Filling a Hole in the Landscape

Garden projects sometimes begin with a routine, manageable task that grows into a challenging project. That was a scenario on a recent occasion when I had gardening help for seasonal pruning of two large plants that had finished blooming. The day’s targets were two winter-blooming Mexican plants: the twenty-foot Tree Dahlia (Daisy imperialis) and the twelve-foot Daisy Tree (Montanao grandiflora). I wrote about these favored plants recently, and did not mention that they should be cut to the ground after blooms had faded to promote their amazing new growth during the following summer.

This pruning requires whacking and hauling, rather than horticultural precision, so it went quickly. With clippers, loppers and saws already in hand, we turned to other pruning needs in my garden’s California native plant landscape. There were several overgrown plants that needed attention, but the prime candidate was an American Black Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis). It is native to the eastern United States (not California), but it was a volunteer in the landscape and did not belong in my California native garden. It was healthy, but had grown rather quickly into a twenty-foot specimen.  It was under an enormous Lemonwood (Pittosporum eugenioides) and had become rangy due to lack of exposure to sunlight. (The Lemonwood, a native of New Zealand, also does not belong in my California native garden but it’s far too big to push around.)

We began pruning the Elderberry, trying for a more attractive form, but quickly concluded that it had to go. After all, there was still space in the truck, atop the branches of the Tree Dahlia and the Tree Daisy.

We soon reduced the Elderberry to a stump, which we left to be dug out on another day.

The session that began with routine pruning resulted in a significant hole in the landscape that presented an opportunity to install something new, interesting, and native to California. The site is about ten by ten feet, defined by the northwest property line, the Lemonwood, and a picket fence that separates the California and Mediterranean Basin gardens. The adjacent residence, which is close to the property line, shades this site, and the Lemonwood blocks most of the overhead light.

The first challenge was to identify a California native plant that would enhance the garden, grow to an appropriate size, and thrive in this shady environment. The second step would be to find a source for the selected plant.

Roaming through local garden centers would not be an efficient strategy for such a search, so we went right away to garden books and the Internet. Here are the initial findings, as a demonstration of this search.

Sunset Western Garden Book

  • Coast Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla): Grows 4–10 feet tall. Partial shade. Modest ratings for flower quality, plant appearance and garden performance.
  • Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale): Grows 6–10 feet tall. Partial shade. “Superior named cutting-grown plants are scarce but available and worth looking for.”
  • Teaberry (Gaultheria shallon): Grows 4–10 feet tall. “Loose, 6-in.-long clusters of white or pinkish flowers on reddish stalk bloom in spring. Edible black fruits…follow the blossoms; they’re bland flavored, but birds like them.”
  • Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum): Grows to 9–10 feet tall and broad in shade. “Leathery, lustrous dark green leaves to 1-1/4 in. long; bronzy or reddish when new. White or pinkish flowers are followed by black berries good in pies, jams. jellies, syrups. Cut branches are popular for arrangements.”
Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) grows 9 to 10 feet tall and broad in the shade.
Photo by Tom Hilton, via Wikimedia Commons
Evergreen Huckleberry Leaves
Leaves, Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Photo by Ben Dody, via Wikimedia Commons

Las Pilitas Nursery, which specializes in California native plants

  • Blackfruit Dogqood (Cornus sessilis): Grows to 15 feet. Part to full shade. “Cornus sessilis’s foliage turns a different color in the fall, color is silver and type is deciduous. Cornus sessilis’s flower color is white.” “It looks like a woodland plant.”
  • Red Stem Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera): “…elegant open shrub with creamy white flower clusters in spring and red stems. It can be found in moist areas, in sun or shade…has green foliage and is deciduous in winter, exposing its attractive red bark. This dogwood is a must for winter interest in the garden, is lovely in the spring when the plant is covered with clusters of creamy flowers…”

California Native Plant Society—Calscape website

  • Creek Dogwood (Cornus sericea): Grows to 13 feet tall and15 feet wide. “In the wild, it commonly grows in areas of damp soil, such as wetlands.“ “spreading readily by underground stolons to form dense thickets.”
  • Cream Bush (Holodiscus discolor): “It is a fast-growing deciduous shrub growing to 5 meter tall.” “Cascading clusters of white flowers drooping from the branches give the plant its two common names. The flowers have a faint sweet, sugary scent.” Moderate-to-high water requirements.

Most shade-loving California native plants found so far are five feet tall or smaller, and many require moist conditions. Several are quite attractive for the garden. The most attractive option discovered so far is the Evergreen Huckleberry (see photo). In the interest of thoroughness, I will continue searching for an ideal plant for this particular site.

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