Succulents (part 1)

ImageThese days, succulent plants seem to always be in the public spotlight.  Newspaper articles, books, blogs, magazines, TV spots, social media all regularly promote succulents as easy care, drought resistant, varied in color and form.  Usually these small pieces show a cacophony of diverse types, often jammed together into small spaces for an instant show (kind of like arranging flowers).  Seldom do these ‘arrangements’ last very long, either because they weren’t sustainable in the first place or because the owner knows little of the true needs of these plants.  But no worry, one can just go out and create another, using fragments of the original (most succulents root easily from casually planted cuttings) or by purchasing from the vast array of plants regularly available from retailers (succulents can be easy and inexpensive to produce en masse).

Seldom do any of the media examples showcase the mature form of a particular succulent plant or explain its native habitat and growing conditions.  ‘Succulents’ is a man-conceived grouping (one of the least natural) and include species from a variety of places around the globe, representing various climate zones and conditions.  Yet the cultural instructions offered by many experts do not include these details.  Because the plants we are talking about are generally tolerant of neglect or less than ideal circumstances, they continue to grow.  But if you are familiar with what a given species can look like when grown under optimal conditions, you can see the disparity.

Now there is a definite horticultural sub-cult of succulent fanciers whose main aim often seems to be growing as many different species, forms, or types of a certain group, or growing the only most rare or difficult and eschewing the common.  This is another thing entirely and can lead to an equally skewed horticultural practice.  Plants are grown as part of a collection, often for shows, and seldom allowed to mature to express their natural ways.  Species are made to conform to some fairly rigid concepts for keeping collections healthy or cultivating them for shows.  Consider the difference between an image of dogs playing in a dog park and those at a dog show to see what I mean.  While I have nothing against any of this, it is not why I am interested in succulents.

(to be continued)


A fall-blooming Arum species

Fall bloomers always catch my attention – not only do they provide interest and color when a lot of other plants are still just waking up from summer-dry semi (or total) dormancy, but they also celebrate what I consider to be the ‘start’ of the natural year in mediterranean climates – Arum pictum, courtesy of Plant Delights Nursery when the rainy season begins!

Arum pictum, the only fall blooming in its genus, is a plant I’d like to grow someday soon. Not often available, I’ve yet to be able to acquire it, nor have I heard from anyone who might be growing it in California – to see how it adapts to our local conditions.  I like the idea of a fall blooming Arum, with the flowers opening at the same time that the foliage is fresh  (the other spring bloomers flower when the foliage is looking tired or already starting to go dormant).
Here is what the famous authority of the genus Arum, Peter Boyce,  has to say about this species:

“The leaves of A. pictum display a variety of colours, depending on the stage of development reached. On first emerging they are a deep, shiny, metallic green, with the margins . . . tinged with purple. As the leaf expands the purple . . . coloration fades while the main and lateral veins become slightly paler; the margin however retains its coloration. As the season progresses . . . the veins continue to lighten until late spring, when they stand out as a creamy-white to silvery-grey network. The late season coloration of A. pictum leaves is similar to the silver-grey veining of many forms of A. italicum, although the leaf shape is very different. In view of this similarity it is hardly surprising that these two plants have been much confused in the past. In addition to its attractive foliage, A. pictum produces spathes at the start of the growth period in the autumn, a flowering pattern which is unique to this species.
Arum pictum was first described by Linnaeus the younger from material gathered on Corsica, where it occurs in stony or rocky places or beneath low scrub.”

If anyone reading this has experience with growing this species, I’d be most interested in hearing from you – especially if you know of a source for this interesting plant .


Don’t forget to remember rosemary *

Bay Trail, frontage road, and Interstate 80
My wife and I were taking a standard exercise walk along a section of the Bay Trail in Berkeley and I could not help but note the various plantings that had been done as part of creating this pathway. A number of plants had obviously not stood up to the constant wind, salt spray, and lack of irrigation or consistent care, testified by their corpses ‘decorating’ the edge of the walkway (note in the photo above, courtesy of Google Earth).

But there were several grouping that did seem to be surviving in spite of these harsh conditions. One species among the successful was Rosmarinus officinalis, the common rosemary. In one particular area, prone to blowing dust from a nearby area used to dump/store/move landfill, the rosemary look at first to be among the casualties until a closer look revealed new blue flowers opening through the caked mud coating each leaf and stem!

As long as I’ve been gardening, I’ve noticed rosemary plants would usually be among those plant remaining when a garden was left and neglected. Rosemary flower, by Manuel Ramos of Flickr Once established, this tough shrub seems more than happy to take our longer-than-the-Mediterranean summer dry period (about 6 months) and is generally unfussy about soil (except for sodden muck). A true workhorse.

Unfortunately, most of the time there are only a few cultivars planted – ubiquitously with deep blue flowers and good green foliage. As a species, Rosmarinus officinalis is one of the most variable in form, color, and eventual size. It is a real shame that we do not see more of this variety in gardens here in California, though many types are available through herb specialists and adventurous growers.

