Identify Your Mystery Plants

When adding a plant to your garden, best practice includes knowing about the plant’s growing needs and mature size. Retail sources of plants should and usually do provide such basic facts on a label or catalog entry. The gardener could make do with that information or could dig a little deeper in a reference book like Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or through the growing riches of online resources

To learn more about a given plant, begin with the botanical name, which is the plant’s unique identifier. Common names might be helpful in finding a plant’s botanical name: some garden books will cross-reference common and botanical names, and a web search for a common name might turn up the botanical name. Another strategy, especially when acquiring a plant from another gardener, is to ask the donor or members of a local garden society that specializes in the plant of interest. The most dedicated gardeners often will come up with the correct name, but for those who will only hazard a guess, check the name with a reliable source.

On occasion when an unfamiliar plant lacks a name, there’s no one to ask, and your curiosity reigns, the Internet will save the day.

The Internet offers various online plant identification resources, but they are mostly automated operations and not very accurate. To be less than polite, some are outrageously bad and a waste of time.

One online plant identifier that works quite well and with impressive speed is the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum. Its accuracy and efficiency are derived from the participation of actual living gardeners, rather than the current generation of computers. (A future machine might outperform all horticulturists in plant ID tasks, but it’s not here yet.)

I frequently need the name of unlabeled plants that I see in a private or public garden, or that I acquire at a garden exchange. A recent column (ongardening.com/?p=2925) included a photo of a mystery plant seen at a garden tour.

Firecracker Plant

Firecracker Plant

The Plant ID Forum quickly identified it as a Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis ), an impressive Mexican shrub with a specific name that compares it to the horsetail rush. My next step is to find a source for this plant.

At a local garden exchange, I acquired two small plants that were mysteries to me, so I sent photos to the Plant ID Forum.

Creeping Fucshia

Creeping Fucshia

I soon learned that one is a Creeping Fuchsia (Fuchsia procumbens) that is a New Zealand native, thought to be the world’s smallest fuchsia, and categorized as an endangered species due to habitat loss. Quite a discovery!

 

 

 

 

Young Peperomia Plant

Coin Leaf Peperomia

My other mystery plant from the garden exchange is a Coin Leaf Peperomia or Baby Rubber Plant (Peperomia polybotrya ‘Variegata’), which is native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. I learned that it’s primarily for its foliage, and thrives as a houseplant in indirect light.

 

 

 

Your plants need not be mysteries! Sign up for the Plant ID Forum, a free service of the National Gardening Association.  Once you have established this connection, explore the website’s several forums and other features. If you have gardening questions other than finding the name of a mystery plant, try the Ask a Question Forum, which is a fairly new feature of this site. It welcomes the full range of inquiries, from “there are no stupid questions” to “stump the experts.” It can be quite useful in broadening your gardening knowledge

Daisy Tree for Dramatic Effect

My Daisy Tree is a doozy!

I first encountered this striking plant during a visit, several years ago, to the Esalen Institute. A gardener at the Institute told me its name, and later I found a small specimen to add to my garden.

This is Montanoa grandiflora, a native of southern Mexico (around Mexico City) and some other Central American countries. The plant was named for Luis Jose Montana (1755-1820), a physician, politician and amateur botanist. The specific epithet “grandiflora” is often applied to certain roses, but it just means “large flowers” and is applied to some other plants as well. For this plant, a different rose term, “multiflora” (many small blooms) would be more accurate.

The Daisy Tree is a member of the Sunflower tribe (Heliantheae) of the enormous Aster family (Asteraceae), and a relative to several familiar garden flowers: CoreopsisCosmosEchinaceaRudbeckia, and Zinnia, as well as the commercially important sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke. The Montanoa genus includes thirty-five species. Surprisingly, none of these are listed in Sunset’s Western Garden Book.

This plant grows well in full sun in the Monterey Bay area’s climate and is winter-hardy down to the mid-20s (which do not concern local gardeners).

Daisy Tree - long shot

Daisy Tree
Montanoa grandiflora

The Daisy Tree’s uniqueness comes first from its size. It grows up to twelve feet high and twelve feet wide (mine is about ten by ten). Its second feature is its floriferous nature. Some reports indicate that its flowers can be so abundant as to conceal the foliage, but I can still see my plant’s large lobed leaves. It’s possible that a little irrigation and fertilizer would increase the floral yield; my plant has grown on its own, without my assistance.

Daisy Tree Blossoms

Daisy Tree Blossoms

 

 

 

The flowers are unremarkable individually, but they appear in late October or early November and could last into early December. They create a fine display and provide a pleasantly sweet fragrance that suggests chocolate or vanilla. Some sniffers have found the fragrance resembles that of freshly baked cupcakes, so the blossoms might recall one’s own olfactory memories.

