a visit to recon native plants

Weekend before last my native plant society organized a little propagation workshop that was hosted by Recon Native Plants. One of the sessions focused on growing plants from seed, another on propagating from cuttings. I’ve done a bit of both, though my success with seeds definitely outshines any luck with growing anything from cuttings. My main take-away for the cuttings session was to try to take the cuttings early in the morning, when the plants are least dried out. I’ll be giving that a try and sharing whatever successes or failures that that leads to.

My favorite part of the morning was a chance to tour the nursery and see a large wholesale operation dedicated to propagating California and Southwestern natives. Recon Mountain of PotsIn my little backyard-garden world I’m used to seeing a few plants in pots sitting around, waiting to be planted. To visit such a big facility is to see the world in a different way. Here’s an artfully arranged mountain of gallon pots filled with soil mix being planted with little artemesias. I’ll never complain again about having to pot up a half dozen transplants. Continue reading

out with the old

Feathergrass in the ground

This will be the year that I finally win the battle against Mexican feathergrass, the blogger said optimistically. I doubt that I’ll be seeing the end of this beautiful but wildly overprolific grass any time soon, but I’ve completed pulling all the parent plants in the garden. With the source of seeds removed, the hundreds of unwanted seedlings that I have to pull up every year should diminish.

Feathergrass seedlings under sage

So how bad was the feathergrass problem? Here’s a shot underneath a black sage in the back yard, no closer than seventy-five feet from the nearest adult feathergrass plant capable of setting seed. The seed just blew downwind and set up household in the sheltered germinating conditions in the shade of the sage. Other areas of the garden will look like this when the rains begin again and all the banked seed begins to germinate. I hate to think that these might get to the local urban canyon, four houses away.

My relationship with Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima) started off in the early 1990s. Like most people who’ve planted it, I saw it at the nursery with its stalks weaving delicately in its beguiling come-hither way and fell in love. I bought two.

At first things between us went well. The grasses spread a bit, but the thought of free plants were a real bonus. I even gave plants away.

Though prolific, the plant isn’t currently listed as an invasive species on the master Cal-IPA inventory, but appears on a 2007 list of nominated species. It’s clear from some of the comments on a Fresh Dirt posting that it’s a growing problem in some areas, my neighborhood included.

Feathergrass in the trash

Yes, the stuff is gorgeous. But too high maintenance and potentially problematic in my area. It’s time for us to part ways.

So how will I get my fix for delicate, feathery grasses? This year has been my first time growing the native Aristida purpurea, purple three-awn, a species that’s found locally. The plant is shorter than the common feathergrass, which might be a bonus, depending on your garden situation. And unlike the nassella it has a decidedly purple color to it while it’s growing–very nice. I’ll post photos once my plants get a little bigger. I have no idea if it’ll be the same issue of the plant volunteering all over the garden, though I doubt it. Even if it escapes to the wilds, it’ll be in the company of others of its species. Not a problem.

pining for the fjords

Pining deerweed 2

Pining deerweed

Dead plants? Or are these just resting, pining for the fjords?

I suffer from that mix of laziness, lack of time and unrealistic expectations that will let me leave a dead plant in the ground longer than it probably should stay in a home garden that is trying to look presentable to the neighbors. Sometimes I’ll even water a dead plant, knowing I’m wasting my water, but secretly hoping that there might just be the least chance the plant isn’t really gone.

A few new plants in the garden don’t survive the initial transplant. I still find myself underestimating the water needs of a new plant. Aloe rootsJust because it’s “drought-tolerant” doesn’t mean it will take to its new dry home in the garden without enough water to get a proper root system established outside the confines of the little nursery containers. The plants above, two of the five deerweeds I planted this year, probably didn’t make it for that reason. It probably didn’t help that the smaller of the two plants was set into a bed where nearby plants had established a root system already and would likely steal away any water I gave the new plant. This picture shows some of the competing roots.

Pining mimulus

Dead Salvia cacaliaefolia

Other plants just seem to…die. Here’s an ex-monkey flower to the left. Maybe it was lack of water in its second year. Maybe it didn’t like its spot. And the plant to the right is my Guatamalan blue, the ivy-leaved sage, Salvia cacaliaefolia. No mystery with this one. It was getting way too big, and I pruned it ridiculously hard in late July or August. Killed it. There was a bit of green left as recently as a month ago, and this plant being a sage probably would have rooted if I’d stuck one of the green bits in some cutting mix. But I dozed. Dead plant.

