Bougainvillea is profuse and vividly colorful.

No other bloom is comparable to that of bougainvillea. It is often profuse enough to nearly obscure the foliage. The color is remarkably vibrant. Magenta is the most popular color. Purple might be the second most popular color. Other cultivars bloom in delightfully rich hues of pink, red, orange, yellow and white. Some bloom with double flowers. A few dwarf cultivars have variegated foliage.

Bougainvillea is a thorny vine that leans on its support, rather than cling to it. Like climbing roses, it must be tied or woven into trellises. Larger cultivars can mix with the branches of trees and big shrubs to eventually reach more than thirty feet high. Many cultivars stay much lower. Some grow slowly, and do not get more than three feet tall. The lush foliage is evergreen with regular watering.

However, bougainvillea does not want too much water, and actually prefers to get a a bit dry between regular irrigation. Excessive irrigation may promote vegetative growth while inhibiting bloom. Excessive fertilizer does the same. Sunny and warm exposure promotes fuller bloom. In late spring, the first and most profuse of perhaps a few bloom phases can continue for more than a month.

Santa Barbara Daisy

Some of us know Santa Barbara daisy by the less appealing name of ‘fleabane’.

Santa Barbara was not exactly its first choice. Santa Barbara daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, is not even native to California. It is actually from Central America. It just happens to do very well here, and can naturalize if conditions are right. It can be rather grungy through summer in the wild, but with a bit of watering, it can bloom nicely all year.

The thin stems can spread a few feet without getting more than a foot deep. If even shallower growth is preferred, older plants can be cut down or pulled up as they get replaced by their own offspring. The narrow leaves are quite tiny. The white or slightly pinkish flowers are not much bigger, less than half an inch wide, with prominent yellow centers.

Santa Barbara daisy is also known as Mexican fleabane, both because it is actually native to Mexico, and also because it is supposedly useful for repelling fleas. The problem with using it to repel fleas is that only its smoke is effective. There are probably other herbal alternatives that work just as well without being a fire hazard.

Lily Of The Nile

Agapanthus bloom looks like Independence Day.

It is no lily, but it does live on the banks of the Nile River. Lily of the Nile, Agapanthus africanus, endures both long dry summers and winter flooding. While inundated, it clings to the silty soil with a sturdy network of rubbery roots. Densely mounding foliage regenerates as floodwater recedes. If conditions get exceptionally warm and dry, foliage may eventually shrivel after midsummer bloom.

Home gardens are certainly more hospitable than the floodplains of the Nile River. The luxuriant foliage of lily of the Nile is evergreen locally, even if irrigation is minimal. The rubbery leaves get as long as two feet, arching outward from basal rosettes. New foliage obscures deteriorating old foliage. Plants that get too congested to bloom well might benefit from division of individual rosettes.

Lily of the Nile blooms around Independence Day, with round floral trusses that resemble exploding fireworks. Each blue or white bloom stands about two to four feet high, on slim and bare stems. Individual florets are small and tubular. ‘Storm Cloud’ blooms with darker blue or purple. Agapanthus orientalis may exhibit bigger blooms and coarser foliage. ‘Peter Pan’ stays low and compact.

Elephant Ears

The origin of taro is vague.

Taro was grown as a vegetable in ancient Egypt. It was grown in India before that. A few hundred varieties were cultivated in precolonial Hawaii. Taro was likely native to southeast Asia, but has been in cultivation for so long that it is difficult to know where it originated from. In modern American gardens, it is known as elephant ears, Calocasia esculenta, and grown for its striking foliage.

The big and broad leaves are held as high as six feet on long petioles (leaf stalks), and flare out as broadly as three feet, although many varieties get half as tall and broad. Some varieties have weirdly dark foliage. Others have green leaves with colorful veins. A few are simply jade green. Any of the deciduous foliage that lingers into winter should be cut back before spring.

Since they are naturally bog plants, elephant ears likes very rich potting soil and plenty of water. Muddy clay soil that will not float away works fine for pots submerged in ponds. (Ick!) Partial shade is important. Leaves can get roasted if too exposed. To propagate, corms can be divided while dormant in winter. All parts of elephant ears are toxic until cooked.

Bigleaf Maple

A maple with unusually big leaves.

Its natural coastal range extends from the extreme southern corner of Alaska to the southwestern corner of California. Another inland range occupies foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, is the most common and prominent native maple here. However, it prefers the seclusion of forested riparian situations at higher elevations locally. It is rare in urban gardens.

Bigleaf maple is best in the wild anyway. It dislikes the aridity of most of the urban and suburban areas of California. (San Jose is in a chaparral climate. Los Angeles is in a desert climate.) Roots of bigleaf maple are potentially aggressive, especially if irrigated generously. They easily displace pavement. Nonetheless, where climate and circumstances allow, bigleaf maple is a grand tree.

