Incense Cedar

Incense cedar produces delightfully aromatic wood.

Nowadays, the delightfully aromatic foliage is familiar primarily in garlands at Christmas time. Most of the foliage of old trees is too high up for direct contact. Young trees with low foliage are rare. Incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, is unfortunately not as popular as it was a century ago. At that time, it was as utilitarian as it was appealing for spacious but minimally irrigated landscapes.

Incense cedar wood made good shingles and laminate for closets and cedar chests. The wood is aromatic enough to repel moths from woolens and furs, which were still popular then. It was less expensive to import than Eastern red cedar. It grows wild relatively nearby, in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. Incense cedar fence posts might resist decay as well as redwood posts.

If the wild, where they compete with other trees for sunlight, old trees can get almost two hundred feet tall. However, well exposed old trees in Victorian gardens are less than half as tall after more than a century. Their canopies are generally conical. Large limbs can curve upward like extra trunks. Flat foliar sprays resemble those of arborvitae. The deeply furrowed bark is cinnamon brown.

Hetz Blue Juniper

A juniper with blue spruce color.

Some junipers that were so popular in the 1950s are now somewhat rare, or redundant to modern cultivars. Although not as common as it once was, Hetz blue juniper, Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetzii Glauca’ is still practical for modern gardens. Most junipers with such bluish gray foliage are either low and sprawling, or upright and tall. Hetz blue juniper exhibits an elegant outwardly flaring form.

Mature specimens can get taller than six feet, and as broad as ten feet. The dense evergreen foliage is not quite as blue as that of blue spruce, but is nonetheless striking amongst deeper green. Straight stems point sharply outward at about the same low angle, but in all directions. Removal of lower growth from old and overgrown specimens might reveal peeling bark and sculptural limbs.

Established Hetz blue juniper with warm and sunny exposure is nicely undemanding. Occasional irrigation through the warmest summer weather maintains color and foliar density. However, color naturally fades slightly and slowly through summer. If possible, selective pruning should completely remove obtrusive stems from their origins. Otherwise, stubs might compromise the natural form.

California Bay

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California bay is not Grecian bay.

Because of the common name, California bay, Umbellularia californica, sometimes substitutes for Grecian bay. The two are actually very different. Grecian bay is a culinary herb that grows as a compact tree. California bay has a distinctively pungent flavor that is objectionably strong for most culinary applications. It grows fast to thirty feet tall, and gets a hundred feet tall in shady forests.

Because it gets so big and messy, California bay is not so popular for planting into home gardens. However, because it is native, it sometimes self sows into landscapes. Some mature trees live within gardens that developed around them. California bay can work well in spacious landscapes, with plants that do not mind its shade and leaf litter. Annuals and seedlings dislike the leaf litter.

Old forest trees make the impression than California bay typically develops an awkward and lanky form. That is only because they do what they must to compete for sunlight. Well exposed trees, although lofty as they mature, are more densely structured. Some have a few big trunks, with checked gray bark. Old trees are likely to develop distended basal burl growth known as a lignotuber.

Breath Of Heaven

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Foliar aroma rather than floral fragrance.

Bloom may not wait until spring. Breath of Heaven, Coleonema pulchellum, can start to bloom late in winter if it chooses to. After another more prolific bloom phase sometime in spring, sporadic bloom can continue until autumn. The delightfully pale lavender pink flowers are tiny, but abundant during bloom phases. A few are likely to linger after the main phases, until another phase begins.

The straight species is not as popular as it formerly was. It gets to be approximately five feet tall and broad, or a bit bigger if crowded. Nowadays, most breath of Heaven are ‘Compactum’, which do not get much taller than three feet, with delightfully wispy light green foliage. ‘Sunset Gold’ has bright greenish gold foliage that stays lower than two feet. All have impressively aromatic foliage.

Breath of Heaven is best where it does not need much pruning for confinement. Frequent shearing compromises foliar texture and inhibits bloom. Partial shade likewise inhibits bloom, although it can also promote an appealingly sparser and wispier foliar texture. Unfortunately, breath of Heaven does not live for very long. Even the healthiest and oldest specimens may not last twenty years.

Scented Geranium

60511Window boxes were supposedly invented in Venice to contain aromatic plants that repelled mosquitoes (and probably because garden space was so minimal in Venice). Hanging plants like nasturtium and ivy geranium are traditional window box plants because they do not obscure scenery or sunlight. Scented geraniums are also popular because they are be so strongly aromatic.

Scented geraniums are of the Pelargoniuim genus, so are related to ivy and common geraniums, but are a mix of a few different specie and hybrids. Their foliage can smell like rose, lemon, orange, apple, strawberry, ginger, mint or other herbs or spices. Specialty geranium growers may have nearly a hundred varieties to choose from, which is less than half of the known varieties.

Not many scented geraniums bloom with impressively colorful flowers. However, many have interestingly textured, colorful and lobed foliage that might be velvety or even raspy. The more compact varieties stay less than a foot tall, and spread laterally very slowly. Others have longer but limber stems that lay low as they spread like sloppy ground cover. A few stand upright as tall as five feet.

Autumn Sage

50909Perhaps in the wild, it blooms in autumn. Where it gets watered in home gardens, even if watered only occasionally, autumn sage, Salvia greggii, blooms all through summer as well. If pruned back severely over winter, it starts to bloom even sooner in spring. The tiny flowers are red, rose, pink, peach, very pale yellow, lavender or white. Some poplar cultivars have bi-colored flowers.