After the blossoms fade, attractive chartreuse seed heads last through the winter.

In early spring, horticulturists recommend cutting a Montanoa grandiflora hard to allow the development of new sprouts from the base.

This might seem like drastic action for such a large shrub, but that treatment has worked fine for another large Mexican native in my garden, the Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). My garden includes a stand of Tree Dahlias. I cut them to the ground last spring and they have now reached about thirty feet high and are about the begin blooming (a little later than the Tree Daisy.

Tree Dahlia- Long Shot

Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis)

Traa Dahlia Blossom

Tree Dahlia Blossom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stunning annual growth cycle of these larger plants demonstrates their vigor, and their presence in the garden provides wonder and beauty. The bees enjoy them as well!

The Tree Daisy and Tree Dahlia are not commonly available in garden centers, in my experience, but both are available as small plants via mail order from Annie’s Annuals.

Most gardens can accommodate a few really large plants. While appropriate placement is always important, they can provide a dramatic feature to the landscape.

Alternatives to Trendy Plants

When thinking about irises, gardeners—and all garden groupies—envision the tall bearded varieties. Decades of hybridizers have tweaked these plants to produce luscious colors, fascinating forms, great productivity and disease resistance. They are excellent plants that are easy to grow and great assets in the landscape.

The same can be said of roses and tulips, which include popular garden selections that have been hybridized through multiple generations to produce qualities that qualify them as “super plants.”

The hybridizers are creative, imaginative, and extraordinarily painstaking and patient as they build upon past successes and pursue horticultural perfection, the definition of which continues to evolve.

Home gardeners who enjoy these plants can be drawn into the endless process of acquiring the latest introductions featured in each season’s mail-order catalog photos. Each offers something a bit different and better than its predecessors.

For many gardeners, this process can be absorbing and defining of the essence of gardening.

Consider an adventuresome alternative: stepping off the bandwagon and exploring the vast array of related, less fashionable plants that can be equally beautiful with a more natural look, often relatively free of pests and diseases, and invariably less expensive.

Roses

When it comes to roses, look for the “own-root” selections. These are plants that are grown from cuttings and do have developed their own roots, rather than being grafted on a rootstock such as “Dr. Huey.” These are often historic varieties or stable hybrids. The advantages of own-root roses over grafted roses include greater cold-hardiness, shapelier (because they do not grow from a graft), and complete absence of rootstock suckers. Mail-order sources of own-root roses include Heirloom Roses, High County Gardens, David Austin and others.

Photo of a Pink Rose Blossom

Rosa ‘Mary Rose’ by David Austin Roses

Irises

Alternatives to the tall bearded hybrids include the beardless varieties. The America Iris Society identifies many species of breadless irises, organized in several series within subsections. For an excellent overview of beardless irises, search for Ben Hager’s article, “Beardless Iris,” on the Pacific Horticulture magazine website.

One series listed by the AIS, Series Californicae, may be of particular interest to readers of this column. Most of the species in this series are referred to collectively as Pacific Coast Irises (PCIs), because they are native to and grow well in coastal habitats, like the Monterey Bay area. Right now is the ideal time to plant PCIs.

Local hybridizer, Joe Ghio, has created many new PCI cultivars and won numerous national awards for his introductions. His catalog of both tall bearded irises and PCIs is available for $3 from Bay View Gardens, 1201 Bay St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

Tulips

The several groups of hybrid tulips include Darwins, Triumphs, Fosterianas, Gregeiis, Kaufmannias, Viridifloras, and others. These groups include many hundreds of cultivars that could overwhelm the most avid collector. All produce uniquely gorgeous blossoms, require a winter dormant period for reliable bloom, and attract gophers. Alternatives to these very popular plants, especially for areas without several weeks of cold weather, are called the species tulips. These are “the little bulbs that have given rise to all the big showy hybrids.” These smaller plants are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, or Asia Minor, and grow fine in the Monterey Bay area.

Species tulips that are good selections for the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate include Tulip sylvestris (Europe), T. bakeri “Lilac Wonder” (Crete), T. clusiana var. chrysantha and “Lady Jane” (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), and T. saxatilis (Crete).

Most mail-order sources of tulips, daffodils and other geophytes usually also offer species tulips. Look for them in the catalogs of McClure & Zimmerman, Van Engelen, Brett & Becky’s Bulbs, John Scheepers, and others.