Rosemaries in Olivier's trial garden

Our friend, Olivier Filippi, in the south of France, runs a nursery devoted to all manner of Mediterranean native and mediterranean climate adapted species, and he collects rosemaries enthusiastically. The photo above is a mere handful of cultivars he grows in his trial garden. Note their compact shapes – this is only in part a characteristic of each cultivar’s habit – because he does not believe in watering (I mean, at all! ever!), all his plants grow more slowly and compact than they do in irrigated gardens, and they live longer and have better color/fragrance.

I especially like the white flowered plant in this shot (on the left; apparently from the Costa Brava in Spain). Also note the yellow-green foliage form – this is ‘Joyce de Baggio’ which I gave him from my garden in Oakland. There are many more type Olivier grows, some virtually flat growing, others enormously tall like yews! I find a grouping of various contrasting rosemary plants so interesting in a garden!

* “There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance.
Pray, love, remember.”
~Shakespeare, Hamlet


Pelargonium sidoides (Hort.)

Pelargonium sidoides in my garden

Certainly a love-hate thing we’ve got going on with this plant right now. Growing endlessly and never ceasing to be in flower, it is almost boring in its consistency and certainly thuggish in its habit.  This South African native’s gray-green, leathery leaves with well-defined scalloped edges are attractive in their own right, but its the unusually dark colored flowers that seem to catch people’s attention – not actually ‘black’, but close enough for many who find the black flower mystique irresistible.

This plant makes a nice showing in our garden when it is not overwhelming anything surrounding it! It is approximately 4ft (1.3m) across right now (if only we weren’t also interesting in growing plants other than this one!). My standard procedure is the cut out the farthest reaching stems which tend to originate from underneath the shorter stems on top.  By cutting them as near to the center of the plant as possible, the cut stems are hidden by the shorter stems and foliage. Other than being a little untidy, the finished product looks remarkably normal.  It also is good to cut out some of the ‘bloomed out’ spikes, which continue to elongate as flower open and are spent, until they can’t seem to produce any more.

Sean Hogan, of Cistus Nursery in Oregon, who was once in charge of the South Africa section of the Botanical Garden at UC Berkeley, has always maintained that the plant we grow in our gardens under this name is actually a hybrid of P. sidoides and the closely related P. reniforme. The unceasing vigor of this garden plant would certainly seem to bear this out, but in spite of Sean’s insistence, I’ve never seen this hybrid documented.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe my eponymous friend is correct in his assertion of the hybrid status of this garden plant. But without any other authority to back this up, it is hard to convince others who are not as observant of the traits just discussed.

Other types of P. sidoides have been offered in our local trade at times, often with a much darker flower (typical of the true species), but they are never as vigorous as this guy. P. reniforme has a more pink flower, sometimes with darker markings – it is also occasionally offered (I’ve grown for a time and then suddenly died for no apparent reason).


Chorisia flowering – Mediterranean Garden, Oakland, CA

Silk Floss tree, by Patrick Albin
The annual flowering of this Silk Floss tree, Chorisia speciosa, is something those familiar with this garden mark on their calendars! Planted on the edge of the Palmatum at the Gardens at Lakeside Park in Oakland, it makes a dramatic backdrop for the newly created Mediterranean Garden next door. Check out this article on The Garden Geek.


The Man Who Planted Trees

Illustration by Frédéric Back, 1987

The tale of Elzeard Bouffier, a solitary shephard who devotes himself to reforesting a desolate portion of Provence, in southern France, was originally written by Jean Giono, who was asked in 1953 by an American Publisher to write about an unforgettable character.

Apparently they meant him to write about a real character. When the editors objected that there was no record of a Elzeard Bouffier ever having died in Banon, France, Monsieur Giono informed them that, even though fictional, he was none-the-less unforgettable. Unable to publish the work now written, Jean Giono donated the story freely “to all humanity”, seeking no compensation then or in the future. It was soon after published by Vogue in 1954 and has been retold repeatedly and in many different languages. Never having received financial compensation for this tale was felt by the author to be completely fitting to the values expressed in the story.

I have a copy of this story published in 1985 by Chelsea Green, with beautiful wood engravings by artist Michael McCurdy and an afterword by Norma L. Goodrich (Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at the Claremont Colleges).  I have never forgotten this story and recently picked it up and reread it yet again, prompting me to post this information.

In modern times, some publishers have sought to take over the copyright of this popular story, generating outrage from many literary and environmentalist camps. There has even been a movement to remove the text of the story from various internet resources and prevent the online publication of works such as what I am sharing with you now.

Here the storywas adapted into an animated short by illustrator/animator Frédéric Back in 1987, narrated by Christopher Plummer, and produced by Radio-Canada (posted to YouTube in four parts) .


Using Containers in Small Garden Spaces – Nan Sterman

A friend, Nan Sterman, does a great job in her video simplifying design concepts that can be used to add interest and variety to a small garden – something many homeowners in California always need.


A blog by Seán A. O'Hara

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