Autumn Sage

Salvia greggii is a modest sage.

Perhaps 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.

Sea Foam Statice

Statice flowers last fresh or dried.

Many of us who already grow sea lavender, Limonium perezii, might wonder why it is a topic for August. In the mildest spots, it gets more credit for blooming in winter while most other plants are dormant. Yet, it is actually classified as a summer blooming perennial because it blooms more reliably though summer in most places.

Bluish purple blooms stand more than two feet tall, just above coarse mounds of evergreen basal foliage that gets more than two feet wide. Each billowed bloom contains many tiny flowers. Larger blooms are too heavy to stand upright, so they lay down on the foliage. The weirdly wavy leaves are on such long petioles (leaf stalks) that they may lay down too.

Established plants do not need much attention or water. Faded bloom should be pruned away. It is not practical to remove all of the faded foliage. Every few years or so, old plants can be reinvigorated by getting divided. Newly divided rhizomes will need to be watered regularly until they disperse their roots. Sea foam statice likes full sun exposure.


Few blooms are this blue.

There are not many flowers as blue as those of plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. Individual flowers are not much more than half an inch long, but can be quite abundant until autumn. Each of the many terminal flower clusters is on a rather reliable schedule, so that new flowers begin to open as older flowers begin to fade.

Thin stems stand only about half a foot to a foot above underground rhizomes. Individual plants get about 3-feet wide, but realistically, will slowly spread farther if conditions are right. They do not spread fast enough to be invasive, but can get into some unexpected spots if not controlled. The simple leaves are about two inches long.

The main problem with plumbago is that it is deciduous, so it dies back to the ground in autumn. The weather is too mild here to produce the good fall color seen where autumns are cooler. Plumbago is a popular bulb cover because new growth, although slow to develop, emerges just in time to obscure fading foliage of early spring bulbs like daffodil and tulip.

Plumbago also works well with stone, since the stone is still appealing without the foliage through winter. The wiry stems weave nicely through otherwise bare cobbles, or spill slightly over low stone walls. Even though shade inhibits bloom, plumbago makes a nice informal ground cover under open shrubbery.

Six on Saturday: Suburbia II

As I said last week, the Santa Clara Valley is the best place in the entire Universe for horticulture. That is where these pictures came from. Although I planted only the Ilex aquifolium of the second picture, I collected all six of these plants from various sources over the years. They have been quite happy here. I will now be taking more copies or originals of all but Ilex aquifolium.

1. Juniperus virginiana – is my favorite this week. I know it is uninteresting to those who are familiar with it, but it happens to be one of only a few that I brought from Newalla in Oklahoma.P00808-1

2. Ilex aquifolium – is the only one this week that I actually purchased from a nursery, while in school in San Luis Obispo in the late 1980s. It is uncommon (and unpopular) here. I still dig it.P00808-2

3. Viola odorata – came from Santa Clara while I was in high school. (I thought) I wanted it because it blooms white. It is not very pretty, but I can not get rid of it. Violets should be ‘violet’.P00808-3

4. Pelargonium hortorum – is not the original that I found in a compost pile in Montara in about 1980, but is very likely the same ‘unimproved’ species or whatever it is. I found it downtown.P00808-4

5. Agapanthus orientalis – from Watsonville in 1992, is one of my two favorite agapanthus; because it is white, but is otherwise identical to my original blue agapanthus from the late 1970s.P00808-5

6. Amaryllis belladonna – came from Hoot Owl Creek in Oklahoma. It lived in the same garden with my Iris pallida! I know it is no more interesting that these others here, but it has history!P00808-6

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Santa Barbara Daisy

Some of us know Santa Barbara daisy by the less appealing name of ‘fleabane’.

Santa Barbara was not exactly its first choice. Santa Barbara daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, is not even native to California. It is actually from Central America. It just happens to do very well here, and can naturalize if conditions are right. It can be rather grungy through summer in the wild, but with a bit of watering, it can bloom nicely all year.

The thin stems can spread a few feet without getting more than a foot deep. If even shallower growth is preferred, older plants can be cut down or pulled up as they get replaced by their own offspring. The narrow leaves are quite tiny. The white or slightly pinkish flowers are not much bigger, less than half an inch wide, with prominent yellow centers.