Touring California’s Best Gardens

Gardeners should visit public gardens to broaden their knowledge of garden design and plants. Visiting private gardens is also a good practice, especially to learn about the possibilities on a residential parcel, with various levels of time and resources. By contrast, public gardens typically are much larger than private gardens and have much more gardening support, including staff and volunteers. They can be wonderful resources for the home gardener’s continuing education.

An excellent resource for visiting public gardens is Donald Olson’s new book, The California Garden Tour (Timber Press, 2017). The book’s subtitle, “The 50 best gardens to visit in the Golden State,” describes its scope, and the contents page lists these targets geographically. The book includes maps of the northern and southern parts of the state, showing garden locations.

The Northern California section lists twenty-six gardens, from the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in the north and continuing southward to The Secret Gardens of Monterey.

 

The Southern California section lists twenty-four gardens, with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden northernmost and San Diego’s Balboa Park southernmost.

Olson’s nineteen-page introduction is definitely worth reading. It includes a concise history of California gardens, a distinction between art gardens and botanical gardens, a nice overview of the California floristic province, and more.

Olson then describes each of the gardens in two or three pages, providing enough information to prepare the visitor with the garden’s history and orientation. The descriptions include a summary of basic facts: address, operating hours, phone number and web address, admission cost (usually free), etc.

His descriptions are readable and include one or more photographs by the author. Olson’s comments about the plant collections and noteworthy plants reveal his familiarity with horticulture and his appreciation for plants that each garden features.

Information about the books fifty gardens and other public gardens in California is available on the Internet: Google “California public gardens” for links to several websites that list such gardens, often with terse descriptions. Such information can be useful but doesn’t compare well with Olson’s more complete and expert presentation, like that of a well-informed friend. A visit to given garden’s website will yield more information of interest, but if you are interested in visiting any of California’s excellent public gardens, this book will be a valuable introduction.

Here are three recommendations for visiting a public garden.

Select a garden to visit firstly for its convenience. The maps in Olson’s book will be helpful in spotting gardens that are close to your home, or near a future travel route. Certainly, readers of this column you might begin with gardens of the Monterey Bay area: the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and The Secret Gardens of Monterey.

As you enter a garden, notice how the pathways bring visitors past a series of horticultural displays. These displays might be designed as vignettes or “rooms,” or as sections that focus on plant genera, geographic regions or landscape styles. If the pathways offer only a random variety of routes to follow, look for a map that helps to make sense of the garden experience. Larger public gardens’ maps might highlight one or more walking routes as learning opportunities. A large garden that lacks an organizational model can be confusing and less successful, despite expert maintenance of the inventory of plants.

Finally, prepare to enjoy your visit. For some gardeners, preparation might include listing learning objectives, but for all visitors, it is wise to wear comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate attire, carry some water and provide enough time to enjoy the experience.

Federal and state agencies recognize public gardens as living museums. They offer unique resources for both avid gardeners and casual appreciators of nature to gain an understanding of our horticultural environment. California has many wonderful public gardens (even more than the fifty excellent gardens in Olson’s book) that should be part of every gardener’s ongoing education. Find time to see a new garden every year.

Designing a Succulent Garden

The recent surge of interest in gardening with succulent plants combines the appreciation of colorful plants with architectural interest, drought-tolerance, and ease of maintenance.

Succulent plants are often grouped in the landscape because they share a preference for limited irrigation. This approach, called “hydrozoning,” simplifies watering tasks, and, conversely, avoids accidentally over-watering succulents.

This emphasis on the design of irrigation plans often results in garden designs that consist entirely of succulent plants. This approach can produce interesting “desert landscapes” that compare and contrast the range of colors, forms, and textures of the plants. The plants might be spaced widely or clustered closely.

Examples of such landscapes can be viewed at these websites: https://tinyurl.com/y7kclnee and https://tinyurl.com/y8vhzje4.

Succulent plants, by definition, are native to places with limited moisture: sandy deserts, rocky mountainsides, and plains that have extended periods of drought and occasional downpours. A desert landscape design will be most successful aesthetically when the plants are in fact native to a similar dry environment. Two basic styles are the rock garden, simulating a mountainside, and a desert-like sandy or gravelly bed,

A second consideration in planning such a landscape is to focus on plants from the same geographic region. While succulent plants grow in many parts of the world, the specimens that are most commonly available from garden centers and mail-order sources are from either Mexico or South Africa, with Australia as a distant third.

In the Monterey Bay area, succulent plants from all of these areas will thrive, but mixing them in a garden design often yields a haphazard appearance. The arbitrariness of the combination will be obvious to gardeners who study succulents, and subtly “off” to casual observers.

