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!)

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.

Rarities

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.

Familiar

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.

Invasives

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!

Gardening for the Near Future: Spring Bulbs

This time of the year is again the right time to plan a colorful display of flowers for next spring. If your garden failed to impress last spring, you can lay the groundwork for a more satisfying experience in the spring of 2019.

The early fall is the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs. A good selection of such bulbs will become available around mid-August to early September in local garden centers and from mail-order nurseries. Two categories of bulbs will be in the greatest demand and likely to be snapped up while some gardeners are just beginning to plan. These two categories are (a) the most popular and (b) the more unusual.

For a list of the most popular spring-blooming bulbs, visit the National Gardening Association’s website, garden.org and search for “The Top 50 Most Popular Spring-Blooming Bulbs.“ You will not be surprised to find several varieties of tulips and daffodils at the top of this list.

To learn about the more unusual spring bloomers, visit the website for Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, click on “Media” and open the file “Spring Flowering Bulbs Cultural Instructions.” This downloadable free publication includes both a long list of spring bloomers and detailed instructions for growing these plants, with particular information for the cultivation of tulips and daffodils.

Another good source of information for both popular and unusual spring bulbs, visit McClure & Zimmerman.

My garden includes a good number of daffodils (all the same cultivar) that I enjoy each year, but the more unusual bulbs are most appealing. This year, I am learning about fritillaria, a genus in the lily family, with about 140 species. The most popular is F. imperialis, called “The Crown imperial,” which is native to countries of the eastern Mediterranean region, e.g., Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The plant grows over three feet tall and is available in several varieties that have blossoms of different colors. It grows best in full sun, in zones 4–7. The Monterey Bay area is in zone 9, so F. imperialis might be a risky choice for growing here.

Fritillaria meleagris, by Farmer Gracy

A better choice for this area would be F. meleagris, called the Checkered Lily, “Snake’s Head Fritillary,” or “Guinea-Hen Flower.” This plant, which is native to Europe, will grow in sun or partial shade, in zones 3–8, so our local zone 9 environments might be “good enough” for this plant. It will reach to only fifteen inches tall, so it’s not as striking as F. imperialis.

Another important group of spring bloomers that the bulb catalogs do not offer is the irises. That must be because irises grow from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and are offered by specialty growers rather than bulb growers.

I call attention to irises because I have a long association with the Monterey Bay Iris Society, which is preparing its annual rhizome sales. The first sale will occur on Saturday, August 4th at the Deer Park Shopping Center in Rio del Mar. The second sale will be on Saturday, August 11th at the Aptos Farmer’s Market, at Cabrillo College, Aptos. These sales are excellent opportunities to acquire iris rhizomes at good prices and to receive good advice from local enthusiastic gardeners.

If you already have irises in your garden, they should be dug and divided every three or four years for maximum blooms. I call attention to this task because my own irises are overdue for dividing!

Whether you prefer popular or uncommon spring bloomers, preparing for a delightful spring garden happens during the next few weeks. To begin, identify space in your garden where you could plant spring-blooming bulbs, then acquire the bulbs (or rhizomes) of your preference at local garden centers, mail order nurseries, or the local sale of iris rhizomes.

Discovering a Chilean Plant

Ochagavia litoralis

It’s not easy to find plants for my Chilean garden, so I was pleased to come upon a fine specimen at a local garden center. Its common name, calilla, must mean something, but because I don’t speak Chilean I will use its botanical name, Ochagavia litoralis.

The plant is a member of the Bromeliad family, which, with a few exceptions, is native to the tropical Americas. The family is quite large, with 51 genera and around 3475 known species. Some of its relatives are familiar, e.g., pineapple and avid gardeners will recognize some others: tillandsia, billbergia, puya,

My new acquisition, which grows to about one foot high and wide, has look-alike relatives, including Dyckia (from Brazil and central South America) and Hechtia (from Mexico). There are differences, including flower color, that require close examination.

In the course of my Internet searching, I learned about the Crimson Bromeliad (Fascicularia bicolor), which is a close relative of my new plant, and also from Chile. It is even rarer than the calilla, and about twice its size with softer spines and rosette centers that become bright red. My Chile garden should have one of those!

