The Striking Castor Bean

Of the many plants in my garden, one that I particularly appreciate is the Castor Bean, because of its several interesting characteristics.

This plant, known botanically as Ricinus communis, is a member of the very large Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae). It grows as a tree that can exceed thirty feet in height in nature, but generally reaches only about ten feet high in gardens. It is native to the Mediterranean Basin, East Africa, and India, and has become widespread in tropical regions. It is widely grown in southern California gardens, and it also grows well in the Monterey Bay area.

The form and color of its leaves are its most striking characteristics. While there is considerable variation in the leaf color, the most common variety begins with dark green and develops into a dark and glossy reddish-purple. This color can provide a dramatic ornamental value to the landscape.

The leaves are palmate, i.e., shaped like a maple leaf, but with five to twelve deep lobes with coarsely toothed segments. From August to November, it produces both male and female greenish-yellow flowers that lack petals. The female flowers have red stigmas, producing a showy appearance. The flowers are followed by an abundance of reddish-brown seed capsules.

Castor bean leaves and seeds

All parts of the plant are poisonous, and the seeds are strongly poisonous. They contain the highly toxic substance, ricin, which has become notorious in connection with international terrorist actions.

Castor oil can be extracted from the seeds, and with proper care can be made poison-free. The oil has several medicinal applications, including as an unpleasant purgative, which was more popular in my youth than it is today. The oil also has commercial applications, e.g., in hydraulic brake fluids, laundry detergents, and paints and varnishes.

In the garden, this poisonous plant must be managed with care, particularly if young persons are present on occasion. While children are unlikely to nibble the leaves, twigs, or flowers of any plant, they might find the seeds of the castor bean to be appealing. One seed could kill a small child! Certainly, children should be educated to enjoy but not eat plants in the garden, unless specifically invited.

Gardeners likely to have children roaming about in the garden unattended might well decide that plants other than the castor bean could provide an interesting feature in the landscape. 

Another characteristic of this plant is its vigorous growth habit. It has created more rapidly growing seedlings than any other plant in my garden. It would not take long to have many castor beans in one’s landscape.  In fact, it is considered an invasive plant anywhere in California. Its invasiveness is based more on its enthusiastic spread than a capability to out-compete other plants.

Recently, when I pruned back some branches that were encroaching on a walkway, the work caused several seeds to drop, and they soon sprouted to create a carpet of seedlings.

I have found the castor bean plant to be fairly manageable, because the seedlings, although many in number, are readily recognizable and easily pulled. The seedlings are probably easy to transplant, but I have not potted up any to share at the local garden exchange because of their combination of prolific propagation and poisonousness.

Many garden plants are well behaved and uniquely attractive, but others stand out in one way or another. The castor bean is an exceptional performer through its gorgeous leaf color, vigorous self-propagation, and the deserved reputation as the world’s most poisonous plant. If you can handle it, you too might enjoy having this plant in your garden. (Let me know if you’d like a seedling!)

Protecting Against Garden Pests

Gardening friends have commented on this season’s unusual uptick in pesky four-legged vertebrates, inspiring this column’s exploration of ways to protect our gardens from these pests.

Our reference to “four-legged vertebrates” narrows the discussion, leaving out the “two-legged” varieties: unauthorized snippers of cuttings, midnight diggers of special plants, clumsy browsers of garden beds, and rambunctious kids.

This exclusion extends to birds (which we might address in the future), bats, and also snakes, which have vertebrae but no legs, and some of which are not pests but assets in the garden.

We also exclude the non-vertebrates, an enormous number of wildlife creatures ranging from small to very, very small. That group is mostly beneficial, although with a good number of bad actors. That category is worth more attention than could fit into a newspaper column.

So, when considering four-legged vertebrate pests, we begin with habitat issues. We can proceed best when we acknowledge that our historically recent gardens are in places where they have lived during many generations. We are intruding into, or reducing, their habitats.

We can’t easily eliminate that interface, so we should try to live harmoniously.

Wild animals prefer to stay away from people, and smart people usually don’t want to interact with wildlife, so both parties are inclined toward peaceful co-existence. Gardeners can support that relationship in two ways without being hostile.

