one agave, eight ways (december bloom day)

Agave attenuata spike emerging from plant

Agave attenuata spike middle range

For December 15’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day I’m trying something new. Instead of showing you all the almost ever-blooming things in the garden I’m highlighting a single plant, the foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) that’s finally blooming after a decade and a half in the ground. I posted before on how the monster bloom spike has collided with some some nearby plants. Over the weekend the thousands of buds on the spike began to open.

Agave attenuata spike with flowers emerging from plant

Agave attenuata stalk as seen from below

In homage to artists who take one subject and try to make it interesting in multiple ways, here are some of the first photos of the plant in bloom. I’m not sure which is my favorite photo so far. Maybe the fourth? Maybe the fifth?

Still, it’s hard to begin to do justice to an awesome plant.

Agave attenuata colliding with Aloe beharensis 2

Agave attenuata flowers closeup 2

Agave attenuata flowers and buds

Agave attenuata flowers closeup

Sphaeralcea ambigua

Eriogonum arborescens new flowers closeup

A few other things are blooming, but it’s December and the pickings are slim: a couple of California natives, some late-season blooms on Santa Cruz Island buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) and first-of-the-season blooms on the desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).

Oxalis purpurea before opening

Oxalis purpurea, early in the morning, before it’s fully expanded…

Leonotis leonurus

Leonotis leonorus coming back into bloom…

Senecio cylindricus flowers

Senecia articulata flowers

Senecio mandraliscae in bloom

When so little is in flower, you might pay attention to some of the less significant flowers on plants that are grown primarily for their foliage and structure. These three senecio species would only win “nice personality” in a floral beauty pageant (Senecio cylindricus, S. articulatus, S. mandraliscae).

In fact, the agave I showed earlier is a plant that’s most often used for its terrific architectural structure, in part because it flowers so infrequently. But when that one blooms, there’s no ignoring it.

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Bloom Day!

tomatoes are carnivorous plants?

Tomato carnivore

One of the carnivorous plant lists I’m on has been buzzing a bit lately about an article that appeared in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, “Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory.” (See the abstract: here.) What really got things going was a sensationalized story in the London Telegraph, with the catchy title: “Tomatoes can ‘eat’ insects!” (The exclamation point is mine, but it seemed right for many titles published by the Telegraph.)

The basic premise is that hairs on tomato plants can catch and kill some small insects. The dead insects fall to the ground and nourish the plant. The botanical technique is called “passive carnivory,” in opposition to the active carnivory practiced by plants like sarracenia that have means to both capture and digest prey.

It’s kinduv a stretch, pulling a number of plants into what before was a select club of carnivores. The Telegraph article mentions “petunia, ornamental tobacco plants, some varieties of potatoes and tomatoes, and shepherd’s purse, a relative of cabbages.” The Linnean Society abstract goes on to mention plants “such as Stylidium (Stylidiaceae), some species of Potentilla (Rosaceae), Proboscidea (Martyniaceae) and Geranium (Geraniaceae), that have been demonstrated to both produce digestive enzymes on their epidermal surfaces and be capable of absorbing the products.”

That got the carnivorous plant folks to stretch the definition further. What about New Zealand’s bird-eating para ara tree? Maybe even the California fan palm with its hazardous sawtooth petioles? While I’m at it I might as well add one of my own nominations: eucalyptus, the Australian widow-maker. After our windstorm Monday night I noticed all sorts of eucalyptus branches on the ground. If you were around when some of the eight-inch-thick branches fell off, you’d be on your way to being nourishing compost for the plants!

birthday seed-card

A card showed up at my desk, a few days early for my official birthday. Some people can restrain themselves from opening cards until the appointed day, but I’m not one of them!

Birthday Card 2009

The card was one of those that has wildflower seeds incorporated into the paper’s fibers–Maybe you’ve seen them? The basic idea is that you can enjoy the card, and then plant the pieces of paper and end up with flowering plants as the seeds germinate and grow. I really like the idea.

