Bigleaf Maple

81024It is native from the extreme southern tip of Alaska to the extreme southwestern corner of California, but not many of us will see bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, in our neighborhoods. It is planted only rarely, particularly where winters are mild. Relative to other maples, its roots can be more aggressive, and its shade can be darker, so is likely to interfere with lawn and other plants.

Mature trees in exposed situations can get more than fifty feet tall and quite broad. Old wild trees that compete with other trees in a forest can get three times as tall! The big palmate leaves from which the name is derived are about half a foot to a foot wide, and can get a two feet wide on the most vigorous or shaded growth. They turn a nice golden yellow in autumn, even in mild climates.

Bigleaf maple is like the sugar maple of the West. The sap can be processed into maple syrup and sugar. The wood is made into furniture and musical instruments. The very ornamental wood known as bird’s eye maple is derived from burl growth of various maple specie, particularly bigleaf maple. Bigleaf maple is uncommon in landscapes only because it is so aggressive and big.


Indian Laurel

61019It is hard to believe that such a delightfully robust and luxuriant tree like the Indian laurel, Ficus microcarpa nitida, can be so problematic. It looks so perfect, with lustrous evergreen foliage, like something that would be seen on Sesame Street. The broad and dense canopy is very symmetrical and neat. The stout trunk and limbs, outfitted with whitish gray bark, are bold and sculptural.

The problem is that the roots are so extremely aggressive. Buttressed roots elevate curbs, sidewalks and anything else that they can get under. Fibrous roots clog drainage, and strangle roots of more complaisant plants. Indian laurel is a tree that really needs room to grow. The canopy can get wider than fifty feet, and roots will spread much farther if they want to. Fortunately, Indian laurel shorn as a hedge has less foliage, so does not need to disperse roots so extensively.

Mexican Bush Sage

51014In the first year, Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha, does not get very big. Then it gets cut back to the ground at the end of winter. It gets about twice as big in the second year, only to get cut back again as winter ends. By the third or fourth year, healthy maturing plants can grow to five feet tall and seven feet wide each season. While cut back, big clumps can be divided to propagate.

Strikingly purplish blue floral spikes bloom from summer or early autumn until frost. The odd white ‘tags’ that protrude from the fuzzy bracts are the true flowers. The lanceolate leaves are grayish sage green and somewhat fuzzy. Plants are well rounded like tumble weeds, and should not be shorn. Mexican bush sage is very popular among hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

Mexican bush sage wants full sun exposure, and unlike most other sages, it prefers relatively rich soil. Fertilizer can compensate for inferior or dense soil, and improves foliar density, but too much can delay bloom. New plants like to be watered regularly, especially if they grow well. As they mature and disperse their roots, they become less reliant on regular watering.

Dwarf Carnation

81017The three most popular specie of Dianthus are sweet William, garden pink and carnation. Sweet William and garden pink are light duty perennial bedding plants that are often grown as annuals. Carnation blooms are more familiar as fragrant cut flowers than as home garden flowers. Then there is dwarf carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus, that combines the best characteristics of all three.

Unlike the varieties of carnation that are grown for cut flowers on long stems, dwarf carnations do not need to be staked. Their compact growth gets only about five or six inches tall, and not much wider; so they are delightful summer and autumn annuals, or short term perennials like sweet William and pink. Yet, the two inch wide flowers are fragrant and as colorful as cut flower carnations.

The double or semi-double flowers can be white, pale yellow, pale orange, maroon, scarlet, red, peach, rose, or most popularly, various hues of pink. Bloom begins late in spring and continues through autumn and almost until winter. Stray flowers can bloom anytime. The narrow leaves are slightly bluish green, with an almost rubbery texture. Deadheading keeps well blooming plants tidy.


61012There are those of us who can grow cabbage well, and there are the majority of us who wish we could. Mild winters allow cabbage to be grown in autumn as well as in spring; but warm weather can also compromise flavor and promote premature bolting (blooming), which ruins the heads. Cabbage demands rich soil and regular watering. If the weather is evenly mild, they dig that too.

Spring grown cabbage was planted last winter, about a month prior to the last frost. Now it is time for autumn cabbage, about a month or two before frost. New plants can be planted a bit deeper than they were originally grown, so that the wiry and fragile sections of stem below the lowest leaves can be buried. Plants should be at least a foot apart and might get larger with more space. It takes at least two months for dense round heads of common green or red cabbage to mature. Slower varieties are worth growing for their unique flavors.