  • Animals are always looking for food, so this means we should not provide food deliberately, or accidentally, e.g., leaving pet food outdoors unattended, leaving kitchen waste in uncovered compost or trash containers, or not harvesting ripe fruit or vegetables. (I think animals are raiding the dropped apples in my garden!)
  • Animals also are always looking for safe spaces to sleep or raise their young. Attractive spaces might be under your house or deck, so close off such spaces with quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth or other materials.

At another level, limit wildlife access to edible plants in your garden. This can be accomplished with fencing that is appropriate for particular pests: high for deer, lower and underground for several smaller raiders, including gophers. Lining the bottom of garden beds with wire mesh or installing gopher baskets can be successful in discouraging gophers. These materials are available in garden centers or on the Internet (see, for example, the website for Gophers Limited.)

A more aggressive approach to limiting access to plants is trapping. Some traps are designed to kill, and others are designed to detain.

Many gardeners are ready and willing to dispatch certain rodent pests, including mice, rats and gophers. Gardeners often regard other rodent pests (squirrels, chipmunks, and porcupines and rodent-related rabbits) as cute and seem them as candidates for release to “somewhere else.” We also would prefer to relocate some other four-legged vertebrate pests, notably raccoons and opossums.

Some people think trapping and relocating a trapped animal pest into nature would be illegal. Our search of federal, state and local government codes revealed a humane requirement to free an animal from a trap within a day’s time, but did not discover a prohibition against relocation. A ban against relocation appears to be an urban myth.

Still, both the Audubon Society and the Humane Society argue that relocation is not a solution to problems with garden pests. Pointing to the territorial habits of wildlife, these groups advise that relocating an animal (a) simply invites another animal to move in its territory, (b) requires the relocated animal to fight the owner the new territory (this could be fatal for a juvenile, or a mother of young animals), or (c) possibly exports disease into the new territory.

These groups basically dislike trapping, and recommend either not attracting wildlife into gardens, or discouraging them with fencing, as suggested above.

Another strategy for dealing with these pests involves using organic fragrances or tastes that animals dislike. We invite interested readers to seek ideas along these lines on the Internet  (search for “animal repellents”).

Then, there are various non-lethal strategies that one might explore, including filling gopher tunnels with water or low levels of carbon dioxide, electrifying fences, making audible or inaudible noises, and other ideas. New ideas pop up often but can be expensive, time-consuming, and of questionable effectiveness.

The final animal control strategy we will mention is the use of poisons. Don’t use them! Poisons can harm pets and children, providing enough reason to avoid them.

Besides, we should treat humanely the animals that share our gardens, even when they eat our plants.

Navigating a Garden Exchange

Tomorrow, the Santa Cruz Garden Exchange will have its last session for the season. The Exchange convened monthly during this year, providing opportunities for gardeners to share lots of surplus plants, plus some fruits, vegetables and garden pots.

Garden exchanges are a fine tradition for gardeners who find they have more plants than they want or need, don’t want to open a mini-nursery business, and can’t bear to discard healthy specimens.

The reciprocal benefit flows to other gardeners who enjoy receiving free plants that thrive in the local climate, and broadening their gardening experience with varieties they might not have encountered previously.

Some participants fill both roles, and can’t decide whether it’s better to give than to receive, or the other way around.

In this column, we explore the botanical context of the traditional garden exchange, where one might encounter many different plants.


There are around 400,000 species of flowering plants (angiosperms), according to a team of botanists from around the world, including leaders from the Royal Botanic Gardens herbarium at Kew in London, and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. A good number of these plants are considered rare, but that’s a subjectively defined category, and there are almost as many lists as gardeners. To check out the range of nominees, search the Internet for “rare plants.”

Plants are considered rare for various reasons: not yet discovered in the wild; discovered but not distributed by commercial nurseries; not garden-worthy (according to some arbitrary definitions); difficult to grow (this depends a lot on location); endangered as a result of human action, e.g., habitat loss.

Some gardeners seek rare plants for bragging rights or cultivation challenges.

Unfamiliar or Unusual

This category relates to the individual gardeners: what is unusual to one might be a favorite to another. This past week, I attended an expert presentation on Ariocarpus, which is a small genus of succulent, subtropical plants in the cactus family (Cactaceae). They grow in limestone hills in the south of Texas and the north of Mexico. These plants were certainly new to me, but a longstanding interest to the speaker and a few other members of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. We all learned these unusual plants are actually easy to grow when given acidic water.

