Tag Archives: agaves

the huntington desert garden

The late-December light was fading when I headed to the wild and wonderful plants that make up the Huntington’s Desert Garden. The garden dates back many decades and features some immense specimens the likes of which you’ll almost never see. But what I love most about the garden is that it incorporates these great plants into landscapes that both honor the plants and use them in striking combinations.

Many aloes were blooming with their dramatic spikes of hot, bright colors. The theatrical lighting helped to make some of the scenes even more dramatic.

(Be sure to click onthe third image to enlarge it. In its unearthly weirdness, it’s got to be one of my favorite garden photos I’ve ever taken.)

One zone of the garden focuses on plants you’d find in California. Here a creosote bush serves as a screen for a radiant gray-white agave.

And this scene employs the coastal and Channel Island buckwheat, Saint Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)–a plant that technically doesn’t come from a desert–with other dryland plants. The gray-green foliage on all of them helps to unify this diverse planting.

The Huntington is in a warm subtropical area just east of Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean that it’s warm enough for all of these plants. Patio heaters of the kind that you see outdoors at restaurants keep plants warm at night in one area of the garden. (These are the frigid depths of December, after all.)

Now, as much as I was trying to focus on the overall landscape, I have to share a few photos of individual species that caught my eye.

Looking up at a very large Yucca filifera from Mexico…

(There’s an extremely similar shot of the exact same plant on the Germanatrix’s post on her visit to this same garden at the end of November. Check it out: here.)

Two tall palms with immense tree aloes, Aloe barberae. At the Huntington the species is identified as A. bainesii, but the taxonomists have had a change of heart. I have two of these in my little front yard, the tallest of them still under twenty feet but still impressive at that size. The writeup on this plant says it can hit fifty feet or more. The Huntington specimens are just about there, I’d guess.

A dynamic and lyrical tangle of leaves on several plants of the variegated form of Agave americana… (Homage to somebody… later Willem de Kooning? Franz Kline?) Agaves with their perfect rosettes seem to appeal to the part of our brains that appreciate symmetry and order. This planting subverted the expected into a beautiful mess.

A tall, dense stand of Cleistocactus straussii

As we left the Huntington the light that had made the Desert Garden extra-interesting was coloring up the flanks of Mount Wilson and the the rest of the San Gabriels.

Not far away from the Huntington is Pasadena, the site of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade, which should be getting under way not long after this post hits the web. (Okay, it’s sort of a lame way to try to segue this post to the topic of New Year’s Day, but–hey!–I had to give it a try.)

Happy New Year’s to all of you, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous year filled with amazing botanical highlights.

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.

on the road: cornerstone sonoma

The big garden destination for the Sonoma County weekend ended up being CornerStone Sonoma. Imagine a giant garden show with totally unrelated demonstration gardens lined up next to each other in their own stalls like some big horticultural petting zoo. But instead of nice-but-not-so-interesting gardens assembled by local landscapers, you have some really striking spaces put together by some of the bigger names in the landscape architecture field.

Cornerstone Flying Fence

Finding the place isn’t hard–Jenny was along for the outing and had brought her GPS. We followed the nice, polite directions of the GPS unit until we got close. The CornerStone literature says to look for the white picket fence as a sign that you’ve arrived. This is CornerStone’s take on a white picket fence, and it’s good preparation for what you’ll find there.

Cornerstone shopping yardphenalia

Like many destinations in Sonoma, Cornerstone combines wine tasting opportunities (4 vineyards), with chances to get a bite to eat, and places to shop for gifts or things for your garden. How are you set for some rustic architectural details to set into your landscaping?

Cornerstone mermaids

Maybe your koi pond needs some mermaids? (John wanted one of these very badly.)

Cornerstone flowerbeds 1

The facility has some pleasant lawn spaces with flowerbeds of cooling purples and blues and whites that were being set up for some social event.

Cornerstone Oehme va Sweden 1

But what sets this place apart are the main gardens in the back. And of all of them it’s hard not to love this one by Oehme & van Sweden, the Garden of Contrasts.

Cornerstone Oehme va Sweden 6

Big, sturdy agaves contrast with soft grasses that move in the wind.

Cornerstone Oehme va Sweden 3

As the seasons change, plants move in and out of prominence in this planting. Here are the last California poppies of the season planted in the grasses.

Cornerstone Ken SMith Daisy Border

This one might be a little harder to love–or at least it was for me, Ken Smith’s Daisy Border. From the astroturf to the plastic tubes to the plastic flowers, there’s nothing alive in this “planting.” But I suppose it’s naturalistic in the sense that some of the daisies in this border look pretty good, while others seem the worse for wear because of what the elements (and probably small visitors) have done to them. Who ever has a border where every single plant is meticulously well-groomed?

Cornerstone Greenlee river of grasses

John Greenlee created a soft, rolling planting that consists entirely of grasses, his Mediterranean Meadow. People do all-grass plantings all the time–call it “lawn.” But it’s a brave thing to do a garden with all sorts of contrasting grasses. Here a low river of fescue runs through the plantings.

Cornerstone Greenlee mixed grasses

Taller, stiffer grasses (edit: or are these restios?) line the “banks” of the river.

Cornerstone Greenlee mixed grasses 2

I wish this scene photographed better than it did. The foreground features soft seed heads of a short grass, with a more architectural species planted on the top of the low mound.

This and so many of the other gardens were bubbling over with all sorts of ideas you could repurpose in another garden setting. I’ll share more scenes from CornerStone in the next post.