The Ochagavia litoralis forms multiple rosettes. The plant I bought looked like a candidate for division into three or more offsets. I have been pleased on occasion to acquire a plant that has outgrown its container because I could get multiple plants for one price. When I pulled this plant out of its pot, however, I found that its rosettes were more like branches than offsets so dividing it would be tricky. I just cleaned up some dry leaves and planted it without dividing.

The plant’s roots had filled its 1.5–gallon nursery can. For some time, the plant needed to move into a larger pot, or into the ground. San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery just north of Santa Barbara, had grown the plant. I have visited that impressive nursery, and have often drawn plant information from its excellent website. This plant, which some people regard as quite rare, might also have infrequent demand, with the result that it languished too long in the can.

Realistically, there are not many gardeners with an interest in Chilean horticulture, and even fewer that find very spiny plants appealing. The Ochagavia litoralis has foot-long spine-margined leaves, making it attractive in its own way, but hazardous to handle. I wore my newly acquired goatskin gloves with cowhide gauntlets and planted this specimen without the slightest injury. The gloves will be equally protective when dealing with roses, agaves, and cacti.

My new calilla is now safely and happily installed in my Chilean garden. I will need to practice its name.

***

For an inspiring garden tour this weekend, visit Love’s Garden, which on the west side of Santa Cruz. This free tour, from 1:00 to 4:00 on Saturday, features a permaculture food forest, with dozens of edible plants, a rainwater catchment and greywater recycling, all on a small residential lot. The enthusiastic gardener behind all this, Golden Love, is an ecologically friendly horticulturist and the proprietor of a long-standing landscaping business. For information and registration, visit the Love’s Garden website.

Identifying Your Mystery Plants

Inevitably, we encounter plants without knowing what they are, i.e., we don’t know their names. That’s hardly surprising because there are so many different plants. When botanists count the flowering plants, called angiosperms, which we appreciate in our gardens, they identify nearly 300,000 species in over 13,000 genera. That total does not include the growing numbers of cultivars of the more popular species.

Many gardeners, much of the time, simply don’t care to know the name of a plant that they enjoy. It’s enough to have the plant produce colorful blossoms and attractive foliage and to refer to it by the color of its flowers, its location in the garden, or a characteristic of its form or foliage.

When a better name is needed, gardeners often find the genus to be sufficient: it’s a rose or an iris or a daffodil.

Still, we sometimes want to identify the plant by its botanical name (genus + species) and its cultivar name. That level of detail has benefits:

  • allows the gardener to distinguish between a given plant and other similar plants, e.g., referring to a particular rose within a collection of roses by name, instead of pointing;
  • supports research into the plant’s origin, cultivation needs, and propagation methods, in the interest of growing the plant successfully, or shopping for similar plants;
  • satisfies the need that some gardeners experience to have a name for each plant.

Finding a plant’s correct name can be challenging. It helps if the gardener enjoys The Search.

Let’s consider broad categories of searches for a plant’s name: the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s genus, the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s common name; and the gardener has no information at all about the plant.

Given the plant’s genus, finding the species and ideally the cultivar might begin with a plant reference book, such as Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” or the American Horticultural Society’s “A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.” Another approach involves searching the Internet. Wikipedia, which holds information on nearly all plant genera, is a valuable resource for such searches. Browse to Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), enter the genus and scroll to the list of species. Whether using a book or the Internet, identifying the species of a given plant requires reviewing the options and deciding which aligns with the features of the plant in question.

Another option is the National Gardening Association’s searchable Plant Database (garden.org/plants/, which includes some 728,000 plants.

When the gardener knows the plant’s common name, some reference books will include a list of common names with links to the botanical names. Still, searching the Internet for the common name is the easier approach.

For the more popular garden plants, search the Internet for the respective society and look on its website for a searchable list of cultivars. Good examples include the American Rose Society, the American Iris Society, and the Pacific Bulb Society. There are many other such societies. Visit the website of the American Horticultural Society and search for “societies by plant type.”

On occasion, the gardener will have absolutely no information about a particular plant and wants to identify it.

Fierce Lancewood

That situation arose recently when a reader sent a photo of a strange-looking plant. In such cases, I draw upon the collective knowledge of participants in the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum, which is a free resource.