Isomeris arborea back from the dead

But every now and then something like this happens. I’d planted this bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) in the late winter and kept it watered. It seemed to be hanging on okay but wasn’t a fast grower. Then a colony of some insects I’d never seen before descended overnight and seemed to be reproducing a new generation. In the process they stripped most of its leaves. The plant quickly dropped what few leaves were left and I wrote it off as dead. In a weird way I thought of its demise as a success story: The native plant provided food and shelter for one of the less usual visitors to the garden. Only in the course of things I thought the plant had perished. Bummer.

But here it is three months later, leafed out, waiting for the rains to come. With success stories like this I’m reluctant to give up on the plants in the other photos, but I think their time has come.

november garden bloggers bloom day

Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’ would be in every month’s bloom day posting because it never has stopped blooming for me since it went into the ground two years ago. The plants are getting huge and taking more than their share of the garden, and I’ll have to admit that they’re on my list of flowers that I’m almost tired of seeing. But because of these plants, the hummingbirds are a constant presence in the back yard. I’d hate to do anything rash like remove their favorite year-round source of nectar.

A while back I had to find out what it was about these plants that was so appealing. I took one of the flowers and popped it into my mouth. A tiny hit of flavor, faint but sweet, registered on my tongue. Pretty tasty if you’re a bird addicted to nectar. But I wondered if I was pimping my neighborhood birds with sugar water in the way a busy suburban parent might keep their kids supplied with gallons of soda.

Some other plants that are in the “I’m almost sick and tire of seeing them all the time” category: Salvia nemerosa ‘Snow Hills,’ Gaillardia pulchella, and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ They’re all in the gallery of flowers below.

The season also brings some new blooms to the fall garden: Oxalis bowiei, Protea Pink Ice, Camellia sasanqua ‘Cleopatra,’ lemongrass, and the plant formerly known as Lessingia filanginifolia var. californica (now relabeled as Corethrogyne filaginifolia var. californica). And then there are the sporadic bloomers. You can’t set your calendar by them, but they’re nice to have around. Hover over any image below for their name.

Happy Bloom Day, and thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting this monthly online garden party.

defensive boots

It’s a dangerous time out there for California garden bloggers. One of them just had a run-in of a thumb and a chipper-shredder, though fortunately with an outcome way short of what you’d see towards the end of Fargo. Fargo Snowglobe(If you don’t know Fargo, here’s the snowglobe that came with the deluxe collector’s letterboxed edition VHS tape which mirrors the tone of the film perfectly. It memorializes the infamous chipper-shredder scene where Trooper Marge Gunderson comes upon the criminal trying to dispose of his latest victim. When shaken, the snow in the globe is tainted with little red flakes. Magical…)

Another blogger broke her arm, taking her away from posting for a while.

Not to be left out, a little over a month ago, while working on my house repair project, I ended up stepping into a pile of scrap wood that happened to have a big spikey nail that was pointing straight up out of one of the boards. My work shoes–some battered old Skecher tennies that were hip in the late 1990s–were no match for the nail and…you know the rest. I’m perfectly fine now, but two days of painkillers and the week of crutches were no fun.

New boots 2

I really should have better shoes for working outside, I thought after the little accident. And this weekend I finally got around to replacing my unsafe and ugly tennies.

So here they are: some industrial Timberland workboots with steel toes and puncture-resistant soles. They weigh as much as a small sack of potatoes but are surprisingly comfortable.

So was this overkill for working outside and around the garden? They should be great for forcing a shovel into the patches of the garden where the earth is seriously hardpan clay. But they’re definitely nothing to wear when trying to weave gingerly through a bed of new seedlings. I haven’t had a chance to plant anything over the last couple of days, and I haven’t had a need to finesse my way around tiny little plants. But I think I’ll like them and that I’ll actually wear them gardening.

Scooter in shoebox

Whatever the verdict, one member of the household is already happy. Here’s Scooter, who doesn’t give a hoot about my new boots. But every new pair of shoes that enters the house means that there’ll be a shoebox accompanying them. The cat approves.

looking like spring again

November plum blossoms

I was confused the other day. Walking by the young plum tree, I noticed this. Flowers? In November? Apparently the plum was confused too.

After the long summer doldrums a lot in the garden is finally showing signs of waking up from its long nap. Some plants are showing new growth, others are blooming–even blooming when you don’t expect them to.

November narcissus

These paperwhite narcissus are a reliable indicator of the cooling days and nights ahead.

November Protea Pink Ice

Protea ‘Pink Ice’ coexists with the most xeric plants in the garden and stays a resilient green all year. Beginning in the fall this big shrub begins its flowers. This will go on all winter and into the spring.

