most of them not yet in bloom.
One of the three sub-populations we looked at was completely gone. Nada. Zero plants. Maybe the fire wiped them out. Maybe we weren’t observant enough, though we fine-tooth combed the hillside.
But the other two populations gave us an exercise in counting plants. Lots and lots of plants. Tiny, tiny little plants.
By the middle of the afternoon we had a count, 21,015 plants. It was six hours of open slopes with no shade spent in deep concentration looking for the little plants, counting all the while.
I’ll confess: We did a little estimating when the populations got really large, and so we didn’t actually physically count all 21,015 plants. But 21,015 seemed like a solid estimate.
While it’s good to know that there are more than a handful of plants left in the wild, it’s also a little unnerving to see that they have such a limited distribution, and more disturbing that one of the three populations from earlier seemed to have vanished.
Locally common, but in the grand scheme of things, awfully rare, especially with human encroachment from Area 51 next door.
San Diego thornmint probably won’t turn into one of the great garden plants for California native gardens. But along the way we saw plenty of species closely related to those used in home native landscapes: laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), ceanothus (tomentosus and foliosus), stinging lupine (Lupinus hirsutisimmus), manzanita (one of the Arctostaphylos glandulosa subspecies)…
…and one of my favorite flowering natives: blue-eyed grass, growing and blooming among the tiny little thornmints.
Usually my camera is the first thing I pack for one of these outings, but somehow I forgot it at home this time. My thanks to team-leader Janet for the use of her images from the trip!
Ceanothus season is here in force. One of the local stars is a species with the unfortunate common name of “warty-stem ceanothus.” Neither is its Latin name of Ceanothus verrucosus especially glamorous. But hopefully you can see how cool a plant it is in these photos.
If my weekday desk had a window I’d look out on a the head of a little canyon that’s a mixture of introduced eucalyptus and a partially restored snippet of coastal sage scrub habitat. A couple hundred yards away in the re-wilded area are several of these ceanothus that have been glowing white for the last month with their clouds of flowers.
Last November these ceanothus were stemmy but gracefully-branched shrubs. Adapted to survival for many months without water its leaves are tiny and sparse. Still you could easily walk past them.
If you stopped to look at the plant, you’d easily see these interesting “warts” that give the plant its name. The warts are actually leaf-bases (stipules) that remain on the branches long after the leaves are gone.
By January the formerly sparse looking plants were responding to the rains with swelling flower buds.
And a month later the plants were going at it big time…
California could be the evolutionary epicenter of the genus ceanothus. Of the approximately 52 ceanothus species in the US, 46 are found here. Of those 46 about 38 occur only here.
That’s a lot of competition for precious space and water in a nursery, but several native California specialists in southern California offer this plant. You can see that this could be a choice addition to a dry garden where you want an airy, graceful shrub that’s 7-8 feet tall and about 10 feet across. As I struggle with ceanothus from outside my immediate area, I keep thinking I should use more selections that are better suited to what I have to offer them.
I love this plant, warts and all. But people in the end seem to buy the name and the image as much as they buy the plant. Just rebrand the plant with a friendlier (but more trite) horticultural name like “Cloud Blossom Lilac” and just stand back as everyone snaps it up.
The origin of Ceanothus ‘Tuxedo’ reads a bit like a horticultural soap opera: A California native species, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, crosses the Atlantic for Europe, where it meets up with another ceanothus, this one from the East Coast of the US, Ceanothus americanus, or New Jersey tea. Loose on foreign soil the two get romantically involved, with Ceanothus ‘Autumnal Blue’ being one of the children. One of the plants of Autumnal Blue moves to Ireland, where its tolerance for moister garden conditions and good cold tolerance makes it quite popular.
(Edit, March 4, 2010: A quick trawl through David Fross and Dieter Wilken’s terrific resource, Ceanothus, reminded me that the story is even more twisted than this. The parents of ‘Autumnal Blue’ include the two species mentioned above, but also the Mexican and Guatemalan species, C. caeruleus. The plot thickens…)
There, in Ireland, growing on the grounds of Fitzgerald Nurseries, one of the branches suddenly throws a mutation, where the normally green leaves are instead a dramatic dark color, something between dark chocolate, inky black and maybe just a little grape thrown in. Pat FitzGerald notices the strikingly different branch, and begins a propagation program in earnest. His nursery lists several other near-black plants, including the dramatic Phormium cookianum ‘Black Adder.’ Eventually the plant crosses back to the other side of the Atlantic, for California, where it was released in limited distribution last year.