To my delight, the Forum participants soon identified the plant as Pseudopanax ferox (Fierce Lancewood, or Toothed Lancewood), which is native to New Zealand. I soon learned about the plant by searching for it on the Internet.

With a little research, you can identify the mystery plants in your garden.

Climbers Bring Interest and Drama to the Garden

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ tendrilsIf your garden needs a dramatic focal point, or a taller feature as contrast for lower-growing plants, or something that will fit into a limited space, consider a climber.

Climbers are a fairly large and diverse category of garden plants, with options for several different situations. There are several lists of climbing plants that particular gardeners enjoy. At times, it appears that some garden writers are obsessed with making lists. I try to resist that temptation and recommend instead that interested persons search the Internet for “climbing plants,” and browse through the lists that will appear on your screen. Another good resource is the Western Garden Book’s Plant Selection Guide for Vines.

There are two broad categories of climbing plants: those that thrive in full or partial shade, and those that need full sun. The shade lovers are mostly foliage plants, such as Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Algerian Ivy (Hedera algeriensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’). The sun lovers— a large group, too many to list— typically offer colorful blossoms.

Another important variable among climbers is their height at maturity. Some, like the Virginia Creeper and Algerian Ivy, already mentioned, can reach impressive heights, up to 150 feet. Another plant that is capable of both great heights and blossoms is the shade-tolerant Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris), which can reach 80 feet. These vigorous climbers can be good choices for high walls or the side of buildings in need of decoration. I once recommended Climbing Hydrangea for a residence that was backed up to a steep slope that was quite close to the home’s rear windows.

At the other end of the scale are the climbers that typically grow to six feet or less, or that could be easily controlled to such heights. Examples include Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus), Climbing Snapdragon (Asarina scandens), and certain species of Clematis, e.g. C. alpine or C. integrifolia). These climbers can be charming specimens for larger containers with a small-scale trellis.

There are many climbers that grow to heights between these extremes. As with all selections, be sure to know a plant’s mature size before adding it to your garden.

All climbers need a support of some kind in order to reach their maximum height. The necessary support depends on the given plant’s climbing method. Here are five categories of climbing methods:

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ Tendrils

  • Tendrils, which are wiry growths from the plant’s stems, can grasp thin supports, e.g., netting or metal grids. Examples include grapes and Sweet Peas.
  • Twiners are stems or leaves that can wrap around wires, strings, twigs, or other stems. Plants that use this method are called “bines.” Clematis, Morning Glory, Jasmine, and Honeysuckle use this method.
  • Scramblers have long, flexible stems that resemble vines, but lack a way to grip a support. Examples include climbing and rambling roses, and bougainvillea. These plants use thorns or prickles as “hooks” to assist in climbing, but they need to be tried to a trellis or other support. An interesting option for larger spaces is to use a bougainvillea as a spectacular ground cover.
  • Stickers are adhesive pads or tendrils that stick to many different surfaces. Plants that use this method include Virginia Creeper and its relative, Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata).
  • Stem roots are short, stout roots that grow from the plant’s stems and cling to various surfaces. English and Algerian Ivy use this method, as does Climbing Hydrangea. I planted Algerian Ivy as a ground cover and soon found it growing up a two-story brick chimney. Now I need a tall ladder or scaffold to remove it before it damages the mortar.

My garden includes a few climbing roses, one rambling rose, a sweet pea, Evergreen Clematis (c. armandii), Chilean Jasmine (Mandevilla laxa), California grape (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’, actually a cross of a California a native grape and a commercial variety), rampant Algerian Ivy, and two Australian natives: Cape Arid Kennedia (Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’) and Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana). Four of the five climbing methods are represented among these plants, save only the Sticker method.

Climbing plants bring variety to the garden, and often contribute color, drama and even challenges to the landscape. They are definitely worth a try, but as always do enough research to avoid surprises.

Organize Plant Selection with Themes

Today’s column is about thematic gardening.

Let’s start by breaking down “landscaping” into its components.

Landscaping includes hardscapes (i.e., pathways, steps, walls, ponds, structures), but plants are enough to think about today. For our purposes, landscaping emphasizes plant selection and plant placement.

These two activities overlap in the development of landscape styles, which can be complicated and subjective. One approach defines styles in terms of décor, materials, plant palette, and fabrics.

