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Nyssa sylvatica

Along with the Hawthorn, another underappreciated tree in the Bay Area is Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo. It’s not a flashy tree for much of the year, so it’s not well known around here. It’s slow growing, but in return it is long-lived, has strong branches that rarely need pruning, and its roots rarely cause damage. It handles drought and poor drainage. The regular species (the photo below) is a little nondescript but the cultivar ‘Wildfire’ (above) has red in its new spring growth. Both species and cultivar have beautiful fall color. Supposedly they can drop dried fruit, but I’ve never seen that happen. An added bonus is that whenever I see one I hear Tupelo in my head, one of my favorite Nick Cave songs.

The three in the photo above are in their third year. The one below is about ten years old. It’s the first one I ever planted, in a garden that was at one time known as the garden of death. Twelve years ago during a major remodeling one of the workers parked his Hummer in the front yard all winter long and compacted the soil so badly it became the type of clay you’d use to make a pot rather than grow plants, the heaviest clay I’ve ever seen. Almost everything died when they first planted. When we were hired, we found standing water would form anywhere we dug a hole. But the Nyssa never seemed to mind. It has grown slowly but steadily in the spot where a plum tree had been unable to survive. It looks after itself better than almost any tree I know.

Flowering Hawthorn

My parents front garden has a Hawthorn tree that makes a beautiful show of flowers every year. It almost flowers too well; I like to see the green leaves along with the white flowers but the leaves can be nearly completely covered.

I don’t know a whole lot about Hawthorns, though I grew up with this one. They seem underappreciated and under planted in the Bay Area. I guess they can be prone to fire blight. Gophers like the roots and ate the only one I’ve personally planted. But my parents’ one has grown without trouble for over thirty years. It’s my favorite element in the entire garden, ahead of the plants I chose and planted, the various ceramic sculptures, or the wall and patio I built.

A few more photos from the front garden are below. (more…)

Needlegrass versus Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

I often pass by a spot in Lafayette where two neighboring buildings have ornamental grass plantings that almost feel like they are in dialogue with each other. One features the beautiful-but-frowned-upon Mexican Feather Grass, Nasella tenuissima, while the other sports the beloved-by-the-native-plant-community Purple Needlegrass, Nasella pulchra. It’s a distinctive side by side comparison. The plants are related but their overall effect is different and their usage shows different priorities. The Feathergrass is prettier, but the Needlegrass has deeper connections with the natural environment.

Purple Needlegrass

Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass is beautiful but it’s a nuisance plant, reseeding all over people’s gardens and spreading into wild areas where it supplants native species. Environmental groups and plant societies promote alternatives for it, and at one point there was an effort to raise money to buy out and destroy all of the nursery stock in the state so that it wouldn’t be planted any more. I’m not sure how successful that effort was. It hasn’t disappeared from nurseries and I still see it in landscapes fairly often, but its heyday seems to have passed. Clients sometimes request it but less often than in the past and only if they have never grown it; if they have grown it they usually want to get rid of it.

African Daisy and Feather Grass

California Poppies and Needlegrass

Needlegrass often features on lists of substitute plants to use. Objectively, it is not as pretty and refined, but it has advantages that go beyond the merely visual. Famously, its roots can extend as deep as twenty feet underground, and that fact also reflects its deeper connections with the larger California landscape. It’s the official state grass, it evolved here in this place, it’s one of the key plants of our native grasslands and it’s a good habitat plant, attracting small birds and butterflies to the garden. This might be slightly early for it to look its most ornamental — the plants are only just starting to send up their golden flower stalks — but the California Poppies are blooming, and one of the best reasons to grow Needlegrass is as a companion for native wildflowers. This planting doesn’t look dramatically different from the mix of Lupine and weed grasses that naturally happen around my house, and for me that’s the point. The Needlegrass makes me feel like the planting is a part of the wider landscape around it; it suggests that the building was inserted into the existing natural landscape and, rather than everything getting redone with a bulldozer, that there is a connection between what is here now and what was here in the past.

Needlegrass

The biggest difference is how Needlegrass fits into the landscape. For some people that’s a disadvantage; they want everyone to recognize that their landscape is cultivated and maintained. Mexican Feather Grass and this nice patch of Osteospermum look like plants purchased from a nursery, while the Needlegrass could have easily spread by seed from the surrounding hills. But for me t

Foothill Wildflowers

Last week was peak wildflower time in our neighborhood. Most of the April bloomers are still going and the May ones have started up. I counted over a dozen species while I went for a run last weekend: Baby Blue Eyes in a few rather sparse patches (Nemophila menziesii), something I think is a white Nemophila (No Spot) Globe Lily (Calochortus albus), Mules Ears (Wyethia), two kinds of Lupine, scattered Brodiaea, two kinds of Dichelostemma, Ranunculus, some lovely thick patches of Mountain Phlox (Linanthus grandiflorus), a few Penstemon heterophyllus, Phacelia, Mimulus guttatus in the and a couple of little white flowers that I haven’t identified. It’s probably the most abundant that the flowers will be, but, more importantly, the annual grasses around them have started to dry out and the neighbors have begun to weed-wack everything.

