White Alder

White alder is a sporadic native.

After a forest fire, white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, might be the first trees to regenerate into freshly deforested riparian situations. It grows quickly to exploit such an opportunity, and temporarily dominate a recovering ecosystem. Individual trees do not live for much more than half a century though. Then, they relinquish area to slower but more enduring trees.

Years ago, white alders did the same in new landscapes that needed shade. They grew fast to provide shade while preferable trees matured slowly. They subordinated and then vacated their landscapes as the preferred trees grew. Unfortunately, this technique is not so practical within municipalities that require but rarely grant permits for removal of trees. 

Although native, white alder is not prominent everywhere within its natural range. It might seem to be rare in Southern California, with only a few sporadic trees to provide seed for regeneration after a fire. Farther north, large and sustained colonies resist encroachment of other trees. Mature white alders can get forty to eighty feet tall, or taller where crowded by taller trees.

Maidenhair Tree

Maidenhair tree leaves look rather ‘fishy’.

There are not many trees that are as reliable for strikingly bright and clear yellow autumn foliar color as the maidenhair tree, Gingko biloba, is, even in mild coastal climates. The distinctive leaves flare out like fish tails, each with a prominent cleft that divides it into two wide lobes. (The species name ‘biloba’ means ‘two lobed’.) Some cultivars lack foliar clefts, have narrower leaves, or even develop milder yellow color in autumn. Those developed for home gardens exhibit relatively symmetrical branch structure, and are exclusively male, so can not produce the stinky fruit that some older female trees drop. (Trees grown from seed can be either male or female. Female cultivars are grown for fruit production and bonsai.) Some ancient trees in Japan, Korea and China are more than a hundred feet tall. Fortunately, maidenhair tree grows slowly enough to stay proportionate to compact urban gardens for many decades.

Maidenhair trees develop the best yellow fall color.

English Hawthorn

English hawthorn is small but distinguished.

Most red berries that provide color and attract birds through late autumn and winter grow on shrubbery. Berries of English hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, grow on trees. They are not big trees, but they are distinguished. Mature trees might get no taller than twenty feet, but their furrowed trunks with weathered bark resemble those of older and statelier trees. 

Trusses of small white flowers that bloom in spring are comparable to those of pear. Like pear bloom, they emit a potentially objectionable musky fragrance. Modern cultivars that bloom with pink, double pink or double red flowers are less fragrant. English hawthorn is uncommon locally. The few cultivars that produce yellow or orange berries might be rare. 

The deciduous leaves of English hawthorn are only about an inch or two long and wide. They are deeply lobed, with a handsomely coarse texture. Foliage can turn rusty orange or brownish yellow for autumn. Defoliation exposes any remaining berries, at least until the birds finish with them too. Thorns are unfortunately unavoidable.

Philodendron selloum

Philodendron selloum is unfamiliar with autumn.

There are all sorts of philodendrons with all sorts of fancy names. Yet, the biggest and boldest lacks a common name (at least one that is actually ‘common’), and is most popularly known by a Latin name that is not even correct. The proper name for Philodendron selloum is really Philodendron bipinnatifidum. It is a big awkward plant with big and deeply lobed leaves on long petioles (leaf stalks), and weirdly thick aerial roots. Well exposed plants can stand on wobbly trunks. Partly shaded plants can creep along the ground, and prefer to grab onto and climb tree trunks, fences or anything that they can get a hold of. The aerial roots are harmless to trees, and generally too slow to catch a healthy cat, but will take paint off of walls. All parts of Philodendron selloum are toxic.

Chinese Pistache

Chinese pistache colors with minimal chill.

Those who crave fall color in mild climates should appreciate Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis. It is happy to provide fiery yellow, orange and red color in response to a slight chill. Actually, it retains its colorful foliage later into the season with mild chill than it does with frosty weather. Rain eventually dislodges all of its deciduous foliage through winter.

Because it is so resilient to harsh situations, Chinese pistache is popular as a street tree. Pruning is necessary to establish adequate clearance of broad limbs over roadways and sidewalks. Since roots can be shallow with regular watering, root barriers should protect nearby pavement. However, established trees do not need regular watering, if any at all.

Old Chinese pistache trees, as well as those that grow wild from seed, are either male or female. Female trees produce tiny but annoyingly abundant fruit. Modern cultivars are all male, and therefore fruitless. They may get more than forty feet tall, with broad canopies. The pinnately compound leaves are just about eight inches long.

Beard Tongue

Beard Tongue does purple well.