That’s when I met this totally unique looking ceanothus and decided I wanted it for my garden. I brought a little gallon plant and located it where I wanted a dramatic six-foot shrub, expecting that it would be a quick-growing screen plant. Almost a year later, though, the little plant remains a little plant, and hasn’t really grown. Even though I watered it all last year as you would most new plants in the garden, my guess is that I failed to give it enough water through the 146 consecutive days without measurable precipitation that San Diego experienced, the third-driest rainless time in our record books.
To the plant’s credit, it didn’t die. And now the rains have saturated the soil, it’s showing some interest in putting out some new growth. But I felt like I needed some guidance in doing a better job growing this plant. Who better to ask than the person who probably has the most experience with this plant? Why not contact Pat FitzGerald, its originator?
Thankfully, Pat was generous with his time in responding to my questions. Here are some excerpts from the advice he sent my way.
Regarding dry conditions yes I would expect slow growth. Have you prunded your plant. I noticed from the picture on your blog it had very long un-pruned branches. Like a lot of shrubs in dry conditions I think thought needs to be put into helping the plants in the first year get depth of root penetration so that during dry spells its taking moisture from a depth. I suspect if you can give moisture to Tuxedo during the first year of establishment to help it along and prune next spring you will see dense growth establish…
I highlight moisture retention as a lot of people harp on about using water and drought but often forget you can condition your soil to retain more of that valuable moisture. There are so many recycled composts to be purchased or that the householder can make now that you can work into the soil to make pockets 3 X 3 feet around newly planted shrubs or even mulch to give them that start in life. The cure to drought and slow growth in dry areas is more often what you do before you plant than after as I am sure you well know but it needs repeating and repeating to the public…
Tuxedo will behave differently depending on soil density so in heavy soil I have seen plants exhibiting a shorter more compact nature to their growth. If planted in shade and especially in a lighter soil Tuxedo will certainly stretch as it seems to much prefer full sun for sake of both colour and flowering. In our more moist climate I think the plant can get to 8 feet as can many many shrubs here in our temperate climate…
I think the one comment I would have is that simply Tuxedo is for me more than a Ceanothus with deep dark foliage. Tuxedo is an evergreen foliage plant and once established in the garden hardy to minus 12 celcius in our experience but possibly minus 15 celcius. This is an achievement for me as I cannot recommend hardly any evergreen with such dark foliage with such winter hardiness.
Tuxedo is also a good plant for training on a trellis or wall in our climate at least. There is no doubt in my mind that Tuxedo will benefit from occasional pruning but no more than once per year.
I just hope in time Tuxedo contributes some way positively to Californian gardens. While only part native its still is a nice feeling as a plant breeder to have a plant go back to its homeland and be accepted into people’s gardens.
After reviewing Pat’s advice I’ve decided to not only give the plant more water and mulch around them for added water retention through the critical first year or two after a plant is freed into the soil. If I use an organic mulch it will break down over time and enrich the soil.
A common thread you read with many California native plants is that they detest rich soil. In fact Greg Rubin of California’s Own Native Landscape Design spoke to the local native plant society of planting large numbers of short-lived colorful plants between the large structural species so that the temporary plants could “burn up” the excess nutrients in the soil, particularly in a situation where the soil was formerly a heavily-fertilized lawn. But ‘Tuxedo,’ with parents from moister parts of California and the East Coast, sounds like it would benefit from being treated differently.
For me, growing Ceanothus ‘Tuxedo’ will be a little more work and water than growing many other ceanothus would be. But I think it should be worth it. In fact, I saw more of them in the nursery again and picked up a second gallon plant. Here you see it planted as a background for the silvery foliage and eventual orange flowers of chalk-leaf dudleya, Dudleya pulverulenta, and California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica ‘Route 66.’
Wish me and the plants luck. Not every plant is perfectly adapted to your growing conditions, but a little effort can help make them thrive. And the reasons that make ‘Tuxedo’ a little trickier in the driest parts of California might make it a good candidate for moister parts of the state, or other parts of the country where ceanothus might be marginal. This year the plant is in wide circulation and should be widely available.
Ceanothus in New York or Little Rock? This might be the one.
I first photographed these two trees over a decade ago, when I was working on a little photo project on local sycamores. I liked the way the two branches seemed to form a continuous arc when viewed from the right angle. Today, one of the trees is ailing and has lost some branches. Still, this little branch detail remains. The vegetation around the trees has changed over the years, as you might expect, and now you’ll have to stand in the middle of a big coyote bush brush to view the effect. At least it wasn’t a cactus.