Santa Barbara daisy is also known as Mexican fleabane, both because it is actually native to Mexico, and also because it is supposedly useful for repelling fleas. The problem with using it to repel fleas is that only its smoke is effective. There are probably other herbal alternatives that work just as well without being a fire hazard.

Lily Of The Nile

Agapanthus bloom looks like Independence Day.

It is no lily, but it does live on the banks of the Nile River. Lily of the Nile, Agapanthus africanus, endures both long dry summers and winter flooding. While inundated, it clings to the silty soil with a sturdy network of rubbery roots. Densely mounding foliage regenerates as floodwater recedes. If conditions get exceptionally warm and dry, foliage may eventually shrivel after midsummer bloom.

Home gardens are certainly more hospitable than the floodplains of the Nile River. The luxuriant foliage of lily of the Nile is evergreen locally, even if irrigation is minimal. The rubbery leaves get as long as two feet, arching outward from basal rosettes. New foliage obscures deteriorating old foliage. Plants that get too congested to bloom well might benefit from division of individual rosettes.

Lily of the Nile blooms around Independence Day, with round floral trusses that resemble exploding fireworks. Each blue or white bloom stands about two to four feet high, on slim and bare stems. Individual florets are small and tubular. ‘Storm Cloud’ blooms with darker blue or purple. Agapanthus orientalis may exhibit bigger blooms and coarser foliage. ‘Peter Pan’ stays low and compact.

Fourth of July

Lily of the Nile are floral Fourth of July fireworks.

Fireworks, Fourth of July parades, and the associated crowds are of course canceled for this year.

Lily of the Nile does not mind. It blooms in time for the Fourth of July regardless of what the rest of us are doing, or not doing. That is one of the two reasons why some of us know it as the ‘Fourth of July flower’. The other reason is that the nearly spherical floral trusses resemble exploding skyrocket fireworks. They are mostly blue, with some white. All that is missing is red.

The bloom in this picture is not exactly exemplary. It would have been larger, rounder, and likely more advanced in bloom if it had developed in a sunnier location. There are enough of them that we do not notice that most are somewhat diminutive. In autumn, many of the overgrown plants will be relocated to a sunnier situation where they can bloom as they would prefer too.

Lily of the Nile was the first perennial that I grew a significant quantity of. While in junior high school, a neighbor instructed me to remove a healthy colony of lily of the Nile that had grown obtrusively large in only twenty years. I could not just discard it, so chopped it into more than sixty pups, and planted it all over the neighborhood. Much of it is still there. A bit of it is here.

Back then, it was known as Agapanthus orientalis. In school, I learned it as Agapanthus africanus. I still do not know if they are two different species, or if one is just a variety of the other. I do know that mine are distinctly different from common sorts, with bigger and rounder floral trusses. The others have straighter stems that support their blooms batter, and finer foliage.

Covering New Ground Or Old With Groundcover

Mock strawberry covers shallowly but densely.

As the simple name implies, ‘groundcover’ covers the ground. Groundcover plants stay lower than shrubbery, and function something like mulch. They insulate shallow roots of other plants, inhibit weeds, and some groundcovers inhibit erosion. Besides all their utilitarian functions, they provide appealing foliage, and some bloom nicely.

Lawn is probably the most common groundcover, and is also the most useful; but that is an entirely different and involved topic! Other groundcover plants are spreading perennials, plants with sprawling stems, or vines grown without support. Most are evergreen, since defoliated plants do not cover much of anything too well.

Gazanias and iceplants are popular perennial groundcovers. Their old stems tend to die out and decompose as efficiently as new stems pile up over them, which is why they do not get too deep. Gazanias can eventually get bald spots that need to be patched with new plants, or ‘plugged.’

(The debris from pruning the edges of easily rooted perennial groundcovers can be processed into cuttings known as ‘plugs’, which can go directly into bald spots. Plugs can be taken from dense spots if no edging is necessary. They should be watered regularly, or plugged in autumn to take advantage of rain while roots develop.)

Groundcover forms of ceanothus (wild lilac), juniper and contoneaster are really shrubs that extend their stems more horizontally than vertically. Honeysuckle and both Algerian and English ivies are vines that spread over the ground until they find something to climb. Their stems root into the ground wherever they need to.

Since most groundcover plants are naturally understory plants that grow below larger plants, many tolerate considerable shade. Periwinkle and the ivies are remarkably happy in partial shade. However, vines, particularly the ivies, will climb walls and trees for more sunlight if they get the chance.