With such a weird name, beard tongue is probably less commonly known by its common name than by the Latin name of Penstemon. Of the thousands of cultivars (cultivated varieties) that have been developed over the decades, most of those that are popular for home gardens are known as cultivars of Penstemon gloxinioides, even though their actual lineage is generally unknown. In recent years, other species have become more available.

Spikes of red, pink, purple or white flowers stand vertically above the foliage. Yellow flowers are still rather rare. Individual flowers are bisymmetrically tubular, with two conspicuous lips and a fuzzy tongue. Some beard tongue have relatively wide leaves and plump flowers, like really big snapdragons. Others have narrow leaves and thin flowers. Mature plants get only 1 to 2½ feet high and a bit wider, although some of the rare specie can get significantly larger.

Canna

Most cannas have more billowy bloom.

It grows from dormant rhizomes like a few of the popular early spring bulbs do. However, the many garden varieties of Canna are actually late or summer bulbs. They will become available after last frost, at about the time that early bulbs bloom. Also unlike early bulbs that mostly bloom prolifically once, Canna bloom sporadically from late spring until frost.

Canna foliage can be as appealing as the bloom. The big and lush leaves can be green, bronze, striped or irregularly variegated. ‘Australia’ has strikingly dark bronze foliage with red bloom. ‘Tropicana’ is striped green, yellow, bronze red and purplish pink, with orange bloom. ‘Stuttgart’ is irregularly variegated with white, with ribbony peachy orange bloom.

Of course, the bloom can be quite spectacular atop all that foliage too. Flowers might be pink, red, orange, yellow, creamy white, or a spotty combination of two such colors. Most popular cannas bloom with big and floppy flowers. Some have narrower and wispy floral parts. Bigger cannas can get taller than eight feet. All growth dies back after frost though. New growth regenerates fast in spring.

String Of Pearls

Weird but elegantly pendulous string of pearls likes to hang around. It cascades nicely from hanging pots or tall urns.

It is difficult to see how string of pearls, Senecio rowleyanus, is related to much more colorful daisies and asters. The small, fuzzy and sickly white flowers are not much to look at, and only clutter the elegantly pendulous and oddly succulent foliage. The round leaves are light bluish green, so actually resemble peas more than they resemble pearls. The stems are so very thin and limber that they can only stand a few inches high, but can cascade to three feet!

Although evergreen, stems of outdoor plants can be cut back while dormant through winter to promote fresher growth in spring. The pruning scraps are very easy to propagate as cuttings. Roots are undemanding and sensitive to rot, so should be allowed to get nearly dry between watering. Bright ambient light without too much direct sun exposure is best. Incidentally, all parts of Senecio rowleyanus are toxic.

Pansy

Violas are smaller versions of pansies.

This is one of the more familiar of winter annuals. Yet, pansy, Viola X wittrockiana, is not just one species. It is a diverse group of hybrids of a few species, and includes viola and Johnny-jump-up. Generally, viola and Johnny-jump-up have smaller and simpler flowers. Pansy generates relatively larger and more colorful flowers, with more intricate patterns.

The most recognizable feature of popular pansy is the distinctive floral patterns that look like floral faces. Individual flowers may display a few distinct colors within such patterns. Alternatively, flowers may be a single color. The color range includes white, blue, purple, yellow, orange, rusty red and black. Big flowers can be as wide as two and a half inches. 

Locally, pansy is a winter annual. The best bloom begins about now. If the coolest winter weather inhibits bloom, it is only temporary. Bloom is likely to resume before a lapse gets obvious. Although pansy is a summer annuals in other climates, it does not perform well in the locally arid climate during warm weather. Plants might get six inches tall and wide.

Cyclamen

Autumn is not far behind cyclamen.

The advantage of cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, is nonconformity. Bloom begins in autumn when there are not many other flowers to provide color, and continues until spring. Cyclamen then defoliate and go dormant through summer while most other plants enjoy the warm weather. Even their red, pink, white, purple or salmon flowers are inside out, with petals flared back. The flowers can stand as high as six inches, just above the somewhat rubbery foliage. The rounded leaves are mostly dark green with silvery or gray marbling

If used as annuals for one season, cyclamen are uniform enough for bedding. However, if later overplanted with warm season annuals and allowed to stay through summer dormancy, regeneration the following season is variable, with larger and smaller plants, and some that do not survive. As perennials, cyclamen therefore work best in mixed plantings, where variety is not a problem. Cyclamen should be planted with their tubers about halfway above the soil level, and should not be mulched. Soil should be rich and drain well.