Honeybush

Bold color, texture, form and scale.

Where winter weather is cooler, honeybush, Melianthus major, is likely to be deciduous. If so, it annually sheds all growth that is above ground. It can not bloom where deciduous because only growth of a previous season can bloom. That is no problem here. Dark red floral spikes bloom boldly about two feet above jungly evergreen foliage for early spring.

This silvery gray foliage can grow taller and wider than six feet, even if deciduous during winter. Foliar texture is both luxuriant and elegant. Pinnately compound leaves are more than a foot long with serrate leaflets. Evergreen plants are tidier with grooming to remove deteriorating older foliage as new foliage replaces it. Deciduous plants are always fresh.

‘Antonow’s Blue’ is a bit bluer than the straight species. ‘Purple Haze’ is slightly purplish, with a slightly finer foliar texture. Some notice that the rich fragrance of honeybush bloom resembles that of honey. Also, some notice that the foliar aroma can be rather grungy. All parts of honeybush are toxic. Honeybush wants regular watering and abundant sunlight.

Yaupon

The unflattering Latin name does not suit the yaupon, which can make a tailored formal hedge of dense foliage, or a neat informal (unshorn) screen that may occasionally produce a few colorful winter berries.

Hollies are innately uncommon in California. Yaupon (holly), Ilex vomitoria, happens to be one of the least common. Ironically, because of its small leaves and dense growth, it is more tolerant to frequent shearing by maintenance gardeners who ruin other hollies. It can actually make a nice shorn hedge.

Hedged yaupon can eventually get up to the eaves of a single story. Unshorn plants can reach the eaves of a second story, and might display showy red berries about an eighth of an inch wide. The small and often randomly serrate leaves are only about half to an inch long, and maybe half an inch wide.

Arborvitae

Arborvitae is mostly tall evergreen shrubbery.

During the Colonial Period of America, American arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, was one of the first native species to become popular for home gardening. It is native as far south as the Great Smoky Mountains, and as far east as Minnesota. Wild trees can be fifty feet tall, with trunks as wide as three feet. They might grow larger to compete with other trees.

Of course, the oldest cultivated varieties, as well as relatively modern cultivars, are much more compact. Many modern cultivars are hybrids. Some are different species. They are densely evergreen shrubbery that work well as hedging. Their distinctly ruddy or grayish brown bark is barely visible. Their bloom is unimpressive. Foliage is their primary asset.

It is quite an asset. Although arborvitae is conducive to shearing, its billowy foliar texture is too appealing to compromise by frequent shearing. Scale leaves are barely more than an eighth of an inch long, like those of junipers, but are more pliable on soft and flattened foliar sprays. Such sprays are delightful coniferous evergreens for wreaths and garlands.

Bald Cypress

Although very rare here, bald cypress is prominent enough in the South to be the state tree of Louisiana.

There are very few coniferous (cone bearing) trees that are deciduous; and because most prefer cooler winters, very few are ever seen in local gardens. The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, happens to be one of the few deciduous coniferous trees that really could be more popular than it is, since it seems to be right at home in mild climates. It is native to coastal riparian regions from Maryland to Florida to eastern Texas, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as far as Indiana.

The soft foliage resembles that of coastal redwood, but is more finely textured. It is still mostly light green, but will soon be turning paper bag brown before trees go bare. The tiny individual leaves are shaped like flat pine needles, and are not much more than half an inch long. The ruddy or grayish brown bark is finely shaggy.

In the wild, mature bald cypress trees can get more than a hundred feet tall with trunks more than five feet wide. Some of the largest trees have buttressed trunks as wide as fifteen feet! Trees in swamps develop distended growth from their roots known as ‘knees’, which can stand several feet tall! Fortunately, bald cypress rarely get half as tall or develop such massive trunks locally.

Bald cypress is one of the few deciduous conifers; so the finely textured light green foliage will soon be gone.

Firethorn

Firethorn is a familiar wintry berry.

Its name says it all. Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea, produces an abundance of fiery red berries on unavoidably thorny stems. A few old fashioned cultivars produce equally fiery orange berries. Cultivars with fiery yellow berries are now rare. Berries ripen for autumn, in time to feed migratory birds. Late berries can last longer after migratory birds are gone.

The rigid and wickedly thorny stems of firethorn work well as impenetrable hedges. They are rather difficult to prune and handle without impalement though. Unfortunately, simple shearing deprives formal hedges of some of their new growth that blooms and fruits most abundantly. Selective pruning is tedious and more hazardous, but might enhance bloom.

Shrubby cultivars of firethorn can grow higher than first floor eaves. Mature and vigorous hedges with hefty interior trunks at such height can generate spirelike growth that almost reaches second floor eaves. With pruning, some cultivars that sprawl close to the ground can stay quite low. Without pruning, some slowly form thickets that are several feet deep.