The challenge of cultivating other unusual plants generally involves providing their native conditions. For example, I have been fascinated by Brazil’s giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata), which has enormous leaves, and wanted to include it in my garden, but this is a plant that requires a lot of water. A local friend is growing it successfully, but he has an on-site water source.

Some mail-order nurseries offer unusual varieties, either as seeds or small plants, so adventurous gardeners will have little difficulty in finding something different. They might be pricey, but that’s part of the enterprise.


We find this category of plants in local garden centers and most mail-order catalogs. We need not dwell on this category here, except to acknowledge that it represents the mainstay of residential gardens.

Pass-along Plants

These are the desirable plants often found in traditional garden exchanges. They are garden-worthy and typically very easily grown.

We could include a long list of plants in this category. Here is a typical list of pass-along plants:

  • Daffodil
  • Spider lily
  • Canna
  • Daylily
  • Crinum
  • Iris
  • Camellia
  • Gardenia
  • Ginger Lily
A tall bearded variety of iris, a popular pass-along plants, especially in the fall,
when gardeners dig and divide their iris rhizomes.


Our last category to consider consists of the overly zealous propagators. They are sometimes called “vigorous spreaders,” a polite term for plants that will take over your garden, when given a chance.  Many plants belong in this category, and they might show up in a garden exchange, so be on your guard. I once brought home an attractive succulent plant identified as a Bryophyllum. Something new! When I searched for it on the Internet, however, I discovered that its common name is “Mother of Thousands,” and a closely related plant is called “Mother of Millions.” I did not add that plant to my garden.

The Santa Cruz Garden Exchange will occur at 8:00 a.m., Saturday, October 27, 2018, at the Live Oak Grange Hall, 1900 17th Ave. Santa Cruz. The available plants (all free) will include a good supply of high-quality iris rhizomes, to be planted soon so they could establish roots during the coming rainy season. This is the last opportunity this season to participate in this great tradition for home gardeners. Arrive early!

Anticipating Change in the Garden

We can experience the garden as an instance in the flow of time, beginning in the past, through the present, and into the future.

Except for rare occasions, we give little thought to the garden’s past. We might take pride in the improvements over the wasteland (or mess) it once was, but usually we focus on the present.

We enjoy the plants that show good health and colorful blossoms.

In my garden, for example, I am currently appreciating an irregular row of Madeira Germanders (Teucrium betonicum) that are growing to screen the view to and from my neighbors. These evergreen shrubs began as divisions of and cuttings from an established plant, and are growing to about six feet high and five feet wide with attractive inflorescences of fragrant, violet-rose flowers.

Madeira Germanders (Teucrium betonicum)

Several other plants are still in flower at this time, but as the season winds down, many blossoms are beginning to fade, and some have already shriveled. At this time of the year, the present includes the late stages of seasonal blossoms and the anticipation of their natural demise.

Our attention shifts now to the anticipation of the garden’s future, which unfolds in a series of stages.

The first stage embraces the emergence of the fall-blooming plants; here are three examples from my garden.

Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). This amazing plant from Mexico sends up twenty-foot high stalks and blooms in November with sprays of light lavender-pink flowers high above the ground. These are single blossoms, unlike the multiple forms of hybrid dahlias. After bloom, we cut the stalks to the ground and begin the cycle over again.  

Daisy Tree (Montanoa Grandiflora). Another dramatic plant from Central America, the Daisy Tree grows from its base to produce multiple branches up to twelve feet tall. In November and December it produces an abundance of white, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers and a fragrance reminiscent of chocolate or vanilla. It is cut back hard in early spring to encourage the development of new branches form the base.

Black Mission Fig (Ficus carica).  One of the most popular varieties of the common fig, Black Mission was introduced in the United States in 1768 and Franciscan missionaries planted it in all the gardens of the California missions. This plant produces two good crops each year: the first or breba crop develops in the spring on last year’s shoot growth. The main crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in the late summer or fall. My tree is bouncing back nicely after last year’s extensive pruning. Its first crop was sparse, but now its main crop is developing now and looks to be quite productive. I might drape bird netting over the tree to enable the harvest of figs for eating and gifting.

