Finding Rare Plants

More by chance than by intention, I discover plants that are fairly rare in residential gardens. Invariably, my discoveries are plants that are native to dry summer climate regions, because it is that population within which I seek plants for my own garden.

Incidentally, gardeners who search for plants from climates other than their own garden’s climate are called “zone deniers.” Gardening with plants from exotic zones might appeal to one’s sense of adventure but it involves more challenges than I would enjoy.

Here are three attractive rare plants that I have encountered recently

Blood Flower (Haemanthus albiflos).

Image from Wikipedia (

An evergreen South African bulbous geophyte, related to the Amaryllis. The generic name translates as “blood flower,” reflecting the red flowers of the first species found, H. sanguineus. The specific name of the plant I acquired from the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society means “white flower,” so I now have a white-flowered Blood Flower. The plant is sometimes called “Elephant’s Tongue” for its leaves or “Shaving-brush Plant” for its unusual flowers. This is a very low-growing plant, suitable as a rock garden specimen or indoor plant.

Source (among others): Telos Rare Bulbs <>

Blue Chilean Crocus (Tecophilaea cyanocrocus).

Image from The Scottish Rock Garden Club (

A very rare geophyte that is native to Chile, but presumed extinct in the wild since 1986. Plant hunters rediscovered it in 2001 and brought back corms. It has been propagated in botanical gardens and is slowly becoming available commercially. The plant, a member of the iris family, has blossoms that resemble those of the Crocus, a different member of that same family. Its flowering stems grow up to four inches tall, and the deep gentian clue flowers, with a whitish center, are just one inch across. In the northern hemisphere, it blooms February to March.

Source (among others): Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (

Golden Fuchsia (Deppea Splendens).

Image from

Another plant that probably is extinct in the native cloud forests of southern Mexico (Chiapas) and Guatemala. This plant flowers in late summer with spectacular clusters of pendulant golden yellow tubular flowers topped by violet-red calyces. Even its leaves are attractive. The plant is not a Fuchsia, but a member of the very large coffee family. One of its many relatives is the Gardenia. Its seeds were first brought to northern California in 1981 and distributed selectively. Most of the plants grown from these seeds were killed by frost, but a few plants survived in the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Huntington Gardens, and are now slowly becoming available commercially.

Source (among others): Annie’s Annuals & Perennials (

Avid gardeners could select these or countless other uncommon plants to enjoy for their beauty and rarity. Not all rare plants are attractive or even garden-worthy, so plants that meet those criteria and will also flourish in our dry summer climate are welcome treasures.

Enjoy your own rare plant discoveries.


When Less is More

My garden is doing well. Perhaps too well.

Several plants in established planting beds have grown to merge with adjacent plants to create a lush effect that I have often admired. Garden magazines often feature residential landscapes with masses of plants in close proximity, so that their colors and textures blend visually to provide an impressionist picture.

When we follow the parallel with fine art, the impressionist approach to garden design contrasts with the realist approach. The impressionist focuses on the overall elements of light, color and movement (all important in a garden) while the realist features the botanical characteristics of individual plants (also important in a garden).

The difference between these approaches could be just a function of time. Plants in a new bed are widely spaced, to provide room to grow, and plants in an older bed will have reached their mature size and occupied the spaces from their neighbors.

Let us agree that both approaches are valid and can be aesthetically pleasing.

Still, we can ask, “What circumstances make the impressionist approach successful?”

First, the choice should be intentional rather than an uncontrolled result of plant growth. This relates to the basic rule, “right plant, right place.” If a plant has grown to overshadow its neighbors or intrude on the walkway or simply become too large for its place in the garden, it no longer contributes to an impressionist ideal. It’s just a garden thug.

Second, the plants should be compatible with each other. They should flourish under similar conditions of light exposure, moisture levels, soil texture, site elevation, wind force and any other contributors to growth and health.

Third, the plants should be complementary in appearance. This could be an elusive criterion because of differing opinions on plants that look good together. The important variables for most gardeners are blossom color, leaf texture and overall size.

Whether any given pair of plants “look good together” is a personal preference, and, any two plants could be regarded as a good combination. I have rarely if ever read that any two plants look really bad together. Instead, their combination will be described as “dramatic” or “surprising” or “bold” or even “shocking” (but in an approving manner).

We might ask this question of the realist approach, but plants are farther apart from each other, by definition, so they it is less important that they look good together. Gardeners who prefer this approach are those who appreciate the natural forms of plants and have interest in their unique qualities.

Successful impressionist designs can be challenging.  I admit that areas of my garden are undeniably overgrown, and have already begun a long-term process of removing or relocating the thugs and featuring the prizes.

Enjoy your garden.


The most famous impressionist gardener was Claude Monet, whose garden at Giverny, France is well known and greatly appreciated. The New York Botanical Garden has a current exhibit in a conservatory environment, continuing to October 21, 2012. The exhibit includes photographs by Carmel artist and gardener, Elizabeth Murray, whose best-selling book, Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration and Insights from the Painter’s Garden, has been republished in a 20th anniversary edition (Pomegrate, 2010).

Information about the Monet exhibit is available on the NYBG website.

Contemporary garden designer Piet Oudoulf has created many lush “gardenscapes.” Several of his designs are available for study here. Look, in particular, at the Pensthorpe garden for a good example.

Finally, for examples of bold plant combinations, see Thomas Hobbs book, Shocking Beauty (Periplus Editions, 1999).

Divide and Plant Spring Bulbs

Are you thinking about dividing or planting bulbs now, in preparation for next spring?

I must insert the obligatory reminder that we often use the term “bulbs” to refer to true bulbs, as well as corms, rhizomes and root tubers, i.e., all plants with underground storage organs. Collectively, such plants are correctly called geophytes.

