Controlling a Garden Thug

I recently described the Alstroemeria, a Chilean plant, as an example of a passalong plant, one that is desirable and also prolific in growth.

I also mentioned that this plant “produces large numbers of tubers, so many that it can be difficult to dig into a long-established bed.”

Since then, I have confronted such a bed in my garden.


A Cluster of Alstroemeria (click to enlarge)

The Peruvian Lilies (the common name for Alstroemeria) had overwhelmed a border of Avens (Geum chiloense), smaller plants in the Rose family, which are also native to Chile.

Two Aven cultivars, ‘Lady Stratheden’, with rich yellow blossoms, and ‘Mrs J. Bradshaw’, with rich scarlet blossoms, have earned by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Over a few years of growth, the Astroemerias had taken over a ten by ten-foot bed. Their tall flower stems had flopped into the garden path, and their tubers had spread under an edging of Sonoma fieldstones.

This is a plant that has much to offer but needs controlling.

As it happened just then, my gardener brought a new assistant, a strong young fellow with gardening experience and a pressing need to be gainfully employed. Perfect!

He made short work of the Alstroemeria bed. Rather than being tentative, I asked him to dig the plants out entirely. I intended to have him reshape the bed, and then replant a few tubers in the spirit of starting over.

There were two varieties of Alstroemeria in the bed: pink (shown in the photo) and apricot. Red, orange, purple, green, and white varieties are also available, with some searching. My helper dug out the pink-flowered plants and left the apricot varieties, which were located apart and not yet causing problems.

This work filled a large green waste cart with foliage, and four garden tubs with tubers! A dozen or more lunch bags filled with washed tubers were snapped up quickly from the Garden Exchange’s giveaway booth at the Garden Faire. The plant will be able to pursue its destiny in several other gardens.

The garden bed appeared to be Alstroemeria-free and ready for a fresh start, but a quick examination discovered a significant number of loose tubers lurking in the bed. Only tedious sifting of the soil might banish this plant from the area.

Assuming a positive attitude, we concluded that this is really an attractive plant after all, and the loose tubers made replanting unnecessary. The tubers surely will sprout in the near future so ongoing control involves plucking out seedlings that appear in the wrong places.

Being something of a “garden thug,” the Peruvian Lily has been recognized as a garden-worthy plant. The Royal Horticultural Society had given its Award of Merit to several cultivars: ‘Apollo’, ‘Coronet’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Orange Gem’, ‘Orange Glory’, and ‘Yellow Friendship’.

The lesson learned from this experience is that some plants, like some people, require more attention than others.

Garden Exchanges, Alstroemeria

My recent garden exchange experience generates thoughts about the ways in which gardeners share plants and other garden items.

In some Monterey Bay area communities, garden exchanges are infrequent occasions. There are successful events in Monterey and Seaside (and perhaps other communities) that local groups organize once a year. Santa Cruz has a low-key monthly exchange that is popular during the growing season.

Exchanges generally focus on plants as cuttings, bare-root specimens, seedlings (also called “starts”) in four-inch plastic nursery pots, and larger plants in one-gallon (or even five-gallon) pots. Empty pots and sometime other garden items also appear occasionally.

Most gardeners have plants that they could bring to an exchange simply because many good garden plants reproduce naturally and sometimes vigorously. While all plants that grow in a given area can be exchanged, this practice began with “passalong plants,” which are thought of as botanical heirlooms that have survived for decades primarily by being handed from one gardener to another. These plants might not be easily found in garden centers because they reproduce so easily that commercial growers choose not to compete with nature.

One example of such a plant is the Alstroemeria, commonly called the Lily of the Incas. This plant is also called the Peruvian Lily, although they are native to either central Chile (winter-growers) or eastern Brazil (summer growers). Central Chile, as you my recall, has a summer-dry climate very much like that of the Monterey Bay area, so these plants thrive locally.


Alstroemeria in bloom

The Alstroemeria reproduces by creating clusters of small tubers that are easily shared and grown. Plant the tubers horizontally, about eight inches deep.

This plant’s blossoms are available in many shades of red, orange, purple, green, and white, flecked and striped and streaked with darker colors. It produces long flower stalks and is a very good cut flower. To stimulate blossoming, tug the flower stalks instead of cutting them. They release easily.

The Alstroemeria produces large numbers of tubers, so many that it can be difficult to dig into a long-established bed. This growth habit exemplifies the passalong plant: desirable and prolific.

Steve Bender and Felder Rushing wrote Passalong Plants (2002), in which they describe 117 plants that have been shared for many years in the southeastern states. There are at least as many plants that are traditionally shared by coastal California gardeners, including both natives and imports.

I collected two free plants at last week’s garden exchange:

  • a seedling Tree Tomato (Tamarillo), a native of Chile that is a fast-growing tree that produces egg-shaped edible fruits with exotic appeal. It could grow quickly to fifteen feet, but can be limited by pruning. I’ll try it in my Chilean bed.
  • Mother of Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense), a succulent plant with interesting leaves. It is native to Madagascar that “escaped” to Australia, where is it considered a noxious weed. Each plant produces small plantlets along the edges of its leaves that detach and form new plants. This makes it difficult to eradicate. It is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock. I will not add this plant to my garden. Or share it.

Visitors to the garden exchange also presented a wide variety of other popular plants. These examples suggest that both interesting and troublesome plants might be available, so a brief inquiry on the Internet research is always appropriate before adding an unfamiliar plant to the garden.

The next Santa Cruz Garden Exchange will be at the Eleventh Annual Garden Faire in Scotts Valley, Saturday, June 18th. For information, visit