Tree-Free Greetings of Swanzey, New Hampshire made the card, and the back of the card lists the species of seeds: sweet william, pinks, rocket larkspur, candytuft, baby blue eyes, corn poppy, forget-me-not, wallflower, columbine, zinnia, lemon mint, five spot, catchfly, English daisy, sweet alyssum, spurred snapdragon and black eyed Susan. At least two of them I recognize as being California wildflowers, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and five spot (Nemophila maculata).

After my real birthday, I’ll plan on cutting up the paper containing the seeds, putting a small piece in each of several little pots, covering the paper with a fine layer of seed mix, watering them in, and seeing what comes up. I’ve always wondered what effect paper-making–a wet process–has on the viability of the seeds that are incorporated into the pulp. By now you probably know how much I like little experiments and adventures like this. This should be fun–I’ll keep you all posted!

my carnivores in december

December carnivore trimmings

As winter approaches many of the plants in the bog garden are starting to retreat into dormancy. Sunday I filled part of a bucket with the trimmings from the bog and two trays of potted carnivorous plants.

I have mostly American pitcher plants, sarracenia, and I’ve been starting to learn the rhythms of the different species and hybrids. Many put out their main flush of growth in the spring and look progressively scrappier and scrappier as spring turns into summer, and summer into fall. Many of these are now tidied up in the bottom of this bucket.

Sarracenia leucophylla Titan in December

Sarracenia leucophylla Tarnok in December

Others sync up with hurricane season, presenting their most spectacular pitchers in late summer and fall when heavy rains can be expected in the American Southeast. The white-topped pitcher, Sarracenia leucophylla, is the most charismatic of these. At least two clones have been tissue-cultured and are commonly available, ‘Tarnok’ (to the left) and ‘Titan’ (to the right). In spring, a mature Tarnok will produce big red double pompoms of sterile flowers that will persist long into the year. The flowers being sterile, this could be considered a cultigen, a plant incapable of reproducing itself except by seducing members of the human species to keep it alive via division or cloning. ‘Titan’ is supposed to have the unusual ability to produce pitchers over three feet tall, though in my too-dry, less than ideal conditions, it’s not as good a grower and clumper as Tarnok.

Sarracenia Judith Hindle in December2

‘Judith Hindle’ is another tissue-cultured, commonly available plant. I called this Sarracenia Trader Joe’s for a year because that’s where I bought this no-label plant. But I’ve decided it’s Judith Hindle because there was a whole big display of plants that looked just like this one, and I’m fairly certain that it’s the only hybrid that’s been tissue-cultured that looks and behaves like this. Like its leucophylla grandparent, it gives up its best pitchers in the fall.

Sarracenia alata Red Lid in December

Another plant that’s still got a few nice pitchers this late in the year is this red-lidded versions of the species S. alata.

Sarracenia Super Green Giant in December

And this hybrid, ‘Super Green Giant,’ seems to be doing well late in the season, though I’ve only had it since August and can’t vouch for what it’ll look like the rest of the year. Also, it’s lived a coddled life in a pot standing in water, not one loosed in the outdoor bog with these other plants.

Drosera capensis Red Form in December

Not everything is pitcher plants. This is the very easy-to-grow (some would say “weedy”) Drosera capensis, red form, a sundew from wet spots in South Africa. If you let it flower it will set seed. And if it sets seed, it can spread throughout your collection. I’m trying to figure out which of the bog plants can get by with less than boggy conditions. So far this is one of them.

Potted carnivores in December

In addition to the bog garden, I have two tubs of water with other plants. A very few are still looking presentable this late in the year. Three hybrids in this tub combine to make a lively red-and-green display: ‘Mardi Gras,’ ‘W.C.’ and a primary hybrid, x mitchelliana, made by Jerry Addington of Courting Frogs Nursery and retailed by Karen Oudean of Oudean’s Willow Creek Nursery. All of these hybrids are one half or at least one quarter leucophylla, so they retain some of its abilities to look nice in the fall. They also involve other species that tend to have a stronger year-round presence instead of retreating to a rhizome for the winter.