Colorado Blue Spruce

With such densely foliated low limbs reaching the ground, Colorado blue spruce functions as much as large shrubbery as a small tree.

Colorado and Utah share the same stately state tree; the Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens, which is native to the Rocky Mountains between Arizona, New Mexico and southern Idaho. Colorado blue spruce are stoutly conical trees that grow slowly to eventually get more than seventy five feet tall. Where they need to compete with other trees in forests, the biggest are nearly twice as tall with trunks nearly five feet wide. However, because they grow so slowly, and do not get much bigger then they need to, well exposed trees stay proportionate to home gardens for many decades. Many shrubby compact cultivars actually stay less than ten feet tall. Foliage can be grayish green to silvery pale blue. The stiff and sharply pointed needles are about three quarters to an inch and a quarter long, and densely set on relatively rigid stems.

The elegant silvery blue foliage of the Colorado blue spruce is striking either in front of or behind darker evergreen foliage, like that of redwoods or junipers. These stout and densely foliated trees make any garden look a bit more woodsy.

Cork Oak

The bark actually looks like cork.

This is a tree that takes some time to impress. Bloom is uninteresting. Foliage is no more distinctive than that of coast live oak. Instead, the most spectacular characteristic of cork oak, Quercus suber, is the boldly striated and uniquely spongy texture of its mature bark. Such bark takes a few years to develop, but gets so thick that it seems significantly older.

As its name implies, cork oak had historically been the exclusive source of bark for corks and cork products. As modern and more practical materials diminished demand for such bark, cork oak became more popular as an evergreen shade tree. It is quite happy within the arid chaparral climates of California. In fact, it behaves much like native oak species.

Mature cork oak trees generally stay less than forty feet tall, even if their trunks are wider than three feet with their unusually thick bark. Without excessive irrigation, their roots are notably complaisant. Low branches are more visibly sculptural than high branches. With pruning for adequate clearance though, trees with high branches are striking street trees. Foliar and floral debris is quite messy during spring bloom.

Holly Leaf Cherry

Holly leaf cherry fruit looks better than it is. The flavor is good; but there is very little pulp around the big seeds.

Since it is native to coastal chaparral between Monterey and the middle of the Baja California Peninsula, holly leaf cherry, Prunus ilicifolia, is right at home in local gardens of the central and south coasts. Although it can be a nice refined hedge if not shorn too frequently, it is better where it has space to grow wild into a mounding shrub, and can eventually grow into an undemanding informal screen as high and broad as fifteen feet. Width is easier to limit with selective pruning than with shearing. Besides, unshorn plants bloom with clusters of minute white flowers in spring, and produce interesting deep red or purplish red cherries in autumn. Unfortunately, the cherries have very big pits with only minimal sweet pulp. The small glossy leaves have somewhat bristly teeth almost like those of some hollies.

Silk Tree

Silk tree leaves are bipinnately compound.

Resiliency is typically an attribute. It is how silk tree, Albizia julibrissin, adapts to various urban landscapes. Unfortunately, it is also how it naturalized within a few ecosystems of North America. It grows easily from seed, whether or not it is appropriate to where it does so. Many naturalized specimens somehow find good situations in which to grow though.

With good exposure, most mature silk trees develop rather low but broad canopies. They have potential to grow taller than forty feet, but if not competing with taller trees, may stay half as tall. Their arching limbs flare elegantly outward in low mounding form. Their finely textured foliage provides appealingly uniform shade that is neither too dark nor too light.

The lacy and bipinnately compound leaves of silk tree are between half a foot and a foot long. Each leaf divides into as many as a dozen pairs of pinnae (leaflets). These pinnae divide into about twice as many pairs of pinnulae (leaflets of leaflets). Such minute foliar components disintegrate during autumn defoliation, and can disappear into groundcover.

The pink and fluffy summer bloom can actually be messier than the deciduous foliage. It does not disintegrate as it falls, so may accumulate on top of vegetation below. Cultivars generally bloom with richer pink color, although at least one blooms with white. ‘Summer Chocolate’ exhibits richly bronzed foliage that contrasts strikingly with pastel pink bloom.

Black Oak

Not many native deciduous trees turn orange or brownish red in autumn like California black oak can.

Though native mostly to the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges between San Francisco and Oregon, California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, also inhabits isolated colonies in lower mountains as far north as the southern half of the Oregon Coast, and as far south as San Diego County. It actually occupies more area than any other hardwood tree in California. Wild trees competing in forests can get more than a hundred feet tall and live for five centuries. Well exposed urban trees may take their first century to eventually get about half as tall with trunks as wide as four feet.

Even while young, California black oak is a distinguished tree, with a broadly rounded canopy and elegantly arching limbs. The smooth silvery bark of young trees eventually becomes dark and uniformly checked with maturity. The distinctive deeply lobed leaves are about five inches long, and turn gold, soft orange or even brownish red before falling in autumn.