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Archive for June, 2009

Bona Fide

California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica

California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica

Hurray, hurray, hur-ray! Anita, partner and non-typing contributor to this blog, passed her final licensing exam today, making her a certified landscape architect of the state of California.  I’m not sure what practical effect her certification will have — rumors that she’ll lose all plant knowledge now that she’s an LA have so far proven untrue — but it’s been eight years, including three years of grad school, since she had the vision, and now it’s official. It would be hard to overestimate the satisfaction for her and the respect from me who witnessed the process.

Trudy the Corpse Flower

Trudy the Corpse Flower

Trudy the Corpse Flower

You can catch flies with honey, but you can catch even more with the stench of carrion. I went to see Trudy the corpse flower blooming at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. Corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) earn that lovely goth name by exuding the stench of rotting meat to attract flies to act as pollinators, and they’re not shy about it. The smell is potent, Trudy filed the UC glass house with the smell of roadkill goat, and it’s effective, too; there were ten or twenty flies buzzing around it while I was there, and apparently there’s a bigger swarm in the morning when the smell is strongest. And it’s all a con job on the flies; they lay their eggs thinking there will be food for their offspring, but the children hatch and starve without a genuine carcass to feed on.

The flower is six feet tall and impressive even without the stench. Corpse flowers are from Malaysia and they take seven or more years to bloom, waiting until the plant’s corm weighs thirty pounds or more. The bloom, which is actually a collection of little flowers, has a claim as the biggest inflorescence in the world, and the spadix (the big spike sticking up in the middle) generates heat, up to twenty degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. Someone at the garden has a sensor set up to test if the plant gives off a biomagnetic field the way humans and animals do.

This particular corpse flower, Trudy, first bloomed in 2005 at age twelve, and then waited four years to bloom again, making this her second time blooming, though the garden has others which bloomed while Trudy was resting. The bloom will only last a couple of days before it gets pollinated and collapses. The garden’s website has tons of photos and regular updates. For years, we’ve been getting emails every time one of them blooms, but this was the first time I went by to check it out, and, I gotta say, it was pretty cool. There are seedlings for sale if you want to pay thirty dollars for an indoor plant that requires constant watering and feeding and smells like carrion when it blooms. Photos of nice-smelling flowers are below. (more…)

Happy Solstice

Purple Needle Grass

Purple Needle Grass, Nassella pulchra

And the hills turn brown in the summer time. — Kate Wolf “Here in California”

I was on a plane for the official solstice yesterday, so I’m a little late, this should probably be titled ‘first day of summer’. Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra), the California native which looks dead (no, it’s not dead, it’s just dormant) in the summer but actually lives a hundred years or more, seems like a good image for the California summer, also sometimes referred to as straw season. (Quick quiz: Are the hills brown or golden in the summer time? I think the correct answer will depend on where you are from.) I was back east in New Hampshire for the first time last week and I was a bit shocked at how green everything was. The foliage was recklessly green, as if blithely unaware a couple of weeks of drought would burn it to a crisp. It rained every afternoon while I was there, and a part of me felt excited every time — summer rain, what a concept — but then I started to actually understand that it rains in New Hampshire in the summer. I’ve never been out of the West in the summer; I don’t think I fully understood how dry our California dry season really is.

Purple needle grass is the official state grass of California, a fact that becomes less impressive when you find out it has only been the state grass since 2004. (Who knew that designation of an official state grass would be a legacy of the Schwarzenegger years?) More impressive is that purple needle grass is the most widespread grass in the state, that the roots go 6-15 feet deep, and that it beat out over three hundred other grasses to get the title. Happy solstice, happy summer, happy straw season.

ryan 6/22

Leopard Lily for Bloom Day

Panther lily, Lilium pardalinum ssp. pardalinum

Leopard lily, Lilium pardalinum ssp. pardalinum

Our Leopard Lily Lilium pardalinum ssp. pardalinum (also listed as Panther Lily and sometimes Tiger Lily, why not Ocelot Lily or Jaguar Lily?) popped yesterday, just in time for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (click thru for links to tons of gardenblogs showing what they have blooming). This is its second year for us, and it multiplied in the pot, but it’s looking like it might only do this one flower so we need to cherish it. It might be the coolest flower we grow.

We’re still learning about the native lilies. They seem relatively easy, but the hardest part is getting them. They’re only available from the commercial growers for a couple of weeks each year while they are in bloom. The Leopard lily showed up on the availability lists this year for about a week, but it sold out before we were ready to do an order, to be replaced by the “Corralitos Hybrids,” which will also sell out almost immediately. I have about two dozen lilies that I’m growing myself, but they are sloooow, two years to make a plantable 4″.

Panther Lily and Corralitos Hybrid Lily

Leopard Lily and Corralitos Hybrid Lily

I didn’t know the Corralitos Hybrids but they are a cross between Lilium pitkinense and Lilium kelloggii, both of which are native to Northern California. (Pitkinense is sometimes listed as a subspecies of pardalinum. Pacific Bulb Society has photos of all of these lilies.) We snagged a half dozen, but they’re getting installed tomorrow and only spent four days in our yard. I took a photo of the two lilies side by side, the leopard lily is on the left, the Corralitos Hybrid on the right. We normally prefer to install plants when they aren’t blooming, but it’ll be pretty nice to show up at the job site with some of these. In retrospect, we should have ordered more and kept a few for ourselves. Ah, well.

Nigella, Heuchera, Larkspur, Calendula

Nigella, Heuchera, Larkspur, Calendula, Allium

A floral arrangement from last weekend shows several of the other plants blooming in our yard right now: Love in a mist (Nigella), Calendula, Heuchera “Torch, Larkspur, and the last of our Allium unifolium for the year. Check at May Dreams Gardens for lots of other plants in bloom and thank you Carol for hosting.

ryan 6/15

Maintaining Ornamental Grasses

California fescue & striped agave

California fescue, Festuca californica, in February

To illustrate how to maintain grasses for Anita’s class, we took photos of the process with one of our California fescues (Festuca Californica). The first photo is in late February with the grass full of fresh growth from the rains. California fescue is a cool season grower, so its growing season starts in the fall and ends in the spring after it blooms.   (more…)

Ornamental Grasses and Grasslike Plants

Carex testacea, Teucrium chamaedrys, Achillea Moonshine

Carex testacea, Teucrium chamaedrys, Achillea Moonshine

Anita is teaching a class at the Gardens at Heather Farms next weekend about using grasses and grasslike plants in the garden, so for the last few weeks we’ve been accumulating photos for her to use. With my attention focused on grasses, I’ve had several realizations and reminders:

The first is that I seem to consider most plants “grasslike.” Lavenders, yarrows, santolinas, gauras, oreganos, and coleonemas have all had the camera pointed at them in my search for grasslike plants. The English lavenders, in particular, with their masses of flower stalks and unopened flower buds, seem to make me reflexively point my camera like a birddog spotting a grouse. “Grasslike” means sedges, some bulbs, iris-like plants, the more slender phormiums, maybe a few other things, but some part of me seems to want to include everything else that ever grows with an upright form. Fortunately, I’m not in charge of the class. I kept to grasses and grasslike plants in the photos below. (more…)

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