Fringe Flower

51007Since modern cultivars became trendy several years ago, the old fashioned ‘common’ fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense, has become even more uncommon than it already was. It does not grow fast enough to function as large scale shrubbery, but slowly gets too big to work as small shrubbery. Without pruning, old plants take many years to get to fifteen feet tall.

The gracefully arching stems are outfitted with light green evergreen foliage. The simple leaves are about an inch or two long. The small white blooms have very narrow petals that hang downward like limp bits of ramen. Each bloom is actually a tuft of a few individual flowers. Bloom is most abundant in spring, and then continues sporadically through most of the year.

Modern cultivars of fringe flower are more compact, so rarely get more than five feet tall. Flowers can be white, pink, red or rosy pink. The most popular cultivars have purplish bronze foliage. Fringe flower does well as an understory plant, in the partial shade of trees. It should not be shorn, so should instead be pruned selectively to maintain its natural form.

Mulla Mulla

81010The common name sounds funny, but it is easier to pronounce then than the Latin name. Mulla mulla, Ptilotus exaltus, is an Australian species that has been locally available longer than its limited popularity suggests. It may seem to be more peculiar than it is because it is grown primarily by specialty growers, who happen to grow many cool plants that should be more popular than they are.

Like many species that are grown as annuals, the mulla mulla is really a short term perennial that can perform for a few years, but is unfortunately more often grown as a warm season annual. It will finish blooming soon, but if left in the garden through winter dormancy, young plants should resume in about April or May. It can succumb to frost if the weather gets cold enough through winter.

Although it can survive with less, mulla mulla prefers somewhat regular watering, and good sun exposure. New spring growth develops rather vigorously without getting much more than half a foot high and wide. Fuzzy cylindrical blooms that stand above the foliage are about three inches long. Floral color is pinkish mauve, with a silvery sheen. Deadheading promotes subsequent bloom.

Evergreen Pear

61005If it were not so seriously susceptible to fireblight, the evergreen pear, Pyrus kawakamii, would be a practical evergreen shade tree for small garden spaces. Mature trees do not often get much taller or wider than twenty five feet. Aggressively pruned trees that do not bloom much are less susceptible to fireblight. Regularly groomed trees can live with fireblight for many years or decades.

The nicely furrowed bark and irregular branch structure give evergreen pear trees the distinction of larger trees. Lower limbs will probably sag low enough to need pruning for clearance. Clusters of small white flowers, like those of other pears, bloom in spring, but are partly obscured by the evergreen foliage. Distressed trees bloom more profusely and are not so densely foliated in bloom.

Annual Dahlia

50930They are really just smaller versions of the larger perennial dahlias that are grown for their big bold flowers and flashy colors. Technically, annual dahlias produce smaller versions of the same perennial roots that can survive through winter to regenerate the following spring. Yet to most of us, it is easier to purchase new plants in spring than to grow new plants from stored roots.

Relative to larger dahlias, everything about annual dahlias is subdued. The flowers are neither as big, nor as variable. They can bloom any color except blue or green, but are usually simple shades of red, orange, yellow, pink or white. Their main advantage is that they do not get much more than a foot tall, so they fit into more situations and do not need to be staked.

Bloom starts rather late in spring and continues until about now. Some varieties have bronzed foliage. Fertilizer promotes bloom and healthy foliar color; but too much nitrogen can inhibit bloom. Dahlias can be happy in pots, but only with good drainage and regular watering.

California Black Oak

81003The most popular hardwood in California is essentially unavailable in nurseries. California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, provides between a quarter and a third of the hardwood timber harvested in California. One would not know it by its sporadic appearance within mixed forests of the Coastal Ranges. It is much more common in the Sierra Nevada, which might be why no one grows it.

Mature trees can top out at thirty feet with broad canopies if well exposed, or might be more than seventy feet tall and relatively slender if they must compete with other trees. The biggest trees are more than a hundred feet tall. The sculptural trunks are usually less then four feet wide. Trunks of old trees are commonly rotten inside. Gray and smooth young bark gets rough and dark with age.

The distinctively lobed deciduous leaves of California black oak are not much more than four inches long. They can get nearly twice as long on the most vigorous growth, or where shaded. The dark green foliage will slowly turn brown or yellow through autumn, and then defoliate through winter. It can turn a brighter yellow or orange, but then defoliates faster, if the weather gets cool fast.