November Salvia clevelandii

Salvia clevelandii‘s main flowering happens in the spring. But given the right conditions–a little supplemental water doesn’t seem to hurt–it can throw a few more flowers in the fall.

November Salvia spathacea

Ditto for Salvia spathacea. Sometimes a lot is made of the repeat-flowering abilities of some of the natives. With these two, the spring flowerings are always way more stunning, and you’ll never confuse spring for fall. But as reminders of the late winter and spring flowers ahead, they’re terrific.

November ceanothus

Another seasonally confused plant is this groundcover ceanothus. I’m only slowly now coming around to this genus. Groundcover versions like you see in the Burger King parking lot (think C. griseus ‘Yankee Point’) were all I saw for decades, but I’ve been trying to pay more attention to what other ceanothus have to offer. This one, unfortunately, is one of the Burger King-type varieties: low, flat, green all year on a low-to-moderate amount of water. It’s so inert and emphatically green it reminds me of plastic. I may never come to love this type, but fortunately there are other plants in the genus that do very different things.

November dendromecon

My campus is incorporating more natives into the landscaping, and all these photos of natives, from the salvias, down, come from an afternoon walk yesterday afternoon. Here a young plant of one of the dendromecons (either D. rigida or D. harfordii) provides an airy cloud of yellow.

November Heuchera

…and nearby one of the heucheras celebrates its spot in half-sun with occasional irrigation.

A few flowers, for sure. But it’s not really spring. We’ll need the rains to begin for that to happen.

“satisfactory germination”

ceanothus-leucodermis-flowers

Last spring’s trip to the Santa Ysabel Preserve introduced me to chaparral whitethorn in full bloom. This plant, Ceanothus leucodermis, has a reputation for being a touchy garden subject. But seeing its pale blue flowers set off against a plant with glowing white bark made me want to see if I might be able to grow it where I live, two thousand feet lower in elevation and much nearer the coast.

I was intrigued when the Theodore Payne seed listing offered it. One seed packet might give me several plants to try for not too much expense. Maybe one of the plants would end up in the spot in the garden that would make it happy.

Dara Emery book cover

The first challenge you face when a packet of seeds arrive is to get them to germinate. I was afraid that a plant that’s hard to grow might also be difficult to germinate, so I went to Dara Emory’s handy resource, Seed Propagation of California Native Plants for assistance. There she recommends two special treatments for the seed: boiling water treatment, followed by 1-3 months of stratification. But there was a sentence that made the process sound easier than that: “Hot water only may give satisfactory germination.”

The tinkerer in me took that as an opportunity to conduct another little garden experiment. I divided the seeds into three lots. Most went right back into the packet they came it–It was way too many seeds for me to contemplate dealing with, even if the germination rate was spotty.

I poured a small quantity of rapidly boiling water on the other two seed batches. Dousing with boiling water ordinarily would kill many living things. The first time you do it with seeds, it’s an act that you carry out trusting those who went before you, even as the act itself seems counterintuitive and reckless.

The ceanothus seeds made strange crackling noises when the hot water hit. They have incredibly hard seed coverings, so the crackling was the sound of the seed coats being breached. I let the water cool, and then placed most of the experimental subjects in moist peat moss, and wrapped them up in a ziploc bag for some hibernation in the veggie crisper drawer of the fridge. I saved out nine seeds which escaped the refrigerator treatment. Those went straight into seedling mix in pots that I kept watered on the floor of my unheated greenhouse, which is pretty close to being placed in a a bright spot outdoors.

That was August 1, and within 3 weeks I was beginning to see sprouting seeds. Considering that I could probably make space for three or so plants, this definitely constituted “satisfactory germination.”

I guess I was so happy with the seeds that didn’t receive cold treatment that I forgot about the seeds in the fridge. When I finally checked on them a month ago practically every seed had sprouted and was showing long green seed leaves reaching for a sun that didn’t exist in the refrigerator.

Ceanothus leucodermis seedlings

Now with all these seedlings I’m feeling like I’m running a botanical puppy mill. What will I do with all these plants? Of course, I doubt all of them will survive. (What culture was it where children were only named after they had reached their first birthday?) But there will be a few more plants than I’ll need.

Well, I suppose I could donate the spares to next year’s native plant society’s sale–but that’s not until October of 2010. And I could see if any of the members might be interested in swapping for some of their own spare plants hat I’d be interested in…

halloween hostess bouquet

What do you take to the Halloween party when you know the hosts will have everything taken care of?