Compact autumn sage that does not get much more than a foot tall is uncommon. Larger cultivars get four feet tall and broad, with more open growth. Most get about three feet high and a bit wider. Without severe winter pruning, stems can eventually get twiggy, with sparse foliage on the exterior. The tiny aromatic leaves are less than an inch long, and visually resemble oregano.

Even though it is not native to California, autumn sage is popular for native landscaping because it does not need much water. Just like native sages, it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

California Bay

70823Just because California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used like Grecian or sweet bay for culinary purposes does not necessarily mean that it should be. California bay has a stronger and much more pungent flavor and aroma. Some might suggest substituting less than half California bay for Grecian bay. However, even if the intensity is adjusted accordingly, the flavor might be off.

As the name suggests, California bay is native to California. However, because it is from rainier climates, it prefers a slight bit more water than it would get naturally in the drier parts of the local chaparral climate. It provides nice cooling shade in large landscapes, but is a bit too dark and messy for refined home gardens. The aromatic leaf litter can annoy delicate annuals and seedlings.

Well exposed trees can eventually get more than thirty feet tall and almost as broad. Forest trees that compete with other trees can get a hundred feet tall! Small trees can be shorn as hedges. If not watered too generously, the roots tend to be rather complaisant. However, old trees can eventually develop massively distended burl growths known as lignotubers at the bases of their trunks.

Herbs For Kitchen And Garden

80627thumbHerbs might be in our garden right now, whether we are aware of it or not. Trailing rosemary happens to be a popular and practical groundcover, and some varieties grow as low shrubbery. A few varieties of thyme also work as ground cover for small areas, or between stones. Various lavenders are popular low mounding shrubbery. Quite a few common landscape plants are also herbal.

It is important to be aware though, that some varieties of herbal plants are better for landscape applications, and others are better for herbal applications. All cultivars of rosemary can be used for culinary applications, but some happen to be grown specifically for that purpose because of superior flavor. Cultivars with the best flavor may not be as useful for groundcover or as low shrubbery.

The same goes for the lavenders. French lavender may be the best for culinary applications, but the various Spanish and English lavenders might be better options for landscape applications, cut flowers or for their aroma. California bay that grows wild as a big tree is actually a completely different genus than the shrubbier culinary Grecian bay, and can ruin a recipe if used as a substitute.

As if that were not complicated enough, once the preferred herbal plants are identified, it is important to know how to use them. Chive, cilantro, parsley, mint and most others are usually preferred fresh. Lavender and bay leaf are more often used dried. Rosemary, oregano and sage can be used fresh or dried, depending on the desired flavor. Almost any herb can be dried for convenience.

Drying herbs is convenient for those that are only available within certain seasons, even if they can be used fresh while in season too. For example, chamomile is not a foliar herb like most, but is unbloomed floral buds that must be harvested at a very specific time. They should be plump, but not completely open. Once harvested and dried, they are useful for herbal tea throughout the year.

Herbs can be flowers, seeds, bark or any part. Most are foliage of the family Lamiaceae.

Makrut Lime

80207Of all the weird citruses available, this is one of the strangest. Makrut lime, Citrus hystrix, is not grown for its ugly wrinkled fruit. The rind and the juice are only rarely used for culinary or medicinal purposes. The important part of makrut lime is the aromatic foliage, particularly the modified petiole ‘wings’ that look like leaves. Fresh or dried, they are popular in the cuisine of Southeast Asia.

Mature trees can eventually reach second story eaves, but are usually kept significantly lower. They are so shrubby that even large trees should have plenty of foliage within easy reach from the ground. Once a tree gets overgrown, it is not as easily pruned lower as some other citrus trees are. Pruning stimulates vigorously long and arching stems, rather than more desirable fluffy growth.

The winged petioles are almost as long and wide as the actual leaves are. In fact, they look just like the leaves, making them look like ‘double leaves’. Although the petiole wings separated from the petiole are supposedly the most aromatic parts, leaves are useful too. The hard fruits are about as big as golf balls, and are the same rich green as the foliage, until they ripen to a light yellow.

Herbs Add Spice To Life

80207thumbOut in deserts, where vegetation can be a scarce commodity, cacti, agaves and yuccas protect themselves from grazing animals with thorns, spines, caustic sap and distastefully textured foliage. None of these defense mechanisms is perfect. They only need to be better than what the competing specie are using. Many plants find that objectionable flavor and aroma work just fine for them.

The funny thing about the objectionable flavors and aromas that some plants use to discourage grazing animals from eating them, is that these same flavors and aromas are what make so many of them appealing to people. It is ironic that what was supposed to make them distasteful to some is what makes them tasty to others. Yet, it also gets us to perpetuate them in our home gardens.

Mint, thyme, lavender, rosemary and sage, which all happen to be in the same family, are culinary herbs that also work well in the landscape. The mints need the most watering, and containment if their innate invasiveness is a concern. Thymes need less water, and some are nicely aromatic ground cover for small areas. Lavenders and rosemaries can survive with minimal watering here.

Both rosemary and sage are popular for landscaping anyway. Rosemary is most commonly grown as a ground cover that cascades nicely over low retaining walls, but some cultivars are shrubby. Sages are extremely variable. Some are showier than they are useful in the kitchen, with elegant and colorful flower spikes. Others are too strongly aromatic to cook with, but are used as incense.

Fennel and chamomile are often grown in vegetable gardens rather than out in the more refined parts of the landscape because they can get somewhat awkward. Fennel has such nice feathery foliage at first, but if not harvested, it gets tall, and then yellows after bloom. Chamomile gets tall and open in bloom, and then no one wants to ruin it by harvesting all the flowers if it looks too good. Chives are easier to work with. They have so many leaves that no one misses a few taken for the kitchen.