Tub of bog plants after the rain

These trays of plants have moved from the unheated greenhouse, hopefully to trigger the dormancy that most of these plants needs to thrive. Another hope is that they’ll get a taste of rain and not yet another drenching of reverse-osmosis water. After many weeks with nothing, they finally got treated to our first big storm of the season. When I came home last night the trays had almost three inches of water in them. Real water. Free water from the sky. At last!

house project update

We’re just about done with the exterior painting of the studio. Earlier I’d asked people for their opinions for plant-friendly colors to use. Town Mouse and Country Mouse each weighed in for lighter, warmer colors, partly in reaction to my saying I was leaning towards a dark urban gray. Barbara's suggestion of a gray houseBarbara sent this link to a house (here, this first photo–this is not my studio) that had been painted a dark gray that had me kinduv excited. And Greg offered his idea for a bold color choice: lavender!

I was all set to go with the gray in the end, and then decided that it might be wise to try some big swatches against the garden. So I painted a panel with a sample patch of a color called “pencil point.” And while I was in the paint aisle I grabbed a couple of lighter colors to try for contrast, a pale faded green called “wasabi powder” and a light putty-gray-green called “organic field.” (How’s “organic field” for a color name that exploits today’s eco-consciousness?)

Color tests

Here’s the final color test of panels laid up against the studio behind a blooming camellia and some emerging narcissus. I was hoping the plants would pop against the dark gray color, but was disappointed that they seemed to recede into the gray darkness. The lighter colors seemed to show off the plants better. Even the lightest gray-green didn’t seem to be too harsh in the way plants showed up against it.

I ended up liking them all, and after some conversations that went on for several days, John and I decided to use them all. Why choose?

West Wall of Studio straight on

This is the west side, the only side that will have plants against it, a combination of wasabi powder below and organic field above.

Studio nearly done

This is the south side, pencil point below, organic field above.

East wall of studio angled

East side, pencil point and organic field. The greens don’t clash so badly in real life as they appear to in this photo taken in the tawny light right after sunrise.

North wall of studio

…and finally the north, all organic field. (The door has just been painted gray, not shown here.)

Okay, it’s all almost a bit much. As Tim Gunn has said on Project Runway, “It’s a whole lotta look.” We’ll live with a while and use one of these colors for the fascia trim instead of the dark olive we used to tie it together with the main house in front. But there’s still a patio cover to rebuild, which will bring in another opportunity to tie things together.

Studio near the beginning

Every time I get overwhelmed with what’s left to do I can pull out one of the early “before” pictures–this one of the south side. I’d call it progress.

Camellia sasanqua Cleopatra

And now back to things more botanical for a piece of trivia. The first photo has a shot of a young blooming Camellia sasanqua ‘Cleopatra.’ A little detail on this species of camellia versus the other commonly grown species, C. japonica, has stuck in my brain ever since I read it in Jake Hobson’s Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way:

Fallen camellia petals The most noticeable difference between the two lies in their flowers: C. sasanqua flowers drop petal by petal, while C. Japonica flowers drop off whole, which–as every Japanese person will tell you–made them unpopular among the samurai class, who were put off by the similarity they saw between the flowers and their own heads.


destroying smuggler’s gulch

Smugglers Gulch and Tijuana River Valley

I’m standing in the United States as I take this picture. The hills you see are less than a mile to the south but are mostly in Mexico, across the border. The low break in the hills carries the name Smuggler’s Gulch.

The mouth of said gulch has been part of one of the more controversial terraforming projects in progress as we speak, the demonstration of enhanced fencing techniques that is the US-Mexico border fence. Ironic/pathetic isn’t it, that not that many weeks ago the news was buzzing with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, but here in many of our back yards new walls are going up? I’ll leave discussion of the ethics and human costs of the fence-building mindset to organizations like Amnesty International or even the Catholic Church, but the project’s costs to stuff like nature are pretty steep as well.

Left: This photo by April Reese from a January Land Letter shows much better than my photo just some of the earth moving that went into blocking off this canyon. [ Source ]

When people hear that the Department of Homeland Security is building a fence they might say, oh that’s nice, what harm can a little 15 foot tall fence do? Well, place your nice little 15 foot fence on top of 35,000 truckloads of fill dirt essentially forming an earthen dam designed to contain humans instead of water. Humans have more cognitive ability than water molecules, so what might contain water will just send the humans to the next available crossing point.