Another basic approach to the succulent landscape design involves combining succulent plants with drought-tolerant perennials. Such combinations certainly occur in nature, so an authentic design that rings true intuitively requires some research. This approach can provide interesting contrasts between relatively static succulent plants and visually active plants, such as grasses.

A third approach involves deliberately showcasing plants from a variety of native habitats. The plants used in such a landscape still need to be appropriate to the growing environment, and might require selective irrigation from a well-planned drip irrigation system, but can be educational from a horticultural perspective. An accompanying annotated garden map would add value to such an essentially educational landscape.

If you are now or might become inspired to develop a small or large landscape devoted to succulent plants, decide on a thoughtful approach, do some preliminary research, and install the landscape that fulfills your unique vision. The result is most likely to satisfying to yourself and appealing to visitors to your garden.

Gardening for the Senses

Gardeners develop and maintain ornamental gardens primarily for the visual appeal of beautiful blossoms and lush foliage. These gardens also please the sense of sight with the shapes of plants and the similarities or contrasts between plants.

Ornamental plants could also please three other of our senses:

  • Taste is served by certain plants that are both edible and ornamental, e.g., Saffron (Crocus sativus);
  • Touch is valued in plants that interesting texture, e.g., Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina); and
  • Hearing relates to plants that rustle in the breeze, e.g., New Zealand Flax (Phormium.

There are more examples of ornamental plants that appeal to these senses, but they are minor features of the garden, relative to plants that appeal to our sense of sight.

The fifth important category of ornamental plants is the aromatic plants: those that appeal to the gardener’s sense of smell.

The blossoms or the leaves, or both, of aromatic plants, produce volatile compounds that are known as essential oils. Their primary purpose, of course is to attract pollinators, but people have found myriad culinary, medicinal, therapeutic, and even magical and uses of such plants. Books have been written about such desirable applications. Here, we focus on our enjoyment of the aesthetic appeal of aromatic plants.

Plants with aromatic foliage release their essential oils primarily during the heat of the day. When the sun goes down, the foliage must be rubbed to appreciate the fragrance.

In comparison, some aromatic flowers release their perfumes during the evening and night hours to attract moths that have evolved to reach the plant’s nectar through long corolla tubes,

Many aromatic plants produce pleasant fragrances during the daytime and can be desirable additions to the landscape. An online search for “aromatic plants” will yield the information needed to select and locate plants to optimize daytime and evening enjoyment.

For example, very popular evening-scented aromatic plants include Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), Border Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), Night-scented Phlox (Zalusianskya ovata), and Night-scented Stock (Matthiola bicornis).

The aromatic California native plants may be particularly interesting to gardeners in the Monterey Bay area. We appreciate the studies of Jackie Pascoe, a member of the California Native Plant Society, to select a few noteworthy plants in this large group.

  • Spice Bush (Calicanthus occidentalis) – wine barrel scent
  • Vanilla Grass (Hierogonum occidentalis) – vanilla scent
  • Fragrant Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia fragrans) – minty, but entirely unique scent
  • Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) – minty scent
  • Wild Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) – orangey scent
  • Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) – clean scent, “like a sweet desert morning”
  • Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) – wonderfully spicy scent
  • Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifoium) – fine wine scent

You could find some of these aromatic plants at the California Native Plant Society’s sale on Saturday. For info, see the story elsewhere in today’s newspaper.

Another good opportunity to learn about aromatic plants is to visit the Aroma Garden at UCSC’s Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Explore the large and varied universe of aromatic plants to discover your preferences, and add a few to selected locations in your garden to expand your sensual enjoyment.

Right-size Plants for the Garden

While selecting plants to bring to your garden, considerations begin with basic cultural issues: exposure (sun, partial shade, full shade); moisture (infrequent; regular; ample); and drainage (fast, normal, boggy). Other more advanced cultural issues exist for future discussions.

Once we satisfy the basic cultural conditions, the selection process can proceed to aesthetic issues. There are many such issues, potentially, because they involve site-specific priorities and gardener-specific preferences. Today’s column addresses the mature sizes of plants as factors to consider when selecting a new plant for the landscape.

Plant size might seem an obvious concern, but an all-too-common error is to install a plant where it will grow eventually to intrude on a pathway, overwhelm nearby plants, unintentionally block a view, or reach over a fence into a neighbor’s space.

Such issues could arise with all kinds of plants, although some grow more slowly than others and could become a problem only after several years of maturation.