The next stage of anticipating the garden’s future targets the spring bloom. This is when we see irises, daffodils, other spring geophytes, and annual flowers coming into their own, assuming of course that we planted them in the fall.

The spring is also the time when fall-planted perennial plants leaf out, after developing their root systems during the winter months, drawing upon the seasonal rains.

Our stages of anticipation then address the gradual development of young plants that we had installed in our gardens. Each year’s growth advances these plants toward their mature size, and the realization of the goals we had when bringing small plants to the garden. There is great joy—and little effort—in watching plants achieve their potential.

The last stage of anticipation begins with the gardener’s vision of what the garden could be, and could sustain for a very long time. The vision can only become real when the gardener puts hands in the soil.

It can be satisfying to enjoy your garden in the present, but the joy of gardening also resides in these stages of anticipation. Gardens evolve continuously, and gardening includes engaging with nature’s processes.

A Cautionary Tale About Ivy

 Ivy brings a combination of pleasure and pain to the garden, and the potential to surprise gardeners who do not pay attention

Forty years ago, when I moved to my current residence, the property had a generous crop of English Ivy (Hedera helix). This most common species of the genus Hedera has some appeal in the garden. The Royal Horticultural Society has honored fourteen cultivars of H. helix with its Award of Garden Merit, reflecting the plant’s apparent good behavior in England’s climate.

Despite its British credentials, H. helix grows rampantly on the west coast of the United States. Washington and Oregon have listed it as a noxious weed. California’s Department of Food and Agriculture has not yet listed this plant as a noxious weed, but hopefully is considering that action. 

This plant had covered much of my new garden, grown into some shrubs, and overwhelmed a large evergreen tree. We removed the tree, with great regret. After several months of hacking at this invasive plant and uncounted ivy hauls to the local landfill, we had it under control. During the following years, we pulled many sprouts and still do today. The more recent sprouts probably began with bird visits, but it is not impossible that dormant ivy seeds have been lurking in my garden for decades, awaiting a taste of moisture and sunlight.

More recently, perhaps five years ago, a variegated cultivar of Algerian Ivy (H. algeriensis) caught my eye, and I planted a small amount near the base of a chimney as a groundcover. All ivies grow horizontally, and are often selected for groundcover duty. My willingness to give this plant another chance in my garden reflects both short memory and persistent optimism.

In the same area, and with similar optimism, I installed a Big Mexican Scarlet Sage (Salvia gesneriiflora). This plant quickly grew well above ten feet in height (it can reach twenty feet high in the mountains of northeastern Mexico) and spread to four separate shrubs.

These beautiful but huge plants concealed the ivy’s relentless spread. The Algerian Ivy/Big Mexican Scarlet Sage collusion continued for weeks, until the enormous salvia finished blooming, and became ready for renewal pruning (i.e., cutting it to the ground).

That drastic action revealed that the ivy had discovered the chimney that rises about thirty feet beside the house, and used it aerial roots to grow to the top of the chimney and spread in both directions across the side of the house. This growth had not been impossible to observe, but the tall shrubs close to the pathway effectively screened the situation from view.

There’s a certain charm to ivy-covered walls, but the plant eventually can cause damage and rot, and harbor unwelcome wildlife. My best choice was to have the ivy pulled down, expecting that it would take down some of the thin-brick veneer, which it did.

There is no simple solution to ivy on the house and chimney.

The next steps of this project include reattaching the missing pieces of the veneer, removing the ivy and all but one specimen of the Big Mexican Scarlet Sage, and keeping it pruned to appropriate size.

Then, the project includes shopping for plants to re-landscape the area. The UCSC Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale will be a fine opportunity to acquire California native plants for this project. The sale begins at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday, October 13th).

Lesson learned: if you plant any variety of ivy in your garden, check occasionally to make sure that it is growing only where you want it to grow.

Glorious Geophytes for the Garden

Right now is a good time of the year to plant spring-flowering bulbs. There are many available varieties for venturesome gardeners to consider, and we regularly recommend trying unfamiliar botanical treasures. Today’s column features daffodils, which could well be the most popular and most frequently hybridized of the geophytes.

‘King Alfred’ Daffodils

Here are reasons for including daffodils in your garden.

