Smoke Tree

Smoke tree has striking foliage too.

Wispy billows of pinkish or tan blooms through June and July are what the smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria, is named for. It probably should have gotten more recognition for brilliant foliar color in autumn. It reliably turns bright yellow and orange, and if the weather is right, it can turn rich red and even purplish. Until then, the popular modern varieties have either dark purplish or light yellowish foliage. Some of the older plants have slightly bluish green foliage. The nearly circular leaves are about two or three inches long. Yellowish varieties tend to be shortest. Those with purplish or bronze foliage get larger. Old fashioned green plants are the largest, and can get twelve feet tall and broad. Smoke tree can be large shrubbery, or pruned up as small trees. Aggressive pruning in winter promotes better foliar color through spring and summer, but inhibits smoky bloom. Slightly distressed plants have better color in autumn. Plants that are watered too much are likely to succumb to disease within only a few years.

Mexican Snowball

Mexican snowball is strikingly pallid blue.

The silly common name actually suits its plump rosettes of pale bluish succulent leaves. Mexican snowball, Echeveria elegans, forms small colonies that might resemble stashes of snowballs. Individual rosettes are circular, and a bit wider than tall. The widest are four inches or so across. The evergreen leaves are as neatly radial as scales of a pine cone.

Some may know Mexican snowball, and various other species of Echeveria and related Sempervivum, as hen and chicks. Big rosettes can produce so many small pups around their edges that they are reminiscent of mother hens surrounded by their huddled chicks. These pups are quite easy to separate for plugging into pots or elsewhere in the garden.

Mexican snowball is happiest in sunny situations with rather regular watering, but should tolerate a bit of shade and lapses of watering. For small trees in big pots, it can cover the surface of the potting media nicely. Pups plugged into crevices of stone walls might grow into clinging colonies. Tiny pink flowers with yellow tips bloom on wiry stems about now.

Oleander

Oleanders add color to the commute.

As long as freeways have been getting landscaped, oleanders have been contributing their profuse white, pink and red bloom. Heat, exposure and lack of moisture do not seem to bother them. They have become less common recently only because of new diseases that had never before been problematic. The diseases do not necessarily kill all oleanders everywhere, but are serious problems where the nurseries that grow most oleander are located.

The largest oleanders can get more than fifteen feet tall, and can be pruned up as small trees with multiple trunks. Oleander trees with single trunks almost never stand up straight, and do not want to give up their stakes. Because flower clusters develop at the ends of new growth, frequent exterior pruning or shearing inhibits bloom. Dwarf cultivars that are naturally proportionate to their space will bloom better than larger types that need to be pruned for confinement.

Oleander flowers are about an inch or two wide, with five petals, although some have ruffly ‘double’ flowers. Unfortunately, double flowers tend to hang on as they deteriorate after bloom. Some oleanders are slightly fragrant. The name ‘oleander’ is derived from the similarity of their leaves to those of olive trees (‘Olea‘), although oleander leaves can get three times as long.

California Buckeye

California buckeye resembles related horse chestnut.

Chaparral climates are not easy without irrigation. The long summers are warm and arid. California buckeye, Aesculus californica, knows what to do if it can not stay hydrated out in the wild. It simply defoliates. Yes, it goes bare right in the middle of summer. If it does it early enough, it refoliates after rain resumes in autumn, only to defoliate again for winter.

This ‘twice deciduous’ characteristic is likely why California buckeye is not more popular for unirrigated landscapes of other natives. Shade is an asset through warm summers. In coastal, riparian or irrigated landscapes, the original spring foliage lasts through summer to defoliate in autumn, like that of most other deciduous plants. It may get shabby though. 

Nonetheless, California buckeye is a delightful small tree, typically with a broad and low canopy suspended by a sculptural branch structure. Not many get more than twenty feet tall, although some get twice as tall. Bark is strikingly pallid gray. The elegant leaves are palmately compound. Six inch long trusses of tiny white flowers are sweetly fragrant in spring.

Fraser’s Photinia

Bronzed new foliage fades to green.

Almost all photinia in local landscapes is Fraser’s photinia, Photinia X fraseri, which is a thornless and fruitless hybrid of two species that are now rare. Some of the old fashioned photinia are thorny. Some produce copious berries that can get messy, or feed birds who can get messy. More modern cultivars of Fraser’s photinia are becoming more available.

Fraser’s photinia is popular as a shorn evergreen hedge. New foliage that develops after shearing is richly reddish bronze, and fades to dark green. Bronze color is best in spring, after late winter shearing. Summer shearing stimulates a repeat performance, although it may not last as long before the foliage fades to green. Shearing enhances foliar density.

Unshorn photinia can develop into small trees as tall as fifteen feet, with new growth that is a bit less richly colored than that of shorn photinia. It also blooms, often profusely, with big and rounded trusses of tiny creamy white flowers. Bloom is not impressively colorful. Floral fragrance is objectionable to some. All photinia types are susceptible to fire blight.