Hostess present of sarracenia pitchers

Here’s my solution for tonight: a bouquet of carnivorous plant pitchers from the backyard bog garden. Shown here are two Sarrecenia leucophyllas, S. alata, and the hybrid S. Judith Hindle.

It was either those or a bloom of the stinking corpse flower, which unfortunately is between flowers. Besides, it’s probably better etiquette, even on Halloween, to show up with a bouquet of pretty but slightly creepy pitchers than a mammoth blossom that smells like carrion…

fun with hybrids

There are over a quarter million plant species known to biology. Of those more than 5,000 can be found in California, and 1,500 in San Diego County alone. With so many amazing plant species out there I still find myself being interesting in hybrids between the pure species.

My last post was on Sarracenia, the North American pitcher plants. The genus appears to be fairly new to the world in evolutionary terms, and all the species in the genus will hybridize easily with any of the others. And all these hybrids will continue to interbreed with the parent species or other hybrids. When you find a bog with two or more species in it, chances are good that you’ll find intermediate plants with traits of all the species present in that location.

This drives biologists crazy. Finding a plant that’s a pure species can be a major headache when the plants are out there, frolicking in the mud. But evolutionary biology acknowledges that hybrids can introduce new genes into a plant’s gene pool so that they might be better equipped to withstand some stressors that a pure species might not.

Sarracenia Judith Hindle

In addition to possible evolutionary advantages, a hybrid plant found in nature can be a really cool-looking mongrel. And human-created hybrids that have been selected for specific traits over generations can begin to take a species or genus in directions nature would never have imagined.

Here on the left is the Sarracenia hybrid Judith Hindle. I first encountered mass tissue-cultured numbers of it in the flower aisle at Trader Joe’s a couple years ago. It’s a pretty great-looking plant by itself, but imagine a whole store display of it. This human created selection derives from three species, and its pedigree can be notated: ((Sarracenia purpurea x S. flava) x S. leucophylla) x ((S. purpurea x S. flava) x S. leucophylla).

Sarracenia purpurea var burkii syn rosea

Doing the math, you an see that it’s one-fourth S. purpurea, this species. (My photo here isn’t the exact parent, just one general example of what this variable species can look like. Several taxonomists have decided that this plant I’ve shown you, S. purpurea var. burkii, is actually a new species, S. rosea, but it looks quite similar and you can get the general idea…)

Sarracenia flava coppertop

Another quarter of the ancestry comes from S. flava. (You might recognize this same photo from my last post. Once again this is just a rough estimation of what the parent looked like. It’s actual great-grandparents were S. flava var. rugelli, a plant with pure green pitchers with a red patch in the throat.)

sarracenia-leucophylla-tarnok

And the final two quarters of its ancestry comes from the gorgeous S. leucophylla, the white-topped pitcher plant. I find myself comparing the hybrid with the parents, trying to see the characteristics that came through in the final hybrid. Clearly S. leucophylla has the most influence in this cross.

Sarracenia Dixie Lace

Here’s another common sarracenia, S. Dixie Lace. Larry Mellichamp, its breeder, isn’t 100% certain of its parentage, but he estimates it to be: (S. leucophylla x S. rubra) x (S. psittacina x S. purpurea). It shares two parents with Judith Hindle above, but introduces two new species into the mix.

Sarracenia rubra gulfensis ancestral form

The presence of this ancestor, S. rubra, is subtle, and is probably most manifested in the somewhat upright-growing pitchers and the robust growth habit. (Once again, the plant I’ve shown is only a close approximation of the S. rubra var. wherryi that was used for the actual cross. And yet again, this latter species has been classified as a separate species by some taxonomists.)

Sarracenia psittacina giant form

The final ancestor is S. psittacina, a plant that’s practically impossible to hide the presence of in any hybrid. The leaning growth habit and patterning of the pitchers takes several generations to fade into the background.

Salvia sagittata leaves

Hybrids can happen anywhere. In the irrigated part of my garden I have a few sage species from Europe and the Americas. These are the leaves of Salvia sagittata, the arrow-leaved sage, a plant from Ecuador.

Hybrid Salvia Seedling

Next to it I noticed a young plant which at first I thought was a seedling of the of its neighbor. It has the same light green coloration and coarse leaf texture as does S. sagittata. When I started looking closer at the leaves, however, something seemed a little off. Instead of the distinct arrow shape, the leaves are closer to oval. Seedlings sometimes take a while to develop their mature characteristics, but I started thinking that it might be a hybrid of S. sagittata with one of the other sages nearby.

