Cymbidium Orchid

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Cymbidiums are the most familiar orchids.

Of all the many and varied orchids, cymbidium orchids are the most popular because they are the easiest to grow. They are naturally terrestrial, so can be grown in the ground if the media (soil) is coarse and rich enough. (epiphytic orchids that naturally grow in crotches of trees want coarse bark in well drained pots.) They are also more tolerant of cool weather than tropical orchids are.

Plants with slightly yellowish leaves tend to bloom better. If the foliage is too dark green, it may not be getting enough sunlight. Regular application of fertilizer may promote bloom, although some plants do not seem to be too demanding. Watering may need to be as frequent as every three days through summer.

The arching flower stalks that begin to appear over winter may bloom for two months. They can be three feet tall, so stand well above the strap shaped leaves that get about two feet tall. Each stalk has many waxy flowers that can be two or three inches wide, in almost any color but blue. Most flowers are pastel hues of pink, lavender, yellow, orange, chartreuse, tan or white, and are intricately spotted and blotched.

Silk Tassel

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Pendulous blooms hang like delicate icicles.

With so many exotic species to enjoy in our gardens, it is easy to miss what might be growing wild just beyond. Silk tassel, Garrya elliptica, is endemic to coastal slopes within thirty miles of the ocean, between San Luis Obispo and Newport in Oregon. Yet, it seems to be more popular abroad than it is here at home. It is more adaptable to refined landscapes than most other natives are.

Silk tassel is more tolerant to supplemental irrigation than most other species from the same region are. It actually prefers to be irrigated at least occasionally through summer, particularly in drier and warmer climates. However, as a native, it is resilient to lapses of irrigation too. If necessary for form or confinement, awkward and obtrusive stems can be selectively pruned out after bloom.

Long and elegantly pendulous catkins of tiny pale grayish white flowers bloom late in winter or early in spring. After bloom, dried catkins linger prettily into summer. Garden varieties are male, with longer blooms. ‘James Roof’ can produce catkins nearly a foot long. Female plants in the wild bloom with shorter catkins. Glossy evergreen leaves are two to three inches long with wavy margins.

Ornamental Pepper

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Colorful but not flavorful ornamental pepper.

The red, orange, yellow, purple, white or almost black fruit of ornamental pepper that naturally develops in summer can be seen at any time of year because the plants are grown in artificial greenhouse environments. The peppers are usually small and narrow, and stand upright above their glossy rich green foliage. Some are narrower. Others are a plumper. Technically, the fruit is edible, but it is not as flavorful as peppers grown for culinary purposes.

Because the plants are sensitive to frost, they are more often grown as houseplants than out in the garden. In the garden, they need shelter to survive as perennials. As houseplants, they need warm and sunny exposure in order to bloom and develop fruit. They should be watered regularly, but only as their potting soil is starting to get dry.

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Look but do not bother tasting.

Redtwig Dogwood

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Colorful bark for the wintry landscape.

Most dogwoods are popular for spectacular white or pink spring bloom prior to foliation. Redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is an odd one though. It is a ‘dog’wood that is appropriately grown for colorful twig ‘bark’. It blooms later than other dogwoods, and after foliation. The one to two inch wide trusses of tiny pale white flowers lack the flashy bracts that make other dogwoods so colorful.

Another difference is that, unlike more familiar dogwoods, redtwig dogwood naturally grows as a shrubby riparian thicket rather than as a small tree. Long limber branches can grow to more than fifteen feet high only by leaning into other trees or shrubbery. In home gardens, they typically get coppiced or pollarded just before foliating in spring, to develop twiggy growth for color next winter.

After a bit of autumn chill and defoliation, young stems of well exposed wild redtwig dogwood are a delightful glossy ruddy brown. Twigs of garden varieties are richer cinnamon red, rusty orange, soft yellow, orange blushed pale yellow, or yellowish green. Color is subdued by shade. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. Autumnal foliar color is more impressive in more severe climates.

Orange Clock Vine

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It is time for orange flowers.

Since it rarely gets cold enough here to freeze the foliage and stems, clock vine, Thunbergia gregorii, provides very orange flowers throughout the year, and will bloom more profusely in summer. It is very similar to the more traditional black-eyed Susan vine, but the flowers lack the prominent black throats. Relative to most vines, orange clock vines is rather docile. The wiry vines are happy to climb to the height of first floor eaves, but do not go much farther. Without support, the vines grow as small scale ground cover.

New plants prefer full sun exposure, even if they later choose to spread into partial shade as they grow. Shade inhibits bloom. Once established, orange clock vine does not need much water, and can actually survive in abandoned landscapes. Overgrown or neglected vines can get weedy in spots, especially if not regularly watered. Fortunately, they are easily renovated by severe pruning at the end of winter. Even if pruned almost to the ground, vigorous vines regenerate very efficiently.

California Sycamore

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California sycamore is a stately native.

