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Phlomis species in the garden

The trial garden at Pépinière Filippi (, Meze, France
In the above shot of the trial garden at Pépinière Filippi, Meza, France, many different Phlomis species still wearing their spent flower stems, contrasting nicely with the various shades foliage color. Phlomis was once planted extensively in California by gardeners wishing to decrease the water footprint of their gardens. On late I note that these plants seem to be seldom used, and indeed many type we once saw in California are becoming difficult to find.

I wonder what has caused the trend away from these interesting and useful plants? Like many plants in our horticultural trade, after an initial enthusiasm for a plant they are often considered passé. Possible this group merely fell off the radar and have not yet been taken up again by growers?

Relatively speaking, these are shorter-lived plants, needing to be renewed after a time in order to keep them looking their best. This is possibly exacerbated by the fact that California soils are far richer than those in the Mediterranean homelands of most of this genus, causing these perennial shrubs to grow faster, looser, and more untidy than they would otherwise. At the inevitable time of replacement, if these plants were not available in nurseries, perhaps they’ve been replaced now by others that were.

The plantings above are on lean, stony soil, and received supplemental water only upon planting (i.e. they get only rain falls on them or what moisture they can find deep in the soil) – note their compact form. While it is true that many parts of the Mediterranean do receive occasional summer rainfall, it is clearly not in the amounts that Californians dump on their gardens year-round!

With a renewed interest in creating gardens that are not heavily irrigated, I think Phlomis species should be considered. Their foliage alone can satisfy our current trends in composing foliar contrast, and their seasonal flowering (and spent flower stems as pictured) are also an interesting and unique counterpoint to many of the plants we currently grow in our gardens.



Book: The Way We Live Alfresco

The Way We Live Alfresco

The mediterranean climate perhaps affords more days per year for spending time out-of-doors, consequently the quintessential image of sharing a meal outside in Italy, France, Spain or another Mediterranean country. This is not mere romantic folly – often the most pleasant place to spend such time is indeed outdoors, and planning the garden with this in mind should not be overlooked.

A British expat friend living in Southern Spain once told me “Gardens in England are for strolling, gardens in the Mediterranean are for sitting”. Think about it – the cooler, overcast weather of the UK usually propels garden visitors to keep moving, if only to stay warm through mild exercise, and garden design has evolved under this basic survival need, whether conscious or unconscious. In warmer mediterranean climates, one may seek warmth in finding a south facing wall or sunny area, but in summer, a bit of shade is often sought instead – in both cases the natural inclination is to tarry a while to enjoy the effect of that micro-climate.

While the images presented in The Way We Live Alfresco* are by no means exclusively from mediterranean climates, they do illustrate a wide variety of simple ways in which living outside in such regions could be accommodated. A picture is worth a thousand words and so the lack of text in this work is seldom noted, enthralled as we are in the handsomely captured garden and courtyard vignettes. I use these pages to ignite my own ideas for outdoor designing as well as to encourage client to consider new possibilities for the enhancement of their lifestyle through alfresco living.

*alfresco is defined as ‘outside of a building’ or ‘in the open air’.


A tough, dependable fern

Nephrolepis cordifolia, Southern Sword Fern, at the De Young Museum in San FranciscoTough and dependable might seem unusual adjectives to use when describing a fern, but this guy’s adaptability is almost legendary. Because it can take such a large amount of abuse, it is often subjected to same, looking worse for wear by hanging on none-the-less.

Given half a chance, Nephrolepis cordifolia, Erect Sword Fern, will reward you with its handsome, 2-3ft (60-90cm) foliage and ask for little in return.

The upright nature of the fronds also makes a nice compliment with modern architecture (here it is against the wall of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco). I’ve often planted them en masse in rectilinear beds bordered by a patio or an impenetrable edging, which they fill over time.

There is a handsome cultivar called ‘Lemon Buttons’, whose leaflets are very short and almost round. Its overall height is shorter, reaching about 1ft (30cm). ‘Duffy’ is another dwarf cultivar.

An occasional topdressing of compost and trimming of older, untidy fronds will keep a patch of fernyness going strong year after year.

Curiously, the actual origin of this species is uncertain, and is considered ‘pantropical.’ This species is occasionally listed as invasive in wetter, more humid climates (but not recorded as invasive in summer dry mediterranean regions). In the US, it is specifically causing a problem in Hawaii, Florida, and southern counties of Georgia and Alabama, which is spreads rapidly, becoming intertwined or even displacing other understory plants. It is confused with the Florida native species, Nephrolepis exaltata, which it greatly resembles. Identification by laymen is easily made by examining the rhizomes – N. cordifolia has small, round tubers and its Floridian cousin does not.


Cineraria maritima var. fairbairnianum

An illustration of this now extinct cultivar from New and Rare Beautiful Leaved Plants While doing some research on a group of gray leafed plants, I came upon this very old plate and text about an unusual (and now lost) cultivar of one of our most common garden plants. The title of this entry is the archaic name of this plant, which might be more familiar if given the genus/species of Senecio cineraria, but if this form had survived to today, it would now be more properly known as Jacobaea maritima ‘Fairbairnianum’.

New and Rare Beautiful Leaved Plants, by Shirley Hibberd, 1869, in which the above plate originally appeared, states:

    The “silver-frosted plant” of English gardens had but little celebrity in spite of its intrinsic beauty . . . Like many other hardy plants that are treated with contumely [abuse] because they happen to be cheap . . . The variety figured was raised by Mr. G. Fairbairn, head gardener to His Grace the Duke of Northumberland, Sion House. . . Its peculiarity is its clear golden yellow variegation – a most unusual occurrence in a plant of this kind.

I had long read brief references to the prior existence of this plant in various horticultural references, but this was the first time I’d ever seen a drawing of the variegation. It is interesting that the variegation was visible at all – most of the time, these leaves are covered with short, dense hairs, obscuring the color of the leaf itself. Some forms are more green on their surface (still white-tomentose on their undersides, as seems to the case in this rendering), especially on older leaves, so perhaps the variegation was only noticeable as a particular leaf became fully mature (I imagine that the center leaf of this print is more mature than the lower and smaller two on each side). The character of this unusual mutation is certainly very Victorian in character, so it no doubt made a stir during its lifetime. Very likely, when the reaction to Victorian excess cleared away its various stylistic flights of fancy, this unusual cultivar suffered the same fate.
Senecio cineraria by diemmarig on Flickr
But recently, I came across the following photo on Flickr. I’d never before seen a modern specimen of this plant mutate to a variegated form (this one became albino completely). Perhaps there is a chance that a variegated form of this common plant could again be found.


The Dry Garden: More drought ahead?

North Hollywood resident Gilda Garcia replaced her lawn with a mix of drought-tolerant plants. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

LINK: The Dry Garden: More drought ahead?.


Crithmum maritimum – rock samphire

Crithmum maritimum, originally uploaded by Qurtubas.

My wife and I saw this plant while traveling in Italy, growing happily on vertical slopes close to the Mediterranean Sea. We loved its interesting texture and color. Upon returning home to Berkeley California, I found that Annie’s Annuals had this plant in stock at the moment! We’ve grown it in our garden ever since. I understand from friends on Mallorca that many people pickle the new shoot tips for later addition to salads (I’m still looking for a recipe!).


Barrel Cactus Garden For A Modern House | The Garden Geek

Photo by Leiserovich

Link: Barrel Cactus Garden For A Modern House | The Garden Geek.


A blog by Seán A. O'Hara

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Flickr Group: mediterranean climate garden