Online Plant Purchases Have Certain Risks

Many seeds can be found online.

So many plants that were difficult to obtain years ago are now much more available online. The internet does more than give everyone access to nurseries and seed suppliers that sell online. It also makes it possible to communicate with others who might want to share plants and seeds from their own gardens. The advantages are obvious, but there are innate problems with so many plants being too available.

Before humans started to relocate plants all over the world, plants were much more confined to certain regions. Once relocated to new regions, some plants naturalized and became problematic for the plants that were already there. Exotic (non-native) plants often had the advantage because pests that troubled them back home had not come with them.

For example, pampas grass had been confined to the Pampas region of South America. It was imported to California and Oregon because its fluffy flowers and graceful texture are so appealing. The problem now is that it naturalized, and continues to proliferate and crowd out native plants in coastal ecosystems, without natural pathogens to slow it down. The availability of so many more plants from so many more regions seriously increases the potential for the importation of invasive exotic plants, as well as plant diseases and even insects!

Another potential problem is that common names of plants can be very different in different regions. Now, this can be an advantage when seeds from a common yucca in Lubbock, Texas might actually be from the very uncommon plains yucca (Yucca campestris, which I recently purchases on Ebay!). The problem is that the yucca known as ‘Adam’s needle’ in Georgia may be a completely different species from what is known as such in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma or anywhere else. A plant described as a ‘mimosa’ could be a silk tree, a jacaranda tree, or any of several different acacia trees!

Knotweed

Knotweed by any other name. . .

There are no fancy varieties, but many different fancy names for knotweed. It used to be known as Polygonum capitatum, but is now easier to research as Persicaria capitata. The many common names include pink knotweed, pink clover, pink fleece flower, pinkhead, pink bubbleweed and smartweed. Obviously, the tiny and spherical blooms are pink, about the color of bubble gum. Each small leaf has a distinctive brown chevron, which makes the collective foliage rather bronzy. The wiry stems can not stand much more than three inches high, but creep indefinitely, rooting as they go. Knotweed is an excellent but potentially invasive groundcover, and is also a nice component to mixed plantings in large urns or behind retaining walls, where it can cascade several inches over the edges. A bit of partial shade is no problem. Bloom continues through the end of summer, and resumes at the end of winter.

English Ivy

Rampant English ivy can overwhelm trees.

Compared to Algerian ivy, English ivy, Hedera helix, may seem to be more complaisant. As ground cover, it mostly stays a bit lower, with smaller leaves, and a more refined foliar texture. It is generally easier to maintain and to mow if it does not get too deep. However, where it naturalizes, English ivy is more aggressive and more invasive than Algerian ivy. 

If contained, English ivy is a splendidly dense and evergreen ground cover that excludes most weeds. Containment is very important! English ivy must not climb into shrubbery or trees. It otherwise overwhelms its support and disperses seed. Although reasonably safe on bare concrete walls, it ruins wooden, painted and stucco surfaces. Growth is very fast! 

‘Hahn’s’ is likely the most popular cultivar of English ivy. It branches well, to fill out fast as ground cover. Cultivars that are variegated with white or yellow grow significantly slower, but provide elegant foliage for big pots or planters of mixed annuals or perennials. Foliar lobes are variable. For example, lobes of ‘Needlepoint’ are distinctly narrow and pointed.

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.

Black Locust

White black locust bloom seems oxymoronic.

The natural ranges of black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, likely included only the Ozark Mountains, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Appalachian Mountains south of New York. Early American colonists planted it elsewhere before botanists documented its origins. It was notably used for firewood, durable lumber, erosion mitigation, and soil conditioning.

Modern cultivars are less useful for such applications, but are more appropriate for home gardens. Regardless of elegantly lofty form, delightfully finely textured foliage, and richly fragrant white bloom, the species is aggressively invasive and wickedly thorny. Cultivars can bloom pink or rosy pink, lack thorns, and develop more compact and shapely forms.

Bloom resembles that of wisteria, with many small flowers hanging in pendulous trusses. Deciduous foliage, which was absent through winter, appears in conjunction with bloom, but does not obscure it. Individual leaves are pinnately compound, with small leaflets on central rachises (stalks). Most modern cultivars will not get much more than forty feet tall, to make moderate shade.

Weeds Are Full Of Surprises

Pokeweed is rapidly becoming more common.

While it was busy naturalizing in Australia, South Africa and southern South America, the California poppy was getting forced out of parts of its own native range by more aggressive exotic plants that were also busy getting naturalized. Technically, any plant that is not native is exotic. Any exotic plant that becomes naturalized in a foreign environment is able to proliferate without any help, as if it were native. Naturalized exotic plants that get too aggressive become invasive weeds.

Weeds are plants where they are not wanted. This is a very broad definition that includes plants ranging from simple little dandelions in urban lawns to humongous bluegum eucalyptus in forests. Naturalized exotic weeds can be much more problematic than weeds that can only proliferate where they get watered in gardens and landscapes, because they can get established where they are not expected.

Water hyacinth that clogs the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is not often a problem in terrestrial landscapes. However, giant reed, pampas grass, Acacia dealbata and blackberry brambles can infest home gardens just as easily as they infest wild lands. Because they do not need to be watered, they can get established and grow quite large in unused parts of the garden before anyone notices.

Many naturalized weeds somehow seem to much more aggressive and problematic than even the most prolific of native plants. Even the common native lupines are relatively docile compared to annual oat grass. Native blackberry may seem impossible to eradicate, but is actually neither as persistent nor as unpleasant to handle as the exotic Siberian blackberry!

