Tag Archives: plant combinations

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.

california-friendly phlomis

Phlomis monocephala yellow leaves closeup

It’s not quite planting season, but for the last few trips to the local nursery I’d been eying a plant I hadn’t noticed before, Phlomis monocephala, a sister species to the more common Jerusalem sage, P. fruticosa.

This strongly drought-tolerant species from Turkey has leaves that are highly textured like those of several native California sages. What sets it apart from the California sages is what it does in the summer, when the leaves turn this strong yellow-green color. In the spring to early summer it will have a modest display of yellow flowers, but this a plant that you use for its cool foliage, providing a point of interest when a lot of the natives have shut down.

My front yard is a mixed Mediterranean-climate planting with a number of California natives, and I thought this plant would complement them nicely. It so happens that there are some plants that peaked five years ago and would better replaced. Three phlomis would fit in their spot perfectly.

Phlomis monocephala potted plant with yellow leaves

It so happened that the nursery had exactly three plants. Plant shopping can be a competitive sport. If you see something, that might be the last chance you’ll have at it. So you can probably guess that I’m now the owner of three little Phlomis monocephala plants. I won’t do any serious garden reworking for another month or so, but I should be able to keep the plants happy and watered for that long.

The plant will top out at about four by four feet, is considered hardy to zone 9, and requires excellent drainage.

Phlomis lanata nursery plant

While at the nursery I noticed this other California-friendly phlomis, P. lanata. This species grows lower, to maybe two feet tall by three to four wide. The size and shape of the plant actually would have been a better choice for the spot I have, but this isn’t one of the phlomis species that develops the gorgeous yellow summer coloration.

What it does have, though, are these really cool, fuzzy grayish leaves and stems. How can you resist touching it? Like the much larger Jerusalem sage, it’ll put on a good show of bright yellow flowers.

Nursery trio of phlomis and wooly bush and coyote bush

One thing I do at nurseries is to move plants into little combinations to see how they’d look together. The first time the staff sees me doing it it might raise some eyebrows, but the staff at Walter Anderson Nursery is used to me by now. (As you might expect someone who works in a library, I make sure to put everything back in its proper place.)

Here’s a play in scale and texture, a little ensemble of yellowish-green to pale green colored leaves that I liked: the Phlomis monocephala that I bought, in combination with what would be the low-growing form of coyote bush brush (Baccharis pilularis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’) and the really delicate Australian woolly bush (Adenanthos sericeus).

Often, when you do an exercise like this, the plants will have wildly different cultural requirements or would be grossly incompatible size-wise. But in this case all three could coexist together in a nice planting, with maybe only the woolly bush needing just a bit more summer watering. The woolly bush would grow up into a large shrub, the phlomis into a dense medium-sized one, and the coyote bush brush would sprawl attractively around the base of the other two.

april plant combinations

The garden is always changing. As plants mature and others come into bloom, I’m always seeing combinations of plants and interesting relationships between them. Here are a couple plant combinations in the yard that I’m particularly happy with.

This is Homeria collina, a South African bulb, with an unidentified rosette-forming succulent–quite likely a graptopetalum, possibly G. ‘Point Dexter’s’ or G. paraguayense–blooming in the foreground and cascading over a retaining wall. It’s right on the sidewalk in front of the house, and it’s extra-nice that you see the combination at eye-level.

I like how the purple-gray tones in the succulent complement the color of the block wall, and how its orangey tones work well with the homeria.

In the back yard there’s a different group of things converging, a bromeliad going out of bloom, some red Russian kale that’s just about ready to pick, plain white landscaping pansies that are nearing the end of their lifespans, and a Penstemon with its first flowers of the season. (The kale was much more purple just two weeks ago, before the weather started to warm up.)

In a couple of weeks these combinations will be gone, and there’ll be new ones that I’ve never seen before. All these joys of gardening!