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.

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/.

Mosses in the Garden

Learning about flowering plants (angiosperms) can be a lifelong study for a gardener. One report states that they include 416 families, approximately 13,164 known genera and about 295,383 known species. Angiosperms are within the group called vascular land plants, i.e., plants that have specialized tissues for conducting water and minerals throughout the plant, and for conducting the products of photosynthesis.

Other kinds of vascular land plants include clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, and gymnosperms (e.g., conifers). Seaweeds and other plants that grow in water (aquatics) are in a different group.

The scientific term for vascular land plants is Tracheophytes, a name with the same root as our own windpipes (trachea). The suffix “–phytes” means “plants.”

The complement to vascular land plants could be non–vascular land plants, which do not have the specialized tissues of vascular plants, and that have very different ways to grow and propagate. For example, instead of roots they have rhizoids, which are similar to the root hairs of vascular plants.

Non-vascular land plants, called Bryophytes (“moss plants”), have three divisions: mosses, liverworts and hornworts. There are some 18,400 species among the Bryophytes, including about 13,000 mosses, 5,200 liverworts and just 200 hornworts. This group is clearly much smaller in number than the Tracheophytes. The plants also are typically much smaller in size, even in some cases microscopic.

The current issue of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, includes an absorbing article on Bryophytes, and suggests that we should care about them because of their aesthetic charm, contributions to biodiversity, and ecological functions, which include hydrological buffering and nutrient cycling.

Because of such qualities, about two years ago interested persons formed the Bryophyte Chapter of the California Plant Society, to “increase understanding and appreciation of California’s mosses, liverworts, and hornworts—and to protect them where they grow.” For information on this CNPS chapter, visit its website.

The aesthetic aspect of Bryophytes, particularly for mosses, might be interesting to gardeners and landscapers. Moss gardening can be a fascinating pursuit for the adventurous gardener with sufficient time and patience.

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There are moss varieties for many different situations, including both sunny and shady settings as well as a wide range of soil types (except sand). Growing mosses for an unusual garden bed or between stepping stones or pavers can take a year or two and consistent irrigation. For information on such projects, search the Internet for “moss gardens” or visit the website of Moss & Stone Gardens.com for the useful paper, “How to Grow Moss.”

Bryophytes and especially mosses are an under-appreciated and fascinating part of the plant kingdom, and mosses could be a welcome addition to the home garden.

Designing Naturalistic Landscapes

Landscape design has been analyzed, discussed, and written about by many people, and from several angles. Most treatments of this subject consider the built landscape as part of built environment, which contrasts with the natural environment. Generally, they describe landscapes as vignettes or vistas that please the beholder’s eye by combining forms or colors from an aesthetic perspective. Aesthetics determine whether a garden is Victorian, Italian, Japanese, modern, white, classical, etc. Often, this approach results in random groupings of favored plants, with the only design principle being “tall plants in back.”

There are more horticultural perspectives for thinking about landscapes. For example, we have the idea of companion planting, in which proximities affect plant vigor. Then, we have generic groupings, as with small or large collections of roses, cacti, irises, or some other plant genus. Another horticultural approach involves grouping plants with similar needs for moisture. Such “hydrozoning” responds to the horticultural needs of plants and incidentally organizes the gardener’s irrigation tasks. A tropical landscape focuses on plants with an exotic look and a continuing thirst (not a good choice in the land of persistent drought).

Moving further into horticultural considerations, we encounter climate-oriented landscaping, with emphasis on plants from the world’s Mediterranean or “summer dry” regions, which of course include the Monterey Bay area. This landscaping approach supports plant development and vigor and eases the gardener’s workload.

The attractive subset of summer-dry landscaping is landscaping with California native plants, which combines the climate-oriented approach with the ecological compatibility of flora and fauna.

The more naturalistic form of landscaping with California native plants is landscaping with California plant communities. There are various ways to define this state’s several plant communities but essentially, the coast, the mountains, and the deserts are different horticultural environments, and therefore support different plants. A very useful book on this topic has been provided by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).