The rich coastal chaparral that was here has been bulldozed and buried. Hay wattles with some hydroseeded low-growing plants will be expect to take care of erosion control. Down-slope, the sensitive habitat of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve waits to see what’s going to happen once the rains begin.

baccharis season

Baccharis in seed medium view

This has been one of the most spectacular years I can remember for coyote bush brush, Baccharis pilularis.

Hillside with baccharis pilularis with seed

With many plants still dormant from a long season with no rain, the perky green baccharis with their over the top heads of white seeds stand out. They look especially amazing with the sun behind them, lighting up the masses of seed.

Baccharis seedhead

Here’s a closeup of a stem swarming with seeds…

Fuzzy baccharis seedhead

…looking closer…

Baccharis seed detail

…and closer still. You can see here that the seeds are attached to the white parachutes that give the plants their white color this time of year in the wilds. These photos were taken in Tecolote Canyon, a few blocks from my house, this past Friday, one day before our first measurable rainfall in 164 days knocked many of these seeds off the plants.

Coyote bush brush is sometimes used in native gardens, occasionally in this upright form, but more often in its prostrate Central California coastal form. The selections ‘Pigeon Point’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ are fairly popular. But if you grow the these selections you’ll find that only male plants are used horticulturally, meaning you’ll miss out on this display of seed heads that can begin in late summer and last until the winds and rains disperse them.

Male baccharis

For contrast, this is a boy coyote bush brush, sturdy and green with no supplemental water here near the coast. The buckwheats and sage and sagebrush have all retreated to their dormant gray late summer coloration all around him.

Male baccharis closup

And a closeup of his dried flowers. Nothing nearly so spectacular as his sisters this time of year. But he’s got one advantage in that he’s not filling the air with parachutes of seed blowing everywhere like his messy sisters.

Male or female, coyote bush brush plays host to more interesting beneficial local bugs than you’ll see on almost any other plant. I’ll be starting some of these from seed this year in hopes of getting one of these spectacularly messy female plants. Down-wind four houses from me is the canyon, so seed dispersal shouldn’t be a problem.

For further reading: In Praise of Baccharis pilularis, at Town Mouse and Country Mouse.

when plants collide

Agave attenuata colliding with tree aloes

Fifteen years I’ve been waiting for this plant to bloom. Fifteen years. And now that it’s blooming it throws its big bloom stalk into a tangle of two tree aloes growing together in what’s now a big three-plant smashup.

The flowering plant is Agave attenuata, the foxtail agave. Native to higher elevations in Mexico, it’s supposedly fairly rare where it originates. But in zone 10 and 9b-plus Southern California gardens it’s fairly common, with several gardens in every block of my neighborhood having one or more plants.

Many agaves, including the local native Shaw’s agave, Agave shawii, come armed with attractive but sharp spines. But A. attenuata is as soft and friendly a succulent as you’ll ever meet, and that’s one of its big appeals for home gardens. Another bonus is that it requires no supplemental watering in gardens near the coast.

Almost all of the agave species will bloom once and then die (monocarpy). Fortunately one plant of this species will have many rosettes, with only the blooming rosette dying back, leaving the rest to bloom in future seasons.

Agave attenuata with maturing bloom spike

At this point the stalk is taller than I am and is starting to grow downward in a thick arc.

Agave attenuata flower stalk with buds

The individual blooms are still closed up for business. Soon, though, the individual greenish white flowers will open up a few at a time, beginning at the base of the inflorescence and then slowly moving towards the end.

Agave attenuata at the neighbors

Here’s a plant at a neighbor’s house in full bloom last winter so that you can see what the agave does when it isn’t busy running into other plants. Very graceful, don’t you think?

I wish the flowering stem hadn’t collided with the aloes. The stalk is assertive and solid so that there’s no staking it or coaxing it out of harm’s way. Oh well. I can sit back and enjoy the flowering, even if the flowers aren’t in the place where I’d like them.

Anything that you have to wait fifteen years for it to bloom isn’t going to be the most convenient of species.

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 a visit to recon native plants

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.

an artist loosed in a garden