Shiny Xylosma

Shiny xylosma has pleasantly glossy foliage.

Where it had been left to develop naturally in old freeway landscapes, shiny xylosma, Xylosma congestum, grew as small trees. The largest are significantly taller than twenty feet. They can be pruned up to expose their nicely flaking bark on sculptural trunks and stems. The evergreen foliage is shiny and rather yellowish green, somewhat like that of camphor tree. The slightly serrate leaves are about two inches long or a bit longer. The tiny and potentially fragrant flowers are rarely seen, and not worth looking for. In refined landscapes, shiny xylosma is popular as a shorn hedge. Xylosma congestum ‘Compacta’ has denser growth, and can be kept only a few feet high if necessary. Vigorous shoots can have nasty thorns hidden in their deceptively gentle foliage. Once established, shiny xylosma does not need much water. It prefers full sun exposure, but will tolerate a bit of shade.

Jupiter’s beard

Jupiter’s beard tolerates only minor shade.

It is rare in nurseries, but common in and near old gardens. Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, was popular at least a century ago, and is now naturalized. It migrates so liberally, and transplants so easily, that there should be no need to purchase it. Those who grow it in established colonies may be happy to share. Specific cultivars can be elusive though.

Bloom is typically pinkish red, but can be brick red, purplish red, purplish pink, pale pink, or white. Individual flowers are tiny, but abundant, in rather dense and somewhat conical trusses. Bloom begins in spring and becomes more profuse until warm summer weather. A cool situation can inhibit primary bloom, but promote sporadic bloom through summer.

Jupiter’s beard prefers sunny exposure. Although a bit of shade can preserve foliar color and extend sporadic bloom through summer warmth, it compromises profusion of bloom. The slightly rubbery evergreen foliage of bloomed stems deteriorates slowly. Removal of older stems after bloom eliminates shabby growth, and also promotes fresh new growth.

Pittosporum tobira

There are too many other plants known as ‘mock orange’ for Pittosporum tobira to still go by that name, which is why it is more commonly known by its Latin name, or simply as ‘tobira’. The pleasantly fragrant flowers do not smell too much like those of orange anyway. The glossy and dark green leaves are like those of some hollies, without the distinctive prickly points. ‘Variegata’ has lighter green foliage variegated with white, but does not bloom as much. Dwarf cultivars, both variegated and unvariegatd, bloom even less. ‘Variegata’ has a tendency to occasionally produce stems of green (unvariegated) foliage that grow more vigorously and can overwhelm the original variegated growth if not pruned out. Common green Pittosporum tobira can grow as a small tree in the partial shade of larger trees, but is more often maintained as dense shrubbery less than ten feet tall. It makes a nice dense hedge in full sun, but unfortunately does not bloom if shorn regularly. All cultivars are resilient to drought once established.

Algerian Ivy

Algerian ivy is big and bold.

Like so many fad plants that were formerly too popular, Algerian ivy, Hedera canariensis, now has a bad reputation. Ironically though, it earned its reputation for doing what it does best. It covers ground rapidly and efficiently. The problem is that it never seems to stop. It creeps anywhere it can, and climbs trees, fences and anything else that it can grab onto.

Aerial roots of climbing vines ruin paint and stucco, and accelerate rot of wooden fences and walls. Vines that get between planks or into cracks between bricks cause significant damage as they expand. Shrubby adult growth that blooms and produces seed develops where climbing vines reach the top of their support, or spontaneously in sunny locations. 

Nonetheless, with diligent edging for strict confinement and to prevent climbing, Algerian ivy works well as a resilient evergreen ground cover for large areas. Once established, it excludes weeds, and tolerates quite a bit of shade. Shrubby adult growth is uncommon if vines can not climb. Climbing vines may be harmless on bare reinforced concrete walls.

Algerian ivy is neither as finely textured nor as shallow as English ivy. Its broader leaves are about six inches wide, with blunter lobes. They stand higher on longer and distinctly blushed petioles. Algerian ivy is rare in nurseries now, but inhabits old landscapes, from which it sneaks into adjacent landscapes. Variegated cultivars are slightly more passive. 

Box Elder

Box elder is the ‘other’ maple.

No other maple is native to so much of North America as the common box elder, Acer negundo. Yet, because of innate structural deficiency and a general lack of pizazz, it is also one of the least popular. The smaller and more adaptable garden varieties are more often grown for their interestingly colorful foliage. ‘Flamingo’ starts out with pink, white and pale green foliage that turns richer green and white by summer. ‘Violaceum’ has smokey purplish new foliage that fades to rich green. ‘Auratum’ has yellowish foliage that fades to chartreuse green. Any stems that try to revert to a more natural shade of green should be removed before they dominate. Unlike other maples that have distinctively palmate leaves, box elder has compound leaves with three or more leaflets each.