The next level of appreciating the difference between built and natural landscapes can be found in the book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015). This book has been called “inspiring,” “masterful,” “groundbreaking,” and a “game-changer.” Reviewers have also praised it for “lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing” and “lavish” illustrations.

Planting in a Pot-Wild World - coverThe authors deplore the ways in which typical gardening and landscaping practices have ignored the ways in which plants thrive in natural combinations, and present A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design. They state, “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

The book (which we have just begun studying) advocates planting in interlocking layers of plants, which reflects the dynamic way plants grow together in nature. There is much to learn about this approach. The authors envision improved plant labels that provide more useful information about how a plant grows and recommend relevant resources as the http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/California Native Plant Society.

Both aesthetic and horticultural approaches to plant selection have significant impacts on the success of gardening and the amount of work involved in maintaining a garden. If your gardening involves mostly keeping plants alive, replacing plants that have died, combating weeds, and wanting the garden to look better, it could be time to give more attention to plant communities.

Working with Contractors

A friend recently showed me an area that she wanted to landscape, and asked about a designer. I was able to recommend another friend (an accomplished designer) but the project motivated me to review the “design & install” category of landscaping projects.

The basics of landscape design often are described by a few broad guidelines:

First, consider how you will use the landscaped area. Too many spaces are created for certain purposes and then little used because the homeowner doesn’t really enjoy outdoor entertaining, the kids have grown and flown, the design requires too much maintenance, etc.

Then, learn all you can about the area to be developed. Make at least a rough scale drawing of the area. Mark important plants or other features that are to be retained. Indicate significant microclimates, e.g., deep shade, windy areas, water-retaining swales. Diagram that seasonal path of the sun. Have the soil tested.

Bring in a designer, unless you are confident in your own ideas and plant selections. These days, it’s good to find someone who understands and practices soil regeneration, integrated pest management, and organic practices in general. The Green Gardener program lists landscapers with up-to-date training. Contractors with long years of experience might be skilled in—and committed to—outdated methods.

Begin the install process with any required grading and the hardscape elements, e.g., paths, retaining walls, ponds, garden structures.

Missy Henriksen, of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, recently recommended ways to have an effective partnership between client and contractor. (If you visit the NALP website, click on the “Consumers” tab for ideas for homeowners.)

Here are Missy Henriksen’s tips, with my running commentary.

Communicate your long-term vision for your lawn. Well, lawns are on their way out, because to look really good they need a lot of mowing and edging, and synthetic chemicals. Otherwise, the advice is to be clear about longer-term visions, so that the contractor can provide a phased plan.

Understand the importance of working with native flowers, shrubs, and trees. Plants that are native to your specific area will thrive in your garden, while exotic imports will require extraordinary efforts to keep them alive and growing, and might still struggle.

Consider what time investment you want to make in your landscape after the installation is done. The late gardener and garden writer, Christopher Lloyd, favored high-maintenance gardening, which could entail changing plants frequently to provide year-round color. That practice has made his garden, Great Dixter, famous, but it’s not every gardener’s priority.

Allow adequate time for your landscape project. Certainly, the client should accept the reality that everything takes longer than expected, but it’s also reasonable to expect your contractor to make steady progress on your project, and not compromise that progress to work on someone else’s priority.

Know your budget. Address financial constraints by a phased approach to your longer-term objectives. A little self-discipline can be frustrating but better eventually than wishful thinking. On the other hand, the best results can result from thinking big.

Communicate any special community rules. A good landscaper should know, or found out about, restrictions by local government, or a homeowner’s association. Your standard should be “No surprises!”

Ask any lingering questions. A good practice is to require a written contract that covers all significant issues. For larger landscaping projects, refer to “A Consumer Guide to Home Improvement Contracts” and “Choosing the Right Landscaper,” both publications of the California’s Contractors State License Board. Accept the contracted work only after satisfaction of applicable standards of the landscaping industry, rather than approval by the local government or a homeowner’s association.