California sycamore, Platanus racemosa, is a riparian species that wants to be a chaparral species. It seems to passively mingle with valley oaks and coast live oaks in chaparral regions. Yet, it stays close to rivers, creeks, arroyos, or low spots where water drains from winter rain. California sycamore does not follow waterways far up into forests though, as if it dislikes the deeper shade.

In urban situations, California sycamore is best for large scale landscapes, such as parks or medians of broad boulevards. It is complaisant enough for smaller landscapes, and tends to disperse roots too deeply to damage pavement. However, it grows so fast and so very big. Mature trees get to a hundred feet tall. Massive trunks are picturesquely irregular, with mottled tan and gray bark.

All the deciduous foliage generated by such large trees is generous with shade for summer, but stingy with color for autumn. Defoliation starts early and continues late, so is messy for a long time. Foliar tomentum (fuzz) is irritating to the skin, and much worse if inhaled. Anthracnose often deprives trees of their first phase of foliage in early spring. Although harmless, it makes another mess.

Weeping Bottlebrush

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Weeping bottlebrush blooms whenever it likes.

It is no wonder that it takes many years to get to fifteen feet tall, and may never get more than twenty feet tall. Weeping bottlebrush, Callistemon viminalis, may grow less than a foot a year, but seems to hang downward two feet. Because the stems are sculptural, and the bark has an appealingly rough texture, most weeping bottlebrush trees are grown with multiple trunks. The brick red bottlebrush flowers that bloom sporadically at any time of the year are more abundant early in summer. Established plants bloom more colorfully with a bit of water, but can probably survive quite a while without it. The evergreen leaves are narrow and mostly less than three inches long. Weeping bottlebrush needs good sun exposure.

Canna

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Cannas are just dormant rhizomes now.

It is difficult to document the lineages of the countless modern garden varieties that have been hybridized from ten species of Canna. Straight species that are popularly grown within their native ranges are rare here. Some species are grown for their thick edible rhizomes. Many are grown for edible foliage. Some are employed to absorb toxins from contaminated riparian environments.

Garden varieties that are popular here are grown merely for their aesthetic appeal. The lushly big leaves are typically rich green, but might be bronzed, dark purplish bronze, or striped with yellow, bronze, creamy white or peachy pink. Large varieties get taller than eight feet. Compact types stay less than three feet tall. All foliage dies to the ground after frost, and grows back fast in spring.

The flashiest parts of canna flowers are actually very specialized stamens known as staminodes, which mostly obscure the very subdued petals and sepals. Red, orange, yellow, pink, salmon or very pale yellowish white bloom may be spotted or blotched. Flowers might be thin and wispy, or rather floppy and lush. Canna are popularly known as canna lilies, but are not at all related to lilies.

Black Mondo Grass

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The foliage really is this dark.

The deeply colored foliage of black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, is about as convincingly ‘black’ as foliage can get. It is darker than bronze New Zealand flax, purple leaf plum or bronze coral bells. Only purple beech or chocolate coleus are comparable. The foliage is dark enough to contrast very well against lightly colored planters or gray concrete, so works well in urns or mixed perennials, and bordering walkways. If it gets enough sunlight, black mondo grass makes a nice small scale ground cover under Japanese maples.

Mature plants stand only about half a foot tall, and spread slowly. The happiest plants can get nearly twice as tall. The softly cascading leaves are only about a quarter inch wide. Small spikes of tiny pink flowers that sometimes bloom in summer would contrast nicely against the dark foliage, but are rarely seen above the foliage. Black mondo grass prefers rather rich soil and somewhat regular watering. However, as they disperse roots, older plants do not seem to mind too much if they briefly get a bit dry.

Orange

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Not all oranges are this orange.

Most of us know what oranges are. The color is, of course, orange. They are very juicy and sweet. Cultivars that are most popular for eating fresh, particularly ‘navel’ oranges, are easy to peel and separate into segments. Those that are best for juicing, such as ‘Valencia’, are a bit smaller with thinner rind, so are a bit sloppier to peel and separate. Such ‘sweet’ oranges are Citrus sinensis.

Richly tangy blood oranges are of the same species, but have blushed or deep red pulp and juice. ‘Sanguinelli’, although rare here, is nonetheless the most popular of the blood oranges, and is a traditional citrus component of sangria. The juicy fruit is compact, with tightly fitting thin skin, comparable to that of ‘Valencia’. Rarer ‘Moro’ produces plumper fruit that is easy to peel and eat fresh.

Sour and bitter oranges, which are very rare here, are mostly Citrus auranticum. Sour oranges, such as ‘Seville’, are used for marmalades and confections. Bitter oranges are used for flavorings and fragrances, such as ‘Bergamot’ for Earl Grey tea. Both bitter and sour oranges were less rare a century ago, when some were appreciated for alluringly fragrant bloom and handsome foliage.