Tag Archives: Agonis flexuosa

…and some not so garden-worthy

You could probably gather together six gardeners and get six different opinions of what would make a plant garden-worthy. But I suspect there might be somewhat more agreement on certain other plants that probably shouldn’t be included in a garden. Here are some encounters from Sunday’s trip to Tecolote Canyon that would fall easily into most people’s less-than-desirable category.


I’ll have to admit to actually liking this plant to the right. During the winter it drops its leaves and is an attractive thicket of upright or sprawling branches. This time of year it starts new growth that has this warm red-brown coloration. It’ll flower soon, and then set some loose clusters of white berries. Pretty, yes, and native, and important to wildlife. But this is poison oak. Maybe not the best choice for small backyard gardens…

Most of the rest of my list below is comprised of exotic plants that have staked a claim for themselves at the expense of the native species. Different locations have their own list of invasives, so what you see below is tailored to Southern California. Some of these plants could be good choices for other locations. Others would be trouble almost anywhere you grow them.

[ At this point I’d like to dedicate the rest of this Friday the thirteenth post to Outofdoors, who last month devoted her Friday the thirteenth post to invasive plant species. ]



I won’t go into too much detail about this troublesome trio. People have been working hard to get the word out on pampas grass, green fountain grass, and iceplant. The grasses, in particular, can be gorgeous things in gardens, waving in the breeze and lending their dramatic form to groups of softly mounding landscape shrubs. You can see why people want to grow them. But are they garden-worthy in Southern California?

All three of these quickly check out of people’s gardens and make for the wilds. I found both grasses and plenty of iceplant escaped into the canyon, here on this hillside and in other spots. So, as pretty as they can be–and I consider this drift of fountain grass in the second photo to be particularly poetic–these three would be better left in their native lands, or grown in climates where the weather might limit their spread.



This is the first flower I saw this season on the local plants of onion weed (Asphodelus fistulosus). The first time I saw it I thought it was a wildflower and wanted some for my garden. In full bloom the stalks of white flowers are an impressive sight. But they do spread like crazy. Not a good choice for the garden.


This combination of plants looks as impressive as any planting assembled by practitioners of the New Perennials garden movement. But once again, the plants aren’t really welcome additions to the canyon. In the foreground is teasel (Dipsacus sp.), a plant with excellent year-round architectural structure but having invasive tendencies that are considered “Moderate” by the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC). Here it’s set against a background of last season’s black mustard, a problem in these parts since it was introduced by the Spanish in the eighteenth century. The Cal-IPC only considers the mustard’s ranginess to be of “Moderate” concern, but also states: “Primarily a weed of disturbed sites, but can be locally a more significant problem in wildlands.” I’d say it’s a more significant pest locally.


Fennel can be attractive in the herb garden, but like the rest of the invasives in this post, this is another plant that gets around. Its overall undesirable impacts are considered “High” by the Cal-IPC. If I see fennel offered in the local nurseries it’s usually the bronze colored strain. It’s less vigorous, but all forms are considered invasive. I do wish this were a better choice for gardens because it hosts swallowtail butterflies, but at least there’s plenty of swallowtail food out in the local canyons. The butterflies won’t starve. Okay, I’ll pass.


Say “Old California” to anyone who’s lived in these parts for long, and this plant will probably come to mind. The Brazilian Peruvian pepper tree forms a gorgeous tree with long, delicate leaves that move any time there’s a breeze. But unfortunately the plants develop berries that the birds find irresistible. While the Cal-IPC considers their threat to California to be only “Limited,” there are plants that would be better choices.

The Australian peppermint willow (Agonis flexuosa), although not a native plant, is a good drought-tolerant substitute that looks a bit like the pepper tree but doesn’t share its invasive tendencies. If you must have a delicate weeping tree that says “Old California” but don’t mind a lilting Australian accent, this would be a better choice–and you can get varieties with either green or dramatic black foliage. Or you could give up altogether on the colonial look and go in for any of the truly native trees. It doesn’t get any more “old California” than that.

As I reread this post I’m struck that I’m probably not doing a particularly good job of discouraging people from growing these plants. I keep going back to the beautiful redeeming qualities of these invasives, and I guess that’s why they continue to be such a problem. The mind tells you they might be bad news, but sometimes it’s hard to say no.

With this last image I leave the plant kingdom and turn to another species that’s native to the local canyons. This one I think you’ll definitely agree you wouldn’t want around. I won’t assume that you like snakes any more than I do, so if you want to see the picture you’ll have to click HERE.

Still, who among you doesn’t think baby animals are just the cutest things? Now, everybody, say “awwwww”… This is a little baby southern Pacific rattler, probably no longer than my forearm and too young to rattle. I’m deathly afraid of snakes but managed to fend off the fear to snap the picture and watch the snake as it coiled itself defensively and make like a sidewinder, sliding backwards into the grasses.