Though, here I think the weed-wacking has an interesting effect, making it feel like the Lupine has been put into the penalty box or is in a cage match with the grasses. This used to be a vegetable garden, I remember seeing tomatoes when we first moved to the area. Now it’s a refuge for Lupine to shelter from the weed-wacking carnage of the outside world. Beautiful flower, unbeautiful fence. Built elements in our neighborhood tend to combine the forlorn with a certain rural charm.

It’s been a good year for Globe Lilies.

The most interesting wildflower in the area is Twining Snakelily, Dichelostemma volubile, a bulb that twines up other plants. I’m not sure why it surprises me so much to see a bulb that twines, but I find it fascinating. A very cool wildflower.

Update — On Memorial day I saw white Yarrow in full bloom, two kinds of Clarkia, a fair bit of Penstemon heterophyllus, Mimulus guttatus in full bloom in the ditches, some Mimulus aurantiacus, and the Buckeyes are about at peak. The April bloomers are done.
Update — June 20 everything is basically done. The Toyons are blooming, the occasional Penstemon or Clarkia has a flower, but everything else is done.

The Tule Tree

TuleTree

Happy new year. I’ve been on a trip to Oaxaca, skipping out on a lot of the rain and mudslides we’ve been having. I’ll probably have some posts related to that at some point — among other things a sinkhole opened in one of my gardens where EBMUD punctured a storm drain — but for now I’ll be posting about Oaxaca. Its stonework, ruins, art, and plants are the stuff DryStoneGarden dreams are made of.

TuleTrunk

One of the first things I did was visit the Tule Tree, a Montezuma Cypress with the world’s widest tree trunk, 46 feet across at its widest point, 147 feet total in diameter. I recommend clicking on the photo to get the full size view. The people in the left corner give a sense of scale.

TuleChurch

The tree is beside a church in the center of a town. One legend says it was planted 1400 years ago by a priest of the Aztec wind god, another legend says it was a walking stick planted by a king or god. More recently, someone planted hollyhocks, roses, and a lawn around it, creating a distinct ‘world’s biggest ball of twine’ vibe. The topiary collection includes a dinosaur, a teddy bear, and kissing ducks.

TuleDucks

TuleTrunk1

But in spite of that, a 1400 year old tree has a presence powerful enough to overcome any indignity presented by its surroundings. The trunk is truly superlative.

TuleTrunk2

Tule2

And even more than the trunk, the canopy is magnificent, like an entire forest in a single tree. The branches droop down nearly to the ground, giving a wonderful sense of enclosure, and the trunks rise up like the clustered columns of a gothic cathedral.

Tule1

I’ve been in groves that felt like a cathedral, but I’d never had that feeling from a single tree.

Tule3

The (Not Entirely) Native Green Wall Revisited Again

drewschoolgreenwall1

I stopped by the Drew School green wall again recently. Planted with California natives by the world’s foremost green waller Patrick Blanc, it’s the most interesting green wall in the Bay Area and I’ve been checking in on it periodically. Helpfully, it’s a few blocks from one of my ongoing projects.

drewschoolgreenwall4

drewschoolgreenwall3

I was impressed the first time I saw it in 2011 and again when I visited in May 2015. This time not as much; there’s a lot of bare felt and dead foliage. November is not its month to shine, so maybe I’m being a little unfair, but photos of green walls seem to always show them either looking brand new and gorgeous or completely dead and failure-soaked. This one is somewhere in between those two extremes, but probably more towards the dead side of the spectrum at the moment. I didn’t see anything wrong with the overall system, just that it could use maintenance and replanting; I’m sure it will be better looking in the spring. At this point, I still think it compares reasonably with a conventional garden — more ambitious, more expensive, requiring more maintenance, and more thrilling when it hits its peak. Even with the bare patches and dead foliage, it’s still an exciting thing to see on the side of a building.

drewschoolgreenwall2

One disappointment, though, is the use of non-natives where many of the California plants failed to establish themselves long term. The wall now sports some New Zealand Tree Ferns and a lot of European Geranium. Penstemon heteropyllus and Mimulus bloomed prettily at first but were short-lived. Heuchera, a plant which often grows on cliffs, thrived in the first few years but is now almost gone. Oxalis and Asarum have faded away, and the long runners of Beach Strawberry, which draped over several sections of the wall when I first saw it, must not have managed to attach roots to the felt and have now withered away. None of that is entirely atypical for a native planting in such an urban area. This was Patrick Blanc’s first time using California natives, and he always acknowledged that it was somewhat experimental. I wonder what he would say about it. It’s no longer the tapestry he first planted but it has begun to approximate a recognizable native habitat, the type of fern-covered slope I showed in a post about the Bouverie Preserve. With deciduous ferns lower down and scruffy shrubs higher up, that particular habitat is gorgeous and green in spring, less delightful in its off-season, and then gorgeous and green again.

drewschoolgreenwall6

Update — May 2017 — Even in the heart of spring it looked pretty dismal.

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