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”


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.)


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.

in with the new

Sunday was a day of cleaning up the garden to make room for a few new plants. The preferred order of doing things probably would have been to clean up the space and then go shopping, but the big fall plant sale of the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society takes place on one day only, and the Saturday before was the day.

Adenostoma fasciculatum Nicolas

I arrived at the sale with a short shopping list that was arranged alphabetically. The first plants I saw were the two last gallons they had of the first plant on my list, prostrate chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum ‘Nicolas’). I grabbed the gallons and started down my list. I wasn’t looking forward to doing the rest of my shopping weighed down by twenty pounds of native shrubbery, but there’s nothing like a little physical discomfort to keep you on budget.

The chamise that you usually find in the chaparral is a striking, large shrub with dramatic branch structure. This selection, a form from San Nicolas Island, matures to an open, graceful groundcover, several feet across. When it’s young, like here, it’s easy to mistake it for trailing rosemary.

Chamise has a reputation for being a poor choice for fire-prone locations. Even die hard native plant people who live in wild areas will often actively remove what any plants they find near their home. A conversation I had with one of the experienced local CNPS chapter members made me wonder if its reputation is ill-deserved. His contention was that the plant burns no more intensely that many other natives, and that he’d witnessed a burn line where half of a chamise had burned, while the other half of the plant looked green and healthy. He held that it was yet another case of local fire departments waging war on perfectly good native plants. My plants were going next to a concrete sidewalk along the street, so fire safety wasn’t on my mind. Even if flammable, a low groundcover poses fewer hazards than a big burning bush.

As I continued shopping I ran into one of my coworkers who with the help of his wife was hefting a two-inch pot of the rare San Diego bur-ragweed, Ambrosia chenopodiifolia. The plant can make an attractive little lump, and I was tempted briefly by its rare status. But this species, along with other ragweeds, is considered a severe allergen at, and I have a hard enough time surviving the spring without severe allergens immediately outside.

New plants in flat

By the time I checked out I had ten plants, about thirty to forty pounds worth, including a gallon plant of Garrya elliptica and some itty bitty pots of deerweed (Lotus scoparius), yerba buena (Satureja douglasii) and California aster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia, aka Lessingia filanginiflora). And it was at this point I ran into fellow local blogger George from Groksurf’s San Diego. He had a slope, and was thinking about some manzanitas for a slope, some for groundcover, others for larger, contrasting shapes. It had been years since I’d seen him last, so it was a nice chance to touch base and talk plants and water use in the landscape. But I felt bad when I had to excuse myself and get what was feeling like 300 pounds of plants to the car and get back home to finish Saturday’s house projects.

The rest of Saturday would be lots of unpleasant house projects. But I knew that much of Sunday I’d finally be able to get back into the garden. It had been too long.

still no rain

Weather map

I find weather and climate to be amazingly fascinating things. The media must not believe that the rest of the public thinks the same way, judging by how they always seem to need to sex up the topic.

“Flooding! Mudslides!” was how Weatherbug packaged the recent early winter storm heading for California.

Water buckets

Thinking that dry little San Diego stood a chance of getting some real rain out of the storm, I put out a couple trays of potted carnivorous plants in hopes of giving them a taste of real water from the sky. And along the eaves of the house I placed some buckets to catch rainwater that I could use later.

Empty bucket

Unfortunately I was duped by all the buildup. Imagine my disappointment when I came home last night and found the buckets as empty as a bin of free hundred-dollar bills and as dry as the Baptist potlucks of my early teen years. We are talking dry.

Often by the end of September we have the first of the autumn rains. But not this year.

Still, the days are cooling. The skies are home to more and more clouds that look like they could deliver some precipitation. The rains didn’t come this week, but they’ll come.

seeds for the fall planting season

The current house project reached a milestone, with us getting reaching the waterproof house wrap stage, ready for the siding. What this really means is that it’s no longer a race against the start of the fall rains to get this far. I can slow down a bit and get back to some things in the garden.

The cool, shortening work days signal that the fall planting season is approaching. As in the past I have new plants I’d like to try growing from seed. Consulting the really handy Seed Propagation of Native California Plants by Dara E. Emery, I see that the author recommends planting annuals by the end of October, and sowing lupines by October 15. So it’s really time to get myself in gear.


I’ve already received my order from Theodore Payne Foundation, mostly annuals, most of them plants that I looked at during the winter and spring blooming season and decided to try. I saw this plant combination at the Tree of Life Nursery on my last visit. I liked how the plants looked together, and added two of the three plants to my order: the gorgeous deep purple Parry’s phacelia, Phacelia parryi, and the perky yellow desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata. Another plant I scoped out on my spring treks was the stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, and the Payne Foundation catalog had it. The pink, purple and yellow flowers of the three species should play well together. It won’t be anything too subtle, but what do you want out of springtime flowers?

Another interesting catalog, one that I’m looking at is Ginny Hunt’s Seedhunt. She’s got over forty sages from around the world, a dozen unusual restios from South Africa, and a nice representation of California natives. The latter include an attractive cream variant on the normally orange rancher’s fiddleneck, Amsinckia vernicosa var. furcata ‘Griswold Hills,’ along with some of the neat tarweeds, hemizonia, seven different clarkias, the less common Salvia carduacea, as well as the stinging lupine and Parry’s phacelia that I’ve already got.

Where many catalogs offer species and hybrid populations where the population’s traits have been fixed through several generations of selfing and sibling crosses, Seedhunt’s listing includes seed mixes of what appear to be open-pollinated agastaches and dahlias. If you have a sense of adventure mixes like this are a brave way to go. Because the exact pollen parents aren’t known, the plants that you get will show a certain amount of variation. The downside is that the plant size, exact flower color and maybe their size and shape your plants might not fit neatly with their neighbors in a manicured border. The fun part about this is that you’ll get a plant that’s not exactly like someone else’s. If you like adventure, this might be just the thing.

Seeds from Payne Foundation

So this next week I hope to get at least some these seeds in pots or in the ground. It’ll be a great break from all the house projects. And Saturday the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society is having their big plant sale of the year at Balboa Park. I’m not sure I’ll have time to plant a couple dozen new plants, but I’ll plan on checking things out and seeing what calls my name. There’s always time to look at plants.

an artist loosed in a garden