Wild trees grow as tall as a hundred fifty feet within forests where they compete for sunlight. Well exposed suburban trees should stay lower than forty feet, while extending their canopies broader than tall. The big and palmately lobed leaves are mostly more than six inches wide. Foliage turns yellow in autumn, and is abundant as it falls. Self sown seedlings often grow under mature trees.

Water Lily

Water lily bloom emerges from the depths.

The fragrant flowers of water lily are unreal! They either float on the surface of the water, or hover just above. Abundant pointed petals radiate outward from central tufts of pronounced stamens. Most flowers are soft hues of yellow, pink, blue, lavender, peachy orange or white. Some are brighter yellow or pink, or richer shades of red or purple. Some open in the morning. Others open in the evening.

The rubbery leaves that float on the surface of the water are nearly circular. Some are symmetrically cleft to the center, like Pac-Man or a pizza with a slice taken out. The thick rhizomes that the foliage and flowers emerge from stay buried in pots or mud under the ponds that they live in. Rhizomes can be divided to propagate, but take a year or so to recover and bloom.

Shiny Xylosma

Shiny xylosma should get more respect.

As a backdrop for more interesting plants, shiny xylosma, Xylosma congestum, may not get the respect that it deserves. If it seems to be a bit too common in some big landscapes, it is probably because it is so practical. It can function like the strictly shorn hedges that were popular decades earlier, but is a bit more adaptable to modern landscape styles. It can be formal or quite informal.

Formal hedges of shiny xylosma are typically no taller than eight feet, and a bit more plump than old fashioned privet hedges. They can get a bit sparse if kept too lean. Informal hedges are mostly lower and plumper, with casually irregular surfaces and no corners. Old shiny xylosma can grow as a small tree more than eight feet tall. Younger specimens are of the shorter cultivar, ‘Compacta’.

Established shiny xylosma is surprisingly resilient. Roots disperse impressive distances to reach moisture so that old specimens can survive without direct irrigation. Although, they prefer regular watering. Overgrown specimens can eventually regenerate nicely from coppicing or pollarding. The main disadvantage is that vigorous new growth will likely develop concealed but sharp thorns.

Million Bells

Million Bells look like small petunias.

Its name may be something of an exaggeration, but million bells, or Calibrachoa, certainly is profuse. However, although it is potentially perennial, it is usually grown as a warm season annual, so it  only has a few months from spring to autumn in which to bloom with a million flowers. Many plants combined might be up to the task.

The tiny flowers resemble petunias more than bells. Actually, the entire plant grows something like very compact petunias, which they are obviously closely related to. The stems are too limber to stand half a foot tall as they spread to about a foot wide. The small and unremarkably hazy green leaves are adequate backdrop for bloom.

The bloom is the remarkable part, displaying all sorts of shades and hues of red, yellow, blue, purple, orange, pink and white. There are not many colors left out. Just like petunia, million bells cascades nicely from pots. Unlike petunia, it does not benefit from deadheading (removal of deteriorating flowers). What is good for petunia is generally good for million bells, although a slight bit of shade is somewhat more tolerable. They want rich soil, regular watering and regular application of fertilizer. (Monthly application of common slow release fertilizer is probably as good as anything fancy.)

California Bay

California bay is not Grecian bay.

Because of the common name, California bay, Umbellularia californica, sometimes substitutes for Grecian bay. The two are actually very different. Grecian bay is a culinary herb that grows as a compact tree. California bay has a distinctively pungent flavor that is objectionably strong for most culinary applications. It grows fast to thirty feet tall, and gets a hundred feet tall in shady forests.

Because it gets so big and messy, California bay is not so popular for planting into home gardens. However, because it is native, it sometimes self sows into landscapes. Some mature trees live within gardens that developed around them. California bay can work well in spacious landscapes, with plants that do not mind its shade and leaf litter. Annuals and seedlings dislike the leaf litter.

Old forest trees make the impression than California bay typically develops an awkward and lanky form. That is only because they do what they must to compete for sunlight. Well exposed trees, although lofty as they mature, are more densely structured. Some have a few big trunks, with checked gray bark. Old trees are likely to develop distended basal burl growth known as a lignotuber.


Bloom is sporadic, but the delightful purplish blue color is worth it.

If the Latin name of dwarf periwinkle is Vinca minor, it is logical that large periwinkle should be Vinca major. Large periwinkle is more commonly known simply as periwinkle or common periwinkle, although it is not as common as dwarf periwinkle is, at least in landscapes. In some regions, it has naturalized as an invasive weed.

Some might accurately say that periwinkle is shabbier than the relatively neat and dense dwarf periwinkle. Others might say that it is just rustic or informal. The wiry stems stand less than a foot tall before they bend over from their own weight. Fallen stems can root where they touch the ground, and grow into new plants over winter.

The evergreen foliage is rich green, and a bit darker than the top of a billiard table. The simple paired leaves are about an inch and a half to two inches long. The slightly purplish blue flowers are about an inch and a half wide, with five petals each. Bloom is sporadic, but almost continuous, except for a lapse through winter.