A successful landscaping project can give the garden owner long-term satisfaction and yield a substantial boost to the value of the property.

Landscape Uses of Plant Containers

Plant containers are popular as decorative elements in the garden. A well-placed large pot can provide a focal point, and a strategically arranged series of pots can lead the eye throughout a planned tour through the garden.

The color of a container can also contribute to the aesthetic of landscape by complementing plants in or near the container or by creating a visual exclamation point in a primarily green environment. Many containers in the garden marketplace are neutral in color, but bright hues are readily available as well, and color patterns have been appearing in recent years.

Containers provide familiar artistic forms in the garden, and can also support plant growth. Empty containers can stand alone as artworks, as well. Containers of all sizes can function like sculptures at more affordable prices.

Gardeners also experiment with other low-cost alternatives to sculptures: bowling balls, wine bottle trees, farm equipment, and porcelain accessories of the home have been striking and even unforgettable sights in some gardens.

A novel use of plant containers could be as elements of a thematic landscape.

In these columns, I have from time to time advocated a thematic approach to garden design. Many possible themes could provide an identity for some or all of a garden, and thereby support a rationale for plant selection.

Garden themes oriented to a single plant genus, e.g., roses, irises, dahlias, are quite familiar. Other themes emphasize a color combination, or one color, like the historic white garden of England’s Sissinghurst Castle.

My garden has several thematic beds. The largest beds are dedicated to each of the world’s five summer-dry climates: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, southwestern coast of Australia, the central coast of Chile, and coastal California.

These beds might need to be identified for visitors, because most will not immediately recognize the origins of plants. I have considered placing an identifying sign in each bed, but would rather avoid that institutional look.

Another method for identifying a geographically defined bed might be to place in the bed a large container from that part of the world. Assuming that the visitor will recognize the container’s country of origin, it might serve to identify the bed.

To date, that idea has succeeded in exactly one instance. A Talavera pot now marks a bed of succulent plants from Mexico, which is not one of the world’s summer-dry climates.

The accompanying photo shows this pot with a young specimen of Agave applanata ‘Cream Spike’, from Mexico.

Cream Spike Agave

Many garden centers have at least a few Talavera pots. Authentic Talavera pottery comes only from the very old city of Puebla, in southeastern Mexico, but many products come from other sources. Regardless of authenticity, Talavera pottery is strongly associated with Mexico.

A fairly good marker for the bed of plants from the Mediterranean basin is a terra cotta container that suggests a Mediterranean style, confirmed by an image search of the Internet. The casual visitor, however, might find its message to be ambiguous.

Garden centers offer a good variety of plant containers, but few refer clearly to a country of origin. For example, the city of Pomaire, south of Santiago, is famous for its pottery, but when taken out of context, the pots do not identify as Chilean.

My search for thematic plant containers has yielded information about the world’s pottery traditions, and concluded that there is no good substitute for a sign. My next step is to try hanging clay nameplates on the pots. I’ll report on that approach in a future column.

Gardening can lead us in unexpected directions!

A Not-to-Miss Event

As we enjoy the final days of winter, warmly, we begin thoughts of the arrival of spring and the reemergence of our gardens. With exquisite timing, the annual San Francisco Flower & Garden Show brings the season into focus and offers an unparalleled array of inspiration, information and products to help avid gardeners to launch the year’s gardening activities.

The SF Show began over thirty years ago as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks, and soon evolved into a commercial event that features landscape designers, speakers on numerous topics in gardening, and exhibitors of plants and a wide range of garden products.

The Show ranks as one of the nation’s three largest annual events devoted to gardening and landscaping. The others are the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, which was held in mid-February in Seattle, and the Philadelphia Flower Show, which will be held March 5–13. Since 1829, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has sponsored the Philadelphia Show as a fundraiser.

The world’s most significant competitor to these three garden shows is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, to be held May 24–28, 2016, at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (near London).