Salvia nemerosa Snow Hills leaves

Three feet away is S. nemorosa. It also has coarse-textured leaves, but they’re smaller, darker green and rounder (probably “linear” to “oblong” with a “cordate” leaf base, according to the leaf morphology charts).

Salvia Hot Lips leaves

And about six feet away are several plants of the popular ‘Hot Lips’ cultivar of S. microphylla, a species from Texas into Mexico. Its leaves are smooth, much smaller, darker green and also more rounded. (I guess I’d call it an “ovate” leaf form with an “obtuse” leaf tip.)

Who do you think might be the father? I’m leaning towards S. nemorosa.

The seedling sage found a clearing in the middle of a little walkway to germinate. I’ll let the seedling bloom to see if it’s interesting–or if it’s even a hybrid at all. Seeing the flowers should help me better guess what its parents might be. If it’s worth keeping I’ll transplant it out of harm’s way. If it’s not, I’ll treat it as any other unwanted garden colonizer. Whatever the case, it’ll be an interesting little experiment.

Topic for a future post: What’s bad about hybrids?

sarracenia: an appreciation

So many interesting plants, so little time and space to grow them. My current plant obsession is the American pitcher plant genus, Sarracenia. I’m not alone in my obsession. Brooks Garcia even has a firm dedicated to the genus which bears the name Sarracenia Obsessed. It’s hard to explain what causes a personal obsession but let me try.

The plants of this genus of eight to eleven species all have evolved modified leaves that form tubes that attract and capture prey. A fly or an ant and goes for the nectar that the plant offers at the tip of the pitcher, and every few of the unfortunates slips on the slippery surface and is directed down farther into the tube by downward-pointing hairs on the inside of the leaf. Many of the species have a tube filled with digestive enzymes that await any creature that makes it to the bottom of the tube. The insect eventually drowns, and is digested by the plant. Dinner.

Evolutionary biology has devised a number of unpleasant ways its creatures can meet their ends. Being lured into a nectar-bated trap, then directed by needle-sharp hairs towards a nasty fluid that will start to eat you while you’re still a little bit alive sounds like one of the more gruesome exits to make. (I’ll never complain about another grueling dinner party again…)

There are people who grow these plants where all this carnivorous unpleasantness is the main attraction. A lot of these enthusiasts are men. Are carnivorous plants a guy-thing? All this eat-or-be-eaten machismo, Rambo nonsense, I wonder? But I guess I’m a little defective as a guy—I love to cook and I watch Project Runway for godsakes—and what really attracts me to these is how seriously gorgeous and interesting these plants are.

Take the case of the yellow pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava. This species features an extended upright tube (back to that guy thing again, sorry) that’s capped by an attractive lid that hovers over the opening. These plants live in bogs in lands of many rains, so the lid helps keep rainwater from diluting the nasty fluid inside the tube. The basic structure carries from one form of the species to the other, but subtle variations in shape and extreme ones in coloration could keep a collector occupied for decades.

In my little collection I have several of the colored variations that have been described. The pitchers look best in the spring and are a little ragged this time of year. But you can get a basic idea of some of the differences between plants of this species.

Sarracenia flava variety maxima

Sarracenia flava var. maxima sits at one end of the spectrum, color-wise. The leaves are all a clean greenish yellow color—leaf color—with the only pigment being little patches of reddish coloration at the growing point of the rhizome.

Sarracenia flava wide mouthed variety

S. flava var. flava takes the basic pitcher background color of var. maxima and adds some striping to the leaves. This is a version of this variety with an extra-wide maw.

Sarracenia flava coppertop

S. flava var. cuprea is also called the “copper top” variety. The back of the lid can have a light bronze to dark chocolate coloration. Sometimes the color stays for the life of the pitcher, sometimes it fades to green. In prolonged full-sun conditions this plant can have a wonderful dark chocolate top, plus some of the heavy veining you’d find in some of the more heavily colored varieties.

Beyond these, there’s a var. rugelli, which has all-green coloration accented with a maroon bloth in the throat, var. rubricorpa, the “red tube” which has a red body topped with a veined hood, and var. atropurpurea, which has such a heavy suffusion of red that the entire tube looks that color.

And that’s only one species. There are seven to ten others, depending on the taxonomist you’re talking to, with each of the others presenting their own interesting variations on the bug-eating pitcher theme. And all of these species can interbreed, leading to huge numbers of hybrids. Check out all the Sarracenia photos of species and hybrids at The Carnivorous Plant Photo Finder. You may end up spending hours at this one site alone and never find a way out of this obsession.

an artist loosed in a garden