Styles can be interesting and important, but for today let’s stay with the basics: plant selection and placement.

Plant placement involves the relationships among plants, e.g., combinations of color, height (tall plants in back) or form, swaths of plants vs. specimens.

We might explore plant placement issues on another occasion, but thematic gardening is about plant selection, so let’s stick with that.

When selecting new plants for the garden, consider the conditions for the plant’s health and growth: Specify the location for a new plant (available space, plant size) and satisfy cultivation issues (soil, exposure, moisture and drainage needs, climate, wind exposure, etc.), then…

…consider the universe of plants you can choose from. The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew concluded that there 391,000 vascular plants known to science. Add the large and growing number of recognized cultivars (hybrids and selected varieties). These creations of plant breeders are featured each year in plant catalogs and garden centers.

Given this enormous range of possible choices, how should the gardener proceed?

For many gardeners, the approach is to leaf through a mail-order catalog or stroll through the local garden center and choose plants that are striking or attractive or familiar.

This approach is not wrong, because there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. Still, a thematic approach is a more organized and ultimately more successful.

Thematic plant selection basically involves selecting plants to have a common characteristic, as a way to focus the selection process and adopt an organized approach to developing your garden.

This approach to plant selection could be used for an entire garden or sections of the garden, i.e., particular beds.

Some of the most popular themes are based on a single plant genus, e.g., Iris, Rose, Dahlia, Orchid, Hosta, Hellebore, Orchid, Fuchsia, Heuchera, Daffodil, Tulip, or another.

A variation of genus-oriented themes focuses on categories of plants within a genus. For example, there are several kinds of irises (tall bearded, intermediate, border, miniature), and the rose genus includes modern roses, old garden roses, and species roses. (My current projects include developing a bed of old garden roses.)

Other themes emphasize the botanical categories of plants, e.g., bulbous plants, succulents, edibles, conifers, variegated, blossom color, and others. There are many other possible categories.

Then, we have themes based on the native region of the plants. A California native plant theme is a popular choice, in the Monterey Bay area because these plants thrive in our climate and are hospitable to the regional fauna.

Thematic gardening can present challenges to identify plants within the theme, and then to hunt for sources of desired plants. Fortunately, the Internet is a powerful tool for success with these tasks. The thematic gardener needs to be an effective user of Google and other search engines. Once you have selected a theme to pursue, search the Internet for websites that offer useful information and ideas.

Thematic gardening offers several benefits.

  • Creates a purposeful approach to plant selection
  • Simplifies plant selection by focusing on a sub-section of available plants
  • Defines the related part of the garden, e.g., “the rose bed”
  • Adds to understanding and appreciation of the chosen part of the plant kingdom

At another level, thematic gardening brings harmony and calm to the garden landscape. By comparison, the all-too-common tendency to add plants with a random selection strategy can result in a botanical hodge-podge. The individual plants in such a garden might have gorgeous blossoms and foliage, but lack any relationship to adjacent plants. The effect could lack coherence, and could even be jarring.

If parts of your garden already follow a thematic approach, consider whether those parts please your eye more than other parts. If they do, develop a thematic approach for other parts of the garden.

Thematic gardening can be challenging and enjoyable.

In Bloom in April

Gardening at this time of the year includes at least two absorbing experiences: plants in bloom and plants on sale.

Several early bloomers are already decorating the garden. I’m enjoying a Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), also called the Hyacinth Orchid. It has been cultivated in China for 1,500 years for its medicinal properties, but it’s also garden-worthy for its blossoms.

Chinese Ground Orchid

This terrestrial orchid is very easy to maintain, especially after striving with limited success to grow other members of the enormous orchid family. It had been growing under other plants and seemed to be struggling despite its reported need for filtered shade. It was propagating, however, by producing many small bulbs. I moved the bulbs, which were already sprouting, into containers in sunny locations, and they are doing fine

 

 

 

Australian Bluebell Creeper

Another plant that brightens the garden now is the Australian Bluebell Creeper (Sollya heterophylla). The generic name refers to British botanist Richard Solly; the specific epithet means “different leaves” because the plant produces a few different leaf shapes. This is a three-foot shrub with small, bright blue flowers that are bell-shaped with some varieties; mine are more star-shaped.