Really Beautiful

Many flowers are delightful in the garden, and many gardeners have their favorites, but just about everyone enjoys daffodils, especially when they declare the arrival of the spring season. Daffodils have graceful stems, attractive foliage, and unique blossoms. Trumpet daffodils, the most familiar division within the genus Narcissus, have blossoms that feature the trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by six petal-like tepals, which form the perianth. The corona and perianth might have the same color, or different colors.

Numerous Hybrids

A very large and growing number of hybrid daffodils are available through garden centers and mail order nurseries. Many plants are yellow or white, or combinations of those colors; hybridizers have introduced cultivars with green, pink, orange and red elements. There are interesting and pleasing color combinations for various tastes.

The growing number of hybrids includes variations of shapes, particularly in the coronas that might be single or double in form, or might have ruffled or frilly edges.

There are also varieties that bloom in at various rtimes, as early a late December and as late as early, mid- or late spring, so with a little planning you can create an extended display.

Perennialize Themselves

During their growing season, many hybrid daffodil bulbs form side bulbils that develop new bulbs and provide more flowers in the following season. A clump of daffodils will increase in sixe from one season to the next. In time, the clump can be come crowded, and the gardener can dig up the bulbs for replanting over a larger area, or gift them to friends.

Naturalize Themselves

Some varieties will develop seeds and sow them naturally to form additional populations of plants Over a few seasons, they can spread throughout a meadow area, providing a stunning display.

Free of Pests and Diseases

The bulbs and foliage of daffodils are poisonous to most pests, because all parts of the plant includes the toxic chemical, lycorine. Consequently, the plants have minimal problem with deer, gophers or other rodents. If such pests tend to favor your garden, daffodils will provide a fine display without the expectation that plants will disappear when you’re not looking.

Daffodils are not immune to diseases, and basal rot and fungi could attack the plants, as will as nematodes, bulb flies, or viruses. However, plants grown in good soil with good drainage, and regular care generally will resist such difficulties. The references listed below include helpful information about managing such problems.

Easy to Plant

Daffodil bulbs are planted three times the width of the bulb apart, three times the width of the bulb deep. They can be planted singly, with a trowel or other tool, or in groups by removing the desired amount of soil from the planting area, positioning the bulbs, then replacing the soil. Each gardener has a favorite planting method. In any case, planting a large number of daffodil bulbs can be accomplished quickly.

For more information, here are recommendations of Becky Fox Matthews a past president of the American Daffodil Society:

The American Daffodil Society – The ADS is :The AmericanCenter for Daffodil Information” providing rich resources on its website.

Daffseek – A online photo database with an incredible amount of features (different languages, photos from all over the world, daffodil genealogy and more), made free to the public by the American Daffodil Society;

Daffnet – A discussion forum for For people interested in growing, showing, or hybridizing daffodils

Dafflibrary – Books, articles and journal about daffodils

Dafftube – Slide presentations and video recordings, many of which were presented originally during national or regional meetings of the American Daffodil Society.

Many thanks to Becky Fox Matthews for sharing these links.

Another useful source of information is the website of England’s The Daffodil Society. The Society was established in 1898 as the specialist society of Great Britain for all who are interested in the Genus Narcissus

 Daffodil bulbs will be available now, and through most of the fall months from local garden centers and several mail order nurseries. Several mail order nurseries throughout the United States will offer daffodil bulbs. An Internet search for “daffodil bulbs” will list several sources.

Many gardeners will favor west coast suppliers on the premise that they grow their bulbs under conditions like those of the local area.

In addition, I will list Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, located in Gloucester, VA, not the west coast. This family business began in the early 1900s as a daffodil specialist and has since grown to offer over 1,000 varieties of bulbs. Daffodils continue to be their favorite product, and they offer many beautiful cultivars. Their website also offers solid advice on cultivation. Click on the menu for “Media.”

If you don’t already have daffodils in your garden, this is the time to select and order cultivars that speak to you, and plant the bulbs in preparation for a delightful display in the spring.

Color Combinations in the Garden

Combining floral and foliage colors can be an enjoyable and challenging aspect of garden design. The plant kingdom offers a vast range of possible color combinations, including mixes of the various shades of green.