This is the season for dividing and planting spring-blooming geophytes. Dividing can be done annually, but is done most efficiently on a three-year cycle because in that time they can become too crowded to bloom well.

Daffodils are among the first of the geophytes to finish their cycle: their leaves have dried and dropped by July. If the leaves are still on the ground, the location of the bulbs will be evident. Otherwise, digital snapshots taken when the leaves are still green will provide useful clues of their locations. Plant daffodil and other bulbs about three times as deep as the bulbs’ diameter.

Irises should be divided and planted during the period from July through September. This year, the Monterey Bay Iris Society’s annual rhizome sales will be on August 4th at Deer Park Center and August 11th at the Aptos Farmer’s Market. For details, visit Plant iris rhizomes shallowly, with their top surfaces exposed to light and air.

The tall bearded iris is the most popular variety of iris, but there are several other interesting species in the genus Iris, and many hundreds more in the iris family.

Another popular geophyte, the Gladiolus, should be divided in the fall, after the leaves have turned brown. Watch for gladiolus rust, a fungal plant disease of quarantine significance that first appeared in northern California in 2010. This disease is associated with the Gladiolus, but it also affects other genera in the iris family (Iridaceae): Tritonia, Crocosmia and Watsonia.

The fungus’s botanical name, Uromyces transversalis, provides a clue to its identification: pustules on both sides of the leaves tend to run across the width of the leaf, i.e., transversely.

If you spot these symptoms in your garden, seal the entire plant, corms, stems and leaves, in a plastic bag and discard it in the green waste (not in your compost bin). If gladiolus rust doesn’t appear in your garden, consider yourself fortunate.

Commercial growers can use systemic fungicides to control gladiolus rust, or to salvage the corms of infected plants, but these are toxic chemicals not suitable for use in residential gardens.

When dividing and replanting your healthy “glads” plant the larger corms six-to-eight inches deep, to reduce or eliminate the need to stake the plants.

Preparations at this time of the year will yield a delightful display in the spring.

Enjoy your garden.


Here is an example of gladiolus rust, showing the pustules arrayed across the leaf’s surface. This pattern is not always this clear. For other examples, search Google Images for “gladiolus rust.”

Gladiolus Rust

This fungal infestation deserves some concern, but it might not appear in your garden. Unless and until it does, the need to divide your geophytes when they get crowded, or to add new plants to your garden, is a higher priority.

When dividing geophytes, a garden fork is easier to use and less likely to damage the plant, compared to a garden spade. The task also is easiest when the soil is fairly dry and will fall away readily from the bulbs, corms or rhizomes.

Separating bulbs and corms is relatively obvious, but separating iris rhizomes is more involved. With each season, the original rhizome produces new rhizomes, which grow out like a new generation. After three years (when dividing is needed), there will be a cluster of rhizomes, which each new generation growing out of the previous generation. Snap the rhizomes apart and discard the older generations. The youngest generation of rhizomes will produce new plants.

Digging rhizome

1. Dig the entire clump gently out of the ground with a spading fork or shovel.

Dividing the New and Old Rhizomes

3. Cut off the outer rhizomes. Discard old center portion without leaves. Cut out any signs of rot and dust with fungicide as a precaution.

Planting Rhizome

4. Plant each division as shown by pressing the rhizome into a mound in the planting hole, with the top of the rhizome almost at soil level. Fill in and firm the soil.

More Timely Tasks – Deadheading

Deadheading flowering plants ranks among the easiest and most productive tasks in the garden. This task does not require precise timing, just whenever blossoms have faded and the gardener wants to promote new blossoms.

Deadheading is the process of removing faded blossoms. The purpose of the blossom of course is to attract a pollinator to bring pollen from another blossom to fertilize an egg cell and thus to produce a fruit with seeds.

In some cases, the gardener wants the fruit to eat (think apple tree) or wants the seeds to grow into more plants (think poppies). In other cases, however, the gardener simply wants the beauty and fragrance of more blossoms.

Deadheading can be a relaxing and satisfying exercise for the gardener, but it involves frustrating the plant’s reproductive purpose. The plant doesn’t experience frustration or any other emotion. Instead it responds by producing new blossoms, still in pursuit of its goal to make more plants. That means more blossoms, for the gardener’s pleasure.

Incidentally, we need a new term for this gardening process. “Deadhead” has been used for many years, possibly to suggest “head back dead blossoms,” but it sounds gloomy and doesn’t indicate the purpose of action. Something like “rejuvenate” (to make young again) would be better, but there are other options. Your ideas will be welcomed!

The basic technique is to remove the spent flower just above the first leaf below the flower head. This removes a section of stem (which might be unsightly) and encourages new growth from the leaf node.

The leaves of rose bushes occur in sets of three, five or seven, with larger sets lower on the cane. The standard advice has been to cut just above the first set of five or seven leaves. Some experts recommend cutting above the second set of five or seven leaves. In both approaches, the apparent intention is to encourage new growth from a stem that is strong enough to support a blossom.

Newer research has shown that roses will flower more prolifically when the gardener removes old flowers by cutting just above the first set of three leaves, rather than lower down on the stem. Try that on your own roses. Mark the “test cases” with a colorful string or ribbon and observe the effect.

Rejuvenating roses in this way can be combined with shaping the plant’s overall form, opening the inside of the bush to improve air movement, and heading back wayward canes. These goals often require cutting lower on the canes.

Next week: dividing daffodils, irises and other spring geophytes (they are not all “bulbs”). These tasks are needed at this time of the year but only on a cycle of about three years.

Enjoy your garden.