I have to respect these animals since they do wonders to keep down the rodent population. And they’re every bit as native as the poison oak I showed earlier. But after having had one of these in the backyard facing off against my cat, I’ve definitely decided this is another species that’s not garden-worthy, at least in my enclosed little space.

I admit it, I’m a wimp. Nature isn’t always convenient is it? But throw out the rattlesnakes and pampas grass and black mustard and fennels and you’re still left tens of thousands of cool and friendly selections to invite into the garden.

deciding on a small tree

dead-tree-fernThe record heat in October and November finally did in the Australian tree fern that I’d been nursing. The plant grows in full sun in its native environment, and was supposed to be able to survive full sun in coastal California. But two months of the hottest and driest weather this past year took care of what little will to live the plant had left.

The fern served as a focal point in the garden, and its passing left a big void and a sad stick of dead trunk. It doesn’t help that the neighbor’s basketball backboard lines up almost perfectly with the dead trunk.

We toyed briefly with training a small vine up the dead trunk, celebrating life and death and renewal and all that, but we couldn’t think of something that would look great as the main focal point of the space. So we were faced with coming up with a suitable replacement.

We started with some basic requirements:

  • The tree should max out in the 12-20 foot range and be not too broad–There’s a young tangerine tree nearby that we wouldn’t want to shade.
  • Some plants immediately nearby would appreciate some shade, but others are quite happy with close to full sun; a tree that could be trained to have an open branch structure would work well.
  • Something with a graceful natural form would be terrific–no big green popsicle-looking shade trees, please.
  • The plant should be pretty easy to find locally, and couldn’t cost too much.
  • This being drought-prone California, a tree that would be able to get by with much lower water requirements than original the tree fern would be a must.
  • The “look” of the tree would have to complement Mediterranean, tropical or just plain odd-looking plants.
  • Though not an absolute requirement, a native plant would be nice.

The short list came down to four trees or large shrubs.

Ginkgo biloba
Pros: Both John and I have always loved ginkgos, particularly their distinctive foliage and incendiary yellow autumn coloration. And their history of being a living fossil is cool. There are strains that range from little round shrubs to massive shade trees, with a couple options in the 12-20 foot range that could be trained with multiple trunks. Though not desert plants, they can make do with fairly low amounts of water.

Cons: Availability, mostly. Local sources carry the itty bitty bonsai-friendly subjects or the big shade trees, nothing in between. The tree grows really slowly, so getting a specimen of the small varieties would be a challenge. The final look of the plant, too, might not be perfect for the location.

AgonisBlack peppermint willow (a.k.a. Australian myrtle willow), Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’
Pros: Striking dark dark dark purple (almost black) leaves, and a neat weeping habit. The bark is shaggy and attractive. Rapid growth to its target size. Drought tolerant.

Cons: The plant seems to develop a dense shade-tree look as it matures–maybe too dense for the spot. The literature says this form only gets to sixteen feet or so, but it’s only been around for a decade. Call me distrustful, but I’m just suspicious that it could be more maintenance than I want to sign up for to keep it small. Mature trunks seem large in scale to the plant. There’s a bamboo nearby, and it might be just too much wispy, willowy foliage.

[ Image from Metro Trees ]

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia x fauriei
Pros:Several clones are available locally in boxed specimen size for not too much money–instant gratification! Gorgeous summertime flowers. Interesting exfoliating bark. The fauriei hybrids resist mildew better than the pure species.

Cons: Their colors would look really similar to a pair of nearby bougainvilleas. The rigid forms of the trees would definitely pull the garden in a formal Mediterranean direction.

Dr. Hurd manzanitaDr. Hurd manzanita, Arctostaphylos x ‘Dr. Hurd’
Pros: Perfect eventual size (ca. 15 feet). Fairly fast-growing for a manzanita (though no speed demon). Dramatic red-brown stems with large light green leaves. Drought-tolerant, but also more tolerant of garden water than most manzanitas. Flowers in the winter.

Cons: Sporadic availability locally, and possibly only in small sizes. I’m worried that the spot might be just a little over-wet for even this manzanita.

[ Image from San Marcos Growers, who grew my plant ]

So what was the decision? I put a five-gallon manzanita on order and it hit the nursery a few days later. It’s more of a Charlie Brown shrub at this point and will take some patience and a few years to get to its final size. If it survives the amount of water it gets, if it attains the size I want, if it behaves well with its neighbors, it could be the perfect plant for this location. Check back in five years and I’ll tell you how it’s worked out…

Coincidentally Saturday’s Los Angeles Times had a whole page spread on manzanitas a full eight days after I put mine in the ground. I felt so much ahead of the Times…