When planning floral color combinations in the garden, a basic consideration is to select plants that will display their colors at the same time. This issue alone can require compiling notes regarding the bloom periods of plants under consideration, drawing on reference materials such as Sunset’s Western Garden Book.

In addition, the selected plants should have similar requirements for exposure, irrigation, and drainage.

Then, it will usually be desirable to select plants of similar size, so that the blossoms will be in fairly close proximity for optimal effect.

Once the gardener has satisfied these placement and cultivation considerations and has identified a good number of candidate plants, the focus can be on deciding the actual color combinations.

Unless the gardener has a natural gift for visualizing and evaluating color combinations, a color wheel is a useful tool for combining colors in a systematic manner, presenting the spectrum of colors in the familiar sequence of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (ROYGBIV). They vary primarily in the range of hues presented. A very basic wheel will show just the three primary colors: red, yellow, blue. A more advanced wheel will include the secondary colors: green, orange, purple. An even more detailed wheel will include the six tertiary colors, which are created by mixing primary and secondary colors.

A search of the Internet will produce numerous examples of color wheels for convenient reference in planning color combinations in the garden.

Color theory can be a lengthy study for visual artists and others seeking to appreciate the subtle relationships among colors.  Most gardeners will need only familiarity with the basic color relationships on the color wheel: complementary (opposite colors), analogous (adjacent colors), triadic (three colors evenly spaced), etc. For illustrations of these and other relationships, search the Internet for “color harmonies.”

Real-world combinations might be reflect one of the formal color harmonies, but are as likely to be only a rough approximation. For example, this photo shows a chance mix of a blue-purple salvia blossom and a pink/white geranium blossom. This is a roughly analogous combination, but because the color green adds to the display, it qualifies as a roughly triadic harmony. In any event, if it pleases the gardener, it’s a success!

Salvia and Geranium combine pleasing colors

Another example of a chance mix shows succulent foliage in various shades of green. This too is a roughly analogous combination based on a small sample of the many greens that appear in many gardens.

Succulents provide several green hues

Here is a brief reality check on color combinations in the garden.

  • Creating classic color harmonies requires lots of study to select plants with similar cultivation needs, compatible sizes, and the “correct” floral or foliar colors.
  • Many plants will present pleasing combinations of colors virtually by chance. While beauty is in the eye of the etcetera, it’s difficult to imagine mismatched colors in nature.
  • Garden magazines often include breathless excitement over apparently random color combinations, and describe them with verbiage about their inspired creativity,

If you discover two or more plants that would provide a good mix of colors in your eyes, move them together or keep them together, and enjoy the effect. Garden design by the book can be time-consuming and frustrating, while botanical serendipity can be a delight.

Enjoy your garden!

Strategic Use of Specimen Plants

Recently, we focused on three basic priorities for landscaping: develop a short list of plants, install significant numbers of each kind of plant, and select some unfamiliar plants that will fit into your plan.

A complementary strategy emphasizes the strategic use of specimen plants, which are “unusual or impressive plants grown as a focus of interest in a garden.” A specimen can thought of as an example of a category, but

A plant could function as a specimen plant if it is sufficiently large, especially showy, striking in form, or quite unusual. Note that a plant doesn’t qualify as a specimen plant simply by being an isolated instance of some plant. In other words, a garden of single examples of various plants does not work as a landscape of specimen plants. 

Conversely, a plant that works as a specimen because it is large, showy, striking or unusual probably would not work as a component of a mass planting. Instead, a specimen plant complements a mass planting.

Many plants could qualify as a specimen plant. Garden designers often will choose a tree of appropriate size as a specimen plant. Japanese maples, for example, are popular selections for this purpose.

The placement of a specimen plant contributes significantly to its effectiveness. In many cases, the specimen will succeed best as a contrast to a fairly large grouping of plants, especially foliage plants, e.g., hedges.

A “large, showy, striking or unusual” plant that is apart from other plants also could function as a specimen plant.

As an example from my garden, we have a Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’, which is an evergreen climber in the Pea Family (Fabaceae), and one of the UCSC Arboretum’s Koala Blooms Australian Plant Introductions. The plant’s common name, Cape Arid Climber, refers to a region in western Australian.