When I started my photo series a lot of things attracted me to the Western sycamore, Platanus racemosa: their interesting branch structure, their over-scaled and dramatic leaves, their amazing exfoliating bark. And of the handful of native tree species within a few miles of my house, the sycamore may be the most spectacular this time of year. On my last trip to to San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park, I paid closest attention to what these trees were doing at the beginning of winter.
These are deciduous trees, along with the cottonwoods and willows, and they’ll attempt autumn or early winter color. Often the leaves are as much brown as they are yellow.
With a backdrop of gray sagebrush and black sage you’d never mistake this for a New England autumn postcard.
Things were nearing the end of leaf-fall. Most of the leaves lay underfoot.
Some of the leaves that weren’t underfoot were underwater.
With most of the leaves now off the trees, the light-colored bark stands out. Here a tree shows off its silhouette against a dark green evergreen live oak.
Looking closely at the bare trees lets you concentrate on their peeling bark. Who needs inkblots when you can do your own Rorschach test on patterns of sycamore bark? It’s great now, but will get more interesting as the year progresses.
Yellow, brown, gray and green are the main colors this time of year in the canyon bottoms where sycamores concentrate. Here’s a final shot of the last yellow-brown sycamore leaves of the season.
Nearby, cottonwoods contribute to the color scheme…
…as do the arroyo willows.
It won’t be long before the raucously colored flowers start up. But it’s a quietly beautiful time of year before they do.
I grew this fiercely thorny rose, Rosa minutifolia, for over a decade. With wild-rose-pink flowers barely two inches across, its petals were crinkled and delicate, but the blooms were never particularly stunning when compared to the buxom, botoxed blooms of typical garden roses. The leaves were tiny to the point of almost being non-existent, and I’ve already mentioned the incredible number of thorns that made this just about the prickliest thing I’ve ever dealt with. (The only similarly thorny roses I can think of are a few heirloom moss roses like Alfred de Dalmas that I grew in my early teen rose-growing years.) So spiny is it that one of its early collectors proposed an alternate name for it: Rosa horrida. (Check out the fascinating tale of its discovery by Barbara Ertter here.)
In the end, I think I grew it partly because of its weirdly cool thorniness and its interesting story, but also because of its artificial, political rarity. In the United States, this rose is found only as a small island population along the Mexican border on Otay Mesa, here in San Diego County. This extreme rarity has placed it on California’s endangered species list. Skip south into Mexico a few dozen miles, however, and the plant begins to become a fairly common member of the chaparral plant community, forming great mounded thickets three to four feet high and many feet across. The notion that the plant is particularly rare is an artifact of national boundaries. Erase the US-Mexico border, and Rosa minutifolia becomes a mainstay of part of the pan-Californian ecosystem.
I find that to be a weird little mental game: Is the plant rare or not? What odd things do political boundaries do to how we understand the natural world that those boundaries are drawn over? Does that mean that it’s crazy to call this an endangered plant?
To that last question, I’ll answer that we really should consider it a plant to protect. We need to preserve what’s left of the diversity that remains in the world. If the plant goes extinct in California, it’s gone from California. Never mind that it has cousins south of the border.
And these days the purely conceptual notion of a national border is turning into a physical reality, as the ginormous border fence project turns the United States into a freakish zoo exhibit behind bars as this video produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows. (I also did a brief post related to all this recently, on the destruction of Smuggler’s Gulch.) When the only know U.S. population of this plant is further isolated from its southern kin, it becomes all the more desperate to preserve what little we have left.
When we were preparing the back yard for a small room addition we needed to move a few plants out of the way. My Rosa minutifolia was one of them. Used to near-desert conditions, the plant shoots down roots far into the ground, maybe even 20 feet deep. I guess I didn’t get enough of the roots, not to mention the fact that the transplant took place in the high heat of summer. The plant declined and then died over the course of a couple months.
I see the plant here and there. A native plant sale might have a few plants. The Tree of Life Nursery stocks it. Botanical gardens sometimes have a little thicket of it (or a massive thicket of it as is the case at Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden where “five rooted cuttings planted…in 1954 had become ‘one large tangled mass’ nearly 30 feet across by 1982” [ source ]). All these photos are from the Huntington’s Desert Garden, where the rose grows alongside cactus and other things that make its spininess look right at home.
I get nostalgic whenever I see it. My little plant, which was set in awful, dense, dry soil in a much too shady spot, never grew or flowered much. Nipping at the dead branches kept it from forming a Rosa horrida thicket. But I continued to coddle it for whatever reasons any of us coddle interesting, under-performing plants. And one of these days I wouldn’t be surprised if I plant another little thicket of it.