Thoughtful gardeners favor purchases of small plants, knowing that they could buy at lower cost by growing the plant themselves rather paying a nursery to care for the plant for one or more seasons. That’s a good and frugal practice for gardeners, and it brings the additional pleasure of watching the plant grow in the garden.

Garden centers often carry selections of herbaceous perennials and succulents in four-inch—and even two–inch—containers, and woody shrubs and trees in one-gallon or smaller containers. These small plants often have labels that indicate their mature size, and the gardener has the responsibility to read the label and select plants that are suitable for the space they are intended to fill.

Small plants can be misleading, however, when the label provides insufficient information about its eventual size, or when the buyer overlooks this important information. If the label doesn’t tell the story, search for the plant’s botanical name on the Internet to learn about its full size.

For example, I recently brought home a four-inch pot holding a Dasylirion longissima. The common name, Mexican Grass Tree, suggests its eventual size, which is eight-to-ten feet wide, with a flower stalk that could reach up to fifteen feet. I’m looking for the right spot to plant it.

Photo of Large Succulent Plant

Mexican Grass Tree (Dasylirion longissima) at the UC Botani cal Garden

My garden already has a Dasylirion wheeleri, a related plant that is known as Desert Spoon. This plant has already grown to its full size of three feet wide, and once developed an impressive flower spike over eight feet high. It is, however, too close to a walkway, and its leaves have saw-tooth edges that are inhospitable to passersby and the occasional weeder. I will need to bundle it before attempting to dig up and move it to a better spot.

Large plants can be excellent specimens in the garden so this “mature size alert” is not intended to discourage the use of botanical behemoths. Given enough space, big plants can be striking additions to the garden, but it’s best when the gardener knows their mature sizes before planting.

Inspiration for Next Year’s Garden

We are now one week into the fall season of the year (the autumnal equinox occurred last Friday. Now is the time to plant in preparation for the new season. In the spring, many gardeners become inspired as garden centers display flowers that have been nitrogen-dosed into bloom, but the fall is best for installing new herbaceous perennials, and woody shrubs and trees. This time is good for such tasks because the plants will have time to establish their roots during the winter months and prepare to burst into bud and bloom in the spring. As this underground growth happens, our seasonal rains (hopefully) will provide needed moisture.

Planting and transplanting involve the pursuit of landscape design visions, which makes the late spring/early fall also a fine season for touring gardens for new ideas.

The Garden Conservatory, a non-profit organization, conducts a national program of one-day garden tours, known as the Open Days program. The tours are organized in local clusters of three-to-five outstanding private gardens. The Conservatory publishes an annual catalog of Open Days events, which are scheduled from April through October.

Last weekend, I visited one of the Open Days clusters in San Jose, and volunteered as the greeter at one of the gardens. There were three gardens on tour: a garden designer’s “intensely private sanctuary” with extensive stone and cast embellishments; a design gem, once featured in Sunset magazine and recently recovered from five feet of flood waters; and an artist’s nicely designed and well-managed collection of palms, cycads, bromeliads, ferns and succulents.

I won’t attempt to describe these gardens in more detail. The direct experience is always best. These three gardens are not larger than standard city lots, and they each presented details that most gardeners could adapt for their own landscapes. They also have interesting and well-grown plants, one of which (shown below) I could not identify:

Photo of Unknown Plant in Container

Mystery Plant

This striking plant was in the designer’s garden, but he was not present when I visited. The flower resembles that of the Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea), but the leaves are quite different. I’m searching for its name.

Several design details caught my attention. I particularly liked the use of small black river stones (Mexican pebbles), which are available in several sizes. These can be used loosely as a stone mulch, placed in sand or concrete as decorative pavement, or in other ways as imagination might lead.

Another design detail of interest was the use of small Christmas light strings, woven into hanging metal pieces, e.g., chandelier, empty birdcage, etc. and serving a decorative lighting under a patio roof. Not everyone has a similar situation, but the effect would be attractive in the evening.

Thirdly, I was impressed by the use of very large carved stone, natural stone, and cast concrete pieces in a relatively small landscaped environment. Placing massive blocks requires bold commitment as well as physical effort, but such pieces express permanence with great clarity. Even a single specimen could be a strong addition to a garden, and a vote against more tentative actions.

Visit the Garden Conservatory’s Open Days website < www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days > for more information.

If you are ready to add plants to your garden, a good opportunity is the 5th Annual Native Plant Sale of the Watsonville Wetlands Watch. The sale will be 8:30–1:00 on Saturday, October 7th, at the organization’s resource center at the Pajaro Valley High School campus in Watsonville. The sale supports the group’s education and restoration programs in the Pajaro Valley. For info, visit www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org/.