Kennedia becksiana ‘Flamboyant’ climbing on a stairway

The plant’s generic name honors a British nurseryman, John Kennedy, and its specific name honors Gustav Beckx, a 19th century Belgian consulate General in Australia.

It earns the variety name ‘Flamboyant’ with its 2-inch long orange-red flowers with a showy large lime-green central spot at the base of the reflexed keel petal.

Kennedia beckxiana blossom (Wikimedia photo by Christer Johannson via Creative Commons)

I acquired a five-gallon plant about a year ago from the Arboretum, and installed it to climb on a stairway. It has grown vigorously there, and will soon reach its mature height of ten feet.

My online research into the cultivation of this robust plant suggests that it should be cut back heavily after flowering to prevent invasive growth.

Given its prominent location and showing blossoms, my Cape Arid Climber will hold its own as a botanical focal point.

Look for a spot in your garden where a specimen plant could attract the eye and add interest to your landscape. You might have a fine selection already in place, or one that could be moved to such a special location. If you have “spotted the spot” but don’t have a specimen plant in hand, you can anticipate the pleasure of choosing one for your garden.

Mark Your Calendar

The Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society will hold its Fall Show & Sale on September 29th and 30th, in nearby San Juan Bautista, where there is enough space for Society members to fill some eighty tables with fascinating plants for sale or display. We’ll have full details about this event in next week’s Home & Garden section, so be sure to schedule the date for this opportunity to acquire succulent plants for your landscape.

Landscaping Priorities

This year’s Fall Equinox lands on September 22, marking the unofficial start of the planting season.

Installing new plants in your garden during the fall provides them time to establish roots and prepare for leafing out and blooming in the spring. Ideally, we would have our historic pattern of winter rains during this time, so that the plants will have ample moisture to work with.

An additional benefit of this planting schedule might include end-of-season plant clearance sales at your favored garden center or nursery. You can feel like a savvy garden shopper when you acquire plants at good prices in the fall, and resist the temptation to stock up in the spring, when small plants have been forced into seductive blooms with nitrogen fertilizers.

The planting season is still a couple weeks away, so right now is a good time for planning to select and install plants in your garden. Having a plan when you open a mail order catalog or walk into a garden center will prepare you to focus your targets and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the array of possibilities.

Strategies for garden planning in the Monterey Bay area include emphasizing drought-tolerant plants, or California native plants, or a particular theme of your own choosing. Earlier versions of this column have addressed such strategies.

Today’s column describes additional strategies suggested by Rochelle Greayer, author of Cultivating Garden Style (Timber Press, 2014). In her online newsletter, Pith + Vigor, Greayer recently identified three mistakes that gardeners make when designing with plants:

  • Too many different plants
  • Not enough plants
  • Planting just the plans you know.

Let’s consider positive strategies in these three areas.

First, develop your landscape around a just nine to twelve different plants. Selecting plants in this short list for specific roles will bring order and cohesion to the landscape, and avoid the chaos that too often results from impulsive additions of individual plants.

Second, once you have selected your short list of plants, install lots of them. This strategy is related to adding plants in clusters of three, five, or any other odd-numbered quantity, to present them in a natural and pleasing manner. As you reach larger numbers, install the plants in swathes or bands to provide a landscaping effect. Greayer says, “Repetition gives a scheme flow and rhythm. Repetition is a savvy designer’s best trick.” For example, I recently planted two parallel arcs of blue and yellow irises as a color statement for next spring. Over the next few seasons, these plants will increase to provide increasingly dramatic displays.

A swath of Dalmation Iris (Iris pallida ‘Variegata’) backed up with Lavender plants
A bed of hardy geraniums (Geranium × cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ ) with a garden art pheasant

Related to the idea of repetition planting is the installation of plants with close spacing. While you might be tempted to spread plants out to cover space in the garden, having open areas between plants reduces their visual impact and invites the growth of weeds. Close spacing reflects the natural tendency of plants to propagate and develop into colonies. It also functions as “green mulch,” denying weeds the sunlight they need to develop.

Third, explore the wonderful world of plants to find good choices for your short list of selections for the landscape. It’s always important to select plants that are suitable for the climate, soil and exposure of the locations for which you are planning, but there are always many interesting selections that are both suitable for your garden and new to your experience. Relying on common and familiar plants will doom your landscape to being (gasp!) ordinary. Discover interesting plants that will bring excitement to your garden, and invest time in learning how to cultivate them successfully.

