Japanese Black Pine

Japanese black pines develops delightful cones.

It is unfortunate that most live Christmas trees grow too large for compact home gardens. Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii, which is very rarely available as a live Christmas tree, does not get much taller than twenty feet locally. Although it can slowly get about as broad, its sculpturesque branch structure adapts to pruning for containment if necessary.

Japanese black pine is a notably versatile pine. Most pines are excurrent (with a primary central trunk) or develop another similarly uncompromising form. Few are as cooperative with such casual form and relatively contained size as the Japanese black pine is. In the wild, it grows taller than a hundred feet. Yet, it is also very popular for bonsai and niwaki.

The evergreen foliage is richly deep green. The paired needles are about four and a half inches long, and perhaps stiffer than they appear to be. The cones are about two or three inches long, and nicely symmetrical. Fresh foliage and fresh or dried cones are useful for home decor. Even young trees have handsomely flaky bark, which darkens with rain.

Burro’s Tail

Burro’s Tail is old fashioned, but can also be contemporary.

Back when big spider plants or Boston ferns suspended in fancy beaded macrame were all the rage through the 1970’s, burrow’s tail, Sedum morganianum, was an unusual but also trendy succulent perennial for sunny spots in the home or sheltered and slightly shaded spots in the garden. The refined foliar texture and light bluish green color contrasted nicely with the big and deep green leaves of comparably trendy philodendrons. The thin stems are too limber to stand up, but cascade excellently. Plants in the garden that get pruned back while dormant in winter can easily get two feet long through summer. Without pruning, big plants can get longer than six feet. Pruning scraps and even the small but plump leaves can be rooted and grown into new plants. It is impossible to prune or even move burro’s tail without dislodging some of the leaves anyway. Watering should be regular but not excessive, but then minimal for plants in the garden through winter.

Mediterranean fan palm

The strikingly silver Atlas Mountain palm.

Not all palms are trees. Some lack trunks, so develop more as shrubbery. Some develop many slender stems, like bamboo. The thin canes of most rattan palms sprawl onto other vegetation for support, as vines. Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, develops multiple stout trunks, but grows so slowly that it can function as big sculptural shrubbery.

Old trunks can eventually get as high as twenty feet, and generally lean randomly. If they get too tall, smaller and more vigorous trunks can replace them. (An arborist can remove the bulky and thorny old trunks.) New trunks develop from basal pups, which can can get too densely foliated without occasional thinning. Removal of such pups might be difficult.

Mature trunks might be as wide as ten inches, with dense coats of basal petiole fiber and thorny petiole stubs. Thorough grooming can eliminate the stubs. However, petioles that suspend the evergreen palmate leaves are outfitted with the same wickedly sharp teeth. Leaves are about two feet wide. Atlas Mountain palm, Chamaerops humilis var.(iety) argentea has strikingly silvery foliage, and grows even slower.

Angel Wing Begonia

Begonia involucrata at Monte Verde

The simple pink or sometimes red or white flowers of angel wing begonia are not as flashy as those of other begonias, and are not abundant enough to provide much color. During warm weather, they are merely a minor bonus to the striking foliage. As the name implies, the big and angularly lobed leaves are shaped like wings of angels. Upper surfaces are glossy and dark green with irregular silvery spots. Undersides are even glossier and reddish bronze. With support, the lanky cane stems can get more than twelve feet tall. However, because older tall canes produce runty foliage, they are often pruned out to promote more vigorous and lushly foliated young canes.

Because they are sensitive to frost, and also because they are ideal houseplants, angel wing begonias are typically grown in containers. They like rather regular but not excessive watering, and rich potting soil. Abundant sunlight enhances foliar color; but harsh exposure roasts foliage. Partial shade is not a problem.

Mound Lily

Mound lily cultivars are generally variegated.

A few of the fifty or so species of Yucca go by the names of Spanish bayonet or Spanish dagger. Both common names apply to Yucca gloriosa. However, only this single species is also the mound lily. Most other Spanish bayonet and Spanish dagger are from deserts or chaparrals. Mound lily is from southeastern North America, so likes periodic watering.

If that is not confusing enough, the curved leaf yucca, which had been Yucca recurvifolia, is now Yucca gloriosa var.(iety) tristis. It has distinctly pliable leaves with a matte surface texture, and is rarely variegated. Mound lily has stiffer and smoother leaves that are more likely to be variegated. It had been rare, but is becoming one of the more popular yuccas. 

Although it does not grow fast, and takes many years to form stout trunks, mound lily can eventually get taller than six feet. Taller floral panicles rise above the densely evergreen foliage. The small and pendulous flowers are pale white, perhaps blushed with brownish purple and pink. The leaves are about a foot or two long and maybe three inches wide, with very sharp terminal spines.