This brief survey of major garden shows indicates that the SF Show amounts to a major event for gardeners of the west coast, and a great and accessible resource for gardeners of the Monterey Bay area.

This year’s SF Show will include 125 free seminars by gardening experts who have been selected as effective speakers. The seminar speakers and schedule is available on the SF Show’s website. The seminars are scheduled in five different stages within the San Mateo Event Center, so your attendance requires a little planning.

The Show also includes over 200 exhibitors in the Plant Market and The Marketplace. If you need any new plants or tools or garden art, you are likely to find them at the SF Show. One of the favorite exhibits is the large display by Succulent Gardens, from near Moss Landing. Early word is that this booth will be larger than ever, in response to enthusiastic collectors of succulent plants.

I will bring a couple mail order catalogs of garden plants and supplies for reference in evaluating prices at the SF Show. The prices are reasonable, I believe, but I always appreciate bargains.

The highlight for many visitors will be the Showcase Gardens, which will include nine full-size garden displays of the talents of landscape designers and craftsmen from northern California. The gardens often dazzle visitors by providing elaborate presentations of beautiful plants, stunning settings and unique concepts. These gardens present thematic designs that incorporate many ideas that can be adapted for your own garden. The designers of course will welcome new clients, and most will also be on hand to answers visitors’ question.

A day at the SF Show is really close by, not expensive, and an exceptional opportunity to bring gardening ideas and riches back home. It should be on your calendar.

If You Go

What: San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

When: March 16–20, 2016

Where: San Mateo Event Center

Info: http://sfgardenshow.com/

Drama for the Landscape

 

One of the most spectacular plants from South Africa, in exuberant bloom at this time of the year, is Aloe arborescens. It can be seen throughout the Monterey Bay area, occasionally having spread into impressively large clusters of plants.

The specific name means “tree-like,” because the plant can grow to close to ten feet high. Structurally, the plant consists of several branches, each of which ends in a rosette of leaves edged with small spikes. Each rosette can generate several flower stalks that produce cylindrical inflorescences (racemes). The individual flowers, typically a bright orange-red, are tubular and attractive to hummingbirds. The clusters of flowers resemble the flame of a torch, leading to the plant’s common name: Torch Aloe.

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Several years ago, I planted my first specimen of this succulent plant, a single rosette, in a well-drained bed. It grew rapidly and extended runners (stolons) that produced new plants, ready to take over the bed. Not knowing its full growth potential, but realizing that it was too productive for that small bed, I shovel-pruned it, replanted three rosettes in front of a nearby compost bin, and placed most of the rest in the bin.

The replanted rosettes grew readily into a dramatic presence in my garden, and also shielded the compost bin from view.

A. arborescens is related to A. vera, a smaller, more familiar South African native that is popular for its ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal values: its juices reportedly have rejuvenating, healing, or soothing properties.

The Torch Aloe also reportedly has value in promoting good health. Some people advocate a drink made from the pureed whole raw A. arborescens leaf, unheated raw honey and 1% certified organic alcohol. This drink is claimed to support immunity from a range of diseases and provide general cleansing for the whole body. It is reported to be “bitter, but unctuous and savoury as well, thanks to the honey.”

I have plenty of leaves but have not tried the drink. This is not a testimonial.

A. arborescens is one of about 500 species of the genus Aloe, which includes natives of South Africa, tropical Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Many grow well in the summer-dry climate of the Monterey Bay area. Most species, unlike A. arborescens, are stemless: the rosettes grow directly on the ground.

A smaller, yellow-flowered variant, called Golden Torch Aloe (A. arborescens lutea), can be found in limited numbers.

Another yellow-flowered form, Yellow Aloe, was discovered in a private garden in Santa Barbara. This plant might be a variant of A. arborescens, a hybrid with another species, or an entirely different species: A. mutabilis, which has red flower buds that mature into yellow.

Aloe arborescens can be an attractive and interesting addition to a landscape that has sufficient space.