In review, there are three strategies for planning the development of your garden during this planting season: develop a short list of plants, install significant numbers of each kind of plant, and select some unfamiliar plants that will fit into your plan and provide a fresh new look to your landscape.

Enjoy this fall’s planting season, and your garden’s coming spring!

Dividing Perennial Plants

As the blooms fade on your perennial plants, the opportunity arrives to propagate your favored specimens by through root division.

The best candidates for this process will have been growing for at least two years, and preferably a bit longer. The ideal time for propagation by root division is after a healthy plant has had time to develop a substantial root system, and before it has become crowded and less productive of blossoms. When divisions are planted, they should be watered lightly and shaded temporarily to limit loss of moisture.

The preferred time of the year to divide perennials is early spring or early fall, rather than the mid-spring to late summer period, when perennial plants are growing and producing blossoms. With this schedule in mind, right now is a good time to consider which plants to divide. This timing gives the divided plants the fall and winter months to develop roots and prepare to burst into bloom next spring.

The general guidelines mentioned above apply to all kinds of perennial plants, but the process differs somewhat with broad categories of these plants.

Rhizomatous and Tuberous Plants

Plants that grow from rhizomes or tubers can be dug up carefully with a garden fork, separating the rhizomes or tubers by hand or knife, and replanted at the same depth as the original plant. Tuberous plants include Arum, Calla (Zantedeschia), Canna, Dahlia, Spurge, and others.

Examples of rhizomatous plants are Iris, Canna and Bergenia. Other in this category: ginger (Zingiber officinale), the related White Ginger Lily (Hedychium coronarium), and the bamboos, which are members of the grass family (Poaceae) and manage propagation quite well on their own.

Blossom of White Ginger Lily
Rhizome of White Ginger Lily

Once dug and divided, these plants could be replanted immediately, or should be kept in a cool and dark place until a convenient time for replanting in the fall.


Another category of perennial plants is the “clumpers,” which have fibrous root systems and clumping growth habits. These plants’ root balls can be dug up with a garden fork or spade, and then either pried apart by hand or split with the spade. The gardener might need to use two garden forks to divide really large root balls.

The number of divisions to be made from a given plant will depend upon the size of the root ball. Often, dividing the root ball into four quarters will be appropriate. While a larger number of smaller divisions might be desirable, they could require more time to become ready to bloom.

The roots of divided plants in this category should not be allowed to dry out. Ideally, they should be dug during an overcast day, replanted promptly, and watered in. Trimming the foliage to reduce transpiration also will help the plant to bounce back from the process.

The clumpers comprise a large group of perennial plants. Examples: coral bells (Heuchera), cranesbills (Geranmium), columbines (Aquilegia), daylilies (Hemerocallis), plantain lily (Hosta), primroses (Primulus), lamb’s ears (Stachys), bugleweeds (Ajuga), Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis, which propagates readily on its own), stonecrop (Sedum), yarrow (Achillea), and several larger grasses.


These plants have shallow stolons or thin rhizomes, and spread across the ground. They can be divided in the same as way as clumpers. Examples include bee balm (Monarda), goldenrod (Solidgo), and aster (Symphyotrichum).

Plants with Woody Crowns

Plants that have woody crowns can be divided with somewhat more effort than other categories. The basic process is the same as for fibrous-rooted clumpers but typically require cutting the root structure apart with garden shears or saw, e.g., a pruning saw.

Examples of these plants include Astilbes, bear’s breeches (Acanthus), foxtail lilies (Eremurus), goatsbeard (Aruncus), lilyturf (Liriope), peonies (Paeonia), and wild indogo (Baptisia).

Plants Best Not Divided

Some plants have root structures that do not divide well: they might have single taproots or single woody roots, and are best propagated by seed. These plants can be recognized easily when they have been dug up. Examples include lavender (Lavendula), Russian sage (Perovskia), Allysum, carnations (Dianthus), Euphorbias, foxgloves (Digitalis), butterfly weed (Asclepias), and others.

Dividing perennials can be a satisfying project for avid gardeners, and the most inexpensive way to multiply favored plants to the landscape. Tour your garden in a search for division candidates.