Statice

Statice is about as colorful dried as it is while fresh.

The papery flowers of annual statice, Limonium sinuatum, are so popular as seemingly synthetic dried flowers that many garden enthusiasts are surprised to find that they are happy to bloom naturally in home gardens. The clear shades of blue, purple, pink, orange, yellow and white seem to be dyed. The one or two foot tall flower stems are outfitted with odd papery ‘wings’ that make the stems seem wider than they actually are. Deeply lobed basal foliage forms shallow rosettes. Mature plants are about one or two feet tall, and a foot or so wide. Bloom begins late in summer, and continues into autumn. Good sun exposure and good drainage are preferred. Seed can be sown directly, or young plants can be added to the garden early in spring.

Blue Spruce

Most blue spruce are garden varieties.

Sitka and Brewer spruce both live at low elevations and near the coast within their native ranges. Yet, neither perform as well here as blue spruce, Picea pungens, which is native to much higher inland regions of the Rocky Mountains. It grows neither as big nor as fast here as in the wild, so few old local trees are taller than thirty feet, or broader than twenty. 

Although compact, blue spruce should get sufficient space to develop its densely conical form without pruning for confinement or clearance. Such pruning is disfiguring. Since the evergreen canopy is so dense, it should retain low branches to the ground for as long as possible. Blue spruce works more like big and formal shrubbery than like compact trees.

Some cultivars of blue spruce are very stout and rounded. Most have remarkably blue or silvery color. Seed grown trees (which are not cultivars) are sometimes available online. They have potential to exhibit notable variation. Some might develop slightly more open canopies, with elegantly upwardly curved limbs. Spruce needles are about an inch long with quite a prickly texture.

Coral Bells

Most coral bells are grown for their colorful foliage.

From Santa Barbara to Vancouver, and also in central Idaho, the humble native coral bells, Heuchera micrantha, is not much to look at, with compact rosettes of relatively small and bronzy rounded leaves with weird tomentum (hairs). In spring and early summer, and sometimes again in autumn, sparse trusses of minute brick red flowers hover about a foot above on wiry and slightly fuzzy stems. Old plants that get bare in the middle can be divided into several small plants in spring or autumn.

Modern cultivars are considerably more interesting, with more substantial foliage in various shades of green, gold, tan, brown, bronze and purplish bronze. The larger and variably lobed leaves can be two inches wide or slightly wider. The flowers stand as much as two feet high, but lack color. Most are pale greenish white. ‘Palace Purple’ has deep bronze or almost purplish foliage. ‘Ruffles’ has deeply lobed and ruffled green leaves. Unlike undemanding wild plants that can grow in cracks in exposed stone, modern cultivars like rich soil. Harsh exposure can scorch foliage, so a bit of partial shade is preferred.

Many coral bells have delightful bloom as an added bonus to their foliage.

Curly Willow

Curly willow is also corkscrew willow.

They start out simply enough, as weirdly twisted bare stems in fancy floral arrangements. By the time the last flowers fade, the submerged parts of these bare stems develop roots and perhaps leaves. These now rooted cuttings then graduate into pots or gardens. Most curly willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’, is therefore unplanned. It is rare from nurseries.

Mature trees should not get much taller than fifteen feet, with awkwardly irregular branch structure. Regular pruning and grooming eliminates congested and structurally deficient growth. Alternatively, pollarding or coppicing during winter dormancy promotes vigorous growth. Healthy trees can drop overburdened limbs, and might live for only twenty years. 

Curly willow, which is also corkscrew willow, is popular more for distinctively curly stems than as a small deciduous shade tree. Specimens that provide such stems for cutting do not need to be very big. If cut and dried while dormant during winter, stems can not grow roots in water. Nor will they require plucking to remove their leaves, which are also curly.

Valley Oak

Valley oak is the grandest of oaks.

From the north end of the Sacramento Valley to the San Fernando Valley, the valley oak, Quercus lobata, is among the most familiar and distinctive of native oaks. It is the largest oak of North America, reaching more than a hundred feet tall with trunks as wide as ten feet, which is why it is rare in urban gardens. The hundred fifty foot tall ‘Henley Oak’ of Covelo is the tallest hardwood tree in North America. The oldest trees are about six centuries old.

The two or three inch long leaves have deep and round lobes. The foliage turns only dingy yellow and then brown in autumn, and can be messy as it continues to fall through early winter, particularly since the trees have such big canopies. The gnarly limbs are strikingly sculptural while bare through the rest of winter. The gray bark is evenly furrowed.

Incidentally, Oakland, Thousand Oaks, Paso Robles and various other communities within their range are named for valley oaks. (‘Roble’ is the Spanish name.)