Young weeds are easiest to pull now while the soil is still evenly damp, and young roots are only beginning to disperse. They will be more difficult to pull after roots are dispersed and soil hardens. Tree weeds and large perennial weeds that were cut down last year instead of pulled will likely need to be dug. Bermuda grass is a relatively low perennial grass that always seems to be difficult to dig. Mowing or cutting down annual grass weeds with a weed whacker will not eliminate them, but limits the development and dispersion of seed for the next generation. Burclover, sowthistle, bindweed, purslane, spurge and the various oxalis are some of the other common weeds that really get going this time of year.

Silver Wattle

Silver wattle is a magnificent weed.

Almost everyone on the West Coast of California has encountered silver wattle, Acacia dealbata. Some of us know how resilient it is to most methods of eradication. The more fortunate enjoy its magnificently bloom from a distance. It is almost never planted intentionally. It is an aggressively naturalized exotic species. Most grows wild near roadside ditches. Some invades home gardens.

The profuse and bright yellow bloom of silver wattle is spectacular while most deciduous trees remain bare late in winter. Big and billowy trusses of smaller round floral structures obscure most of their slightly grayish foliage. The many individual staminate flowers within this impressive bloom are actually minute. Their hearty floral fragrance is appealing to some, but objectionable to others.

Silver wattle lives fast and dies young. Some trees are so vigorous while young that they are unable to support their own weight. Without appropriate pruning, they simply fall over. Even stable and structurally sound trees deteriorate after about thirty years. Few survive for fifty. They seed prolifically though! Mature trees can get forty feet tall. The finely textured foliage is bipinnately compound.

Tree Of Heaven

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Tree of Heaven or tree of Hell?

‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ documents the resiliency and invasiveness of the common but typically undesirable tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima. Once a single female tree get established, the extremely prolific seeds get everywhere, including cracks in concrete. The resulting seedlings conquer wherever they are not dug out. If cut down, they just resprout from the roots.

Male trees smell horrible while blooming for about a month in spring or summer. They are pollinated by flies, so naturally smell like what flies like. The tiny yellowish or tan flowers hang on panicles that can be a foot and a half long. Female blooms are not as big, prolific or objectionably fragrant. However, stems, leaves and all other parts of both genders smell rotten when handled.

Tree of Heaven, which has earned the alternative names of ‘tree of Hell’, ‘stink tree’, ‘ghetto elm’ and ‘ghetto palm’, is no longer a tree that gets planted by choice. It is typically a tree that plants itself, and on rare occasion, happens to grow into a good situation. They should not be allowed to overwhelm more desirable trees, or get too close to concrete or other damageable features.

Young trees grow very fast to about forty feet tall. Older and slower trees do not get much taller, although sheltered trees can get twice as tall, with elegant gray bark. They do not live much more than fifty years. The big pinnately compound leaves are surprisingly pretty. On vigorous shoots, individual leaves can get as long as two and a half feet, with leaflets as long as six inches.

Weeds?

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Although I can not be certain, I believe that this is prickly lettuce.

Pretty weeds do not get my attention like they do for others. They look too much like weeds to me. If I want to appreciate them, I must do so with intention. Sometimes, I do actually try. I did happen to notice these two weeds. However, now that I got their pictures, I have no use for either of them. Neither is readily useful for the gardening column. I will just share them here.

The yellow flower pictured above is most likely prickly lettuce. I really do not know. I know it as yellow chicory; but chicory does not bloom yellow. Some people think of it as dandelion, since the flowers are similar. These flowers stand much higher though, with only minimal foliage below. For the picture, I plucked this flower and stuck it in the ground to keep it still in the breeze.

The white flower pictured below is common bindweed. When I was a kid, I knew it as morning glory. In this close up picture, it looks like a fancier garden variety of morning glory, although the flower is much smaller. Real morning glory happens to look good in white, like this one does. If it is fragrant, I have never noticed. It tends to creep along the ground more than it climbs.

It sometimes seems silly to me that others so easily notice how pretty weeds such as these are, especially while there are so many more flowers that are prettier. Then, I realize what others must think of what I consider to be pretty. For example, the pollarded blue gum with aromatic blue foliage that I enjoy so much, is the same species that gives all eucalypti a bad reputation.

Besides, these flowers were the prettiest in the otherwise bare meadow where I found them.

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Bindweed looks like miniature morning glory.

Dragon Lily

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Dragon lily is striking and stinky.

Dracunculus vulgaris make a sinister impression by botanical name alone. Common names include dragon lily, dragon arum, dragonwort, black dragon, snake lily, stink lily and voodoo lily. That makes it sinister enough to be compelling. Although rare in nurseries, dormant tubers are available in season by mail order. Alternatively, established colonies happily share a few dormant tubers.

Dragon lily is quite easy to grow. It appreciates rich soil and regular watering, at least until it gets established. Once settled in, it might be satisfied with only monthly watering until it goes dormant in late summer. Because it prefers humid climates, it wants shelter from wind here, and may like a bit of partial afternoon shade. It is so adaptable that it unfortunately naturalized in some regions.

The fragrance of dragon lily attracts insect pollinators that are drawn to dead animals. Those of us who enjoy unusual plants find it amusing. Everyone else thinks it stinks. Blooms that produce the fragrance are spectacular, with a big and flared purplish red spathe around a slender black spadix. They may stand nearly three feet tall, among lightly blotched and deeply lobed palmate leaves.