 

 

 

 

Mediterranean Spurge

A third performer is the Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias wulfenii), which grows five feet high, with showy heads of chartreuse flowers and whorled blue-green leaves. This plant freely generates seedlings that are easy to pull or share.

Recent and upcoming plant sales are being listed elsewhere, so this column focuses on roaming through such sales to discover and acquire new and different specimens for the garden. I’ve been accumulating interesting additions and seeking time to install them.

 

 

Here are some of my recent additions, and their intended destinations.

At the Arboretum’s recent sale, I found a large Cape Arid Climber (Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’), a native of Cape Arid which is in Western Australia. This vigorous, woody plant that climbs with tendrils is one of the Arboretum’s Koala Blooms selections. It produces two-inch long orange-red flowers with a showy large lime-green central spot on a reflexed petal. This plant might grow more robustly that I would prefer, but I’ve learned that it can be heavily cut back after flowering to prevent invasive growth.

This plant will replace a Canna Lily (Canna ‘Cleopatra’) that had overgrown its pocket bed, so I moved it into containers in a sunnier location. Interestingly, the canna has been described as “flamboyant,” which is also the name of this Kennedia cultivar.

I also came upon Aloe ‘Crosby’s Prolific’, which is a cross between A. nobilis and A. humilis, both of which are small aloes that succulent specialist Deborah Lee Baldwin recently highlighted as “growing tight and staying low.” I picked up three of these small plants to fill space in my South African succulent bed.

A third recent acquisition is Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandufolia). After the annual cutting back of a large collection of salvias, the need emerged for smaller plants along the bed’s border. These smaller species (one-foot high ad wide) are not widely available, so I was glad to pick up three specimens as fillers.

As stated on earlier occasions, plant hunting should be done with a specific and appropriate spots in the garden. Impulse purchases, inspired by a blossom portrait in a mail-order catalog or a real, fertilizer-dosed plant in a garden center leads to hodge-podge landscaping.

Weeding Ideas, Early Blooms

Gardening friends are pulling weeds that sprouted during our recent warm days and wishing for effective treatments. There are no quick and easy solutions to weed problems, but the longer view dictates “weeding before seeding.”

Ever optimistic, I am testing an organic pre-emergent herbicide that is based on corn gluten, a natural material that discourages the formation of roots. It’s neither cheap or 100% effective, but might be worth a try. For more information on a pelletized product, visit eartheasy.com and search for “corn gluten.” For a liquid version, go to amazon.com and search for “Green It.”

Another organic approach is the application of vinegar, which can kill really young weeds. Household vinegar (5% acidity) has some effect but horticultural vinegar (20-30% acidity) works better but dangerous to the user.

Other organic weed killers are based on clove oil will kill at least the top growth of mature weeds.

Still, the best, cheapest and most reliable way to kill weeds is pulling or digging them out by their roots.

Take a break from weeding to anticipate the coming spring and enjoy plants that are in bloom now in your garden. As I look around, I am pleased to see these early bloomers:

Wagner’s Sage (Salvia wagneriana), a large sub-shrub from Mexico and Central America has gorgeous hot pink or pink and white bracts that are greatly appreciated by hummingbirds as well as gardeners.

Wagner’s Sage

Salvia blossom - scarlet

Big Mexican Scarlet Sage

Big Mexican Scarlet Sage (Salvia gesneriiflora ‘Tequila’), another treasure from Mexico and Central America, produces brilliant red flowers with a striking black calyx and grows about ten feet high in California gardens. My neighbor has a stand of this plant that has grown fifty feet wide and well over fifteen feet high with support from adjacent shrubs.

 

 

 

 

Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana), from Australia, is a vigorous, woody vine that climbs with support from a tree or large shrub, or a trellis of some kind. Its popular varieties have differently colored blossoms: ‘Snowbells’ (white), ‘Ruby Belle’ (pinkish), ‘Ruby Heart’ (cream with ruby blotch), and ‘Golden Showers’ (yellow). My specimen grows on 2” x 2” rail attached to a fence and produces white racemes. The plant usually flowers in spring; we’re still in winter, so this is an early bloom.

Other plants now in bloom include

  • Beach Sage (Salvia africana-lutea), interesting wrinkly, golden brown flowers, from South Africa.
  • Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), delicate blossoms, fine fragrance;
  • Common Hyacinth (H. orientalis), one of the earliest bloomers
  • Trumpet Daffodil (Narcissus ‘King Alfred’ probably), a cheerful yellow blossom
  • Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii ‘Santa Cruz’), a large, frequent blooming evergreen shrub

A plant to watch is the Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), which is now preparing for early blossoming. This hardy orchid, native to China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, is delightfully easy to grow. It is a terrestrial orchid that requires no extraordinary care and produces rose-mauve blossoms that resemble a miniature Cattleya orchid flower. An established clump will produce dozens of flower spikes. I recently moved several plants from too-shady spots into large shallow containers, anticipating the development of clumps in a couple years. They are not particularly frost-tender, but recent frost warnings encourage moving the pots under shelter.

As always, gardening involves the exercise of patience.

Wild Geraniums in the Landscape

Recently, I’ve dug a lot of geraniums of my garden because they had grown exuberantly in the wrong place. I will describe these interlopers later in this column.

Plants that grow where they are not wanted have been called “weeds,” but that’s not an appropriate name for these plants because they are garden-worthy in all respects. A better description would be “prolific,” which is a desirable trait for garden plants.

My project to manage geraniums in my garden prompts a brief overview of the Geranium family (Geraniaceae),

Let’s first review the confusion over genus names in this family. Today, we understand that the Geraniaceae includes three principal genera: geranium, pelargonium, and erodium. During the 1750s and 1750s, when Carl Linnaeus was naming plants, he included all three of these genera as geranium. In 1789, another botanist concluded that geranium and pelargonium were, in fact, different genera. Others later decided that erodium was also a separate genus. Despite this long-standing agreement on these names, many gardeners still call pelargoniums “geraniums,” although they are quite different, each with desirable characteristics.

The name “geranium” refers to the crane, while the name “pelargonium’ refers to the stork, but I actually do not find that helpful.

The true geraniums are often called “wild,” although many popular varieties are hybrids, or “hardy,” even though some geranium species don’t do well in winter. (Pelargoniums are not winter-hardy.)

The genus Geranium includes 422 species of annual, biennial and perennial plants. Most geraniums are native to the eastern part of the Mediterranean region, but they are found throughout the temperate regions of the world and the mountains of the tropics.

An excellent guide to this family of plants is the website Geraniaceae, which is maintained by Robin Parer, a very knowledgeable person in Marin County.

The site describes plants within the three principal genera of the Geraniaceae. It lists many species of Geraniums in the following groups (with numbers of species): Annuals (6); Borders & Bedding (169); Ground Covers (86); Rock Gardens & Containers (39); Scramblers & Crawlers (23); and Shade (83).

Ground cover geranium

Geranium cantabrigiense

The geranium I dug out of my garden is G. x cantabrigiense. The species name is based on the Latin name for Cambridge, England, where the hybrid was developed. My plant is the cultivar ‘Biokovo’, which is a natural hybrid discovered in Croatia’s Biokovo Mountains. The Perennial Plant Association named this plant 2015 Perennial Plant of the Year. It is an excellent ground cover that grows up to a foot high and displays white blossoms with a pink throat and prominent pink stamens. The blossoms generally open in late spring and continue into the fall, but have appeared early this year.

This plant had spread in several parts of my garden. I had yards and yards of it! I removed a 3’ x 30’ bed that amounted to perhaps 25 percent of the total so plenty continues to grace the landscape and will need future control. I removed these plants because they were growing in an area I had designated for natives of California and Mexico; I have planted this area with seeds of two varieties of the Four O-Clock (Mirabilis jalapa), which is a Mexican native and another vigorous grower.

Geranium leaves

Geranium canescens

Another geranium in my garden is G. canescens, which is a larger, relatively rare South African species that has been growing in my garden for only seven months. The species name means “to become grey, to become old,” but the plant, which is luscious green and doesn’t appear to deserve that name. It has large, deeply lobed leaves, and will display pink flowers later in the spring.

To explore the garden possibilities for the geranium, visit Geranaiceae.com or talk to Robin Parer in person at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, which returns to the San Francisco’s Cow Palace, April 4–8, (www.sfgardenshow.com/).

Hardy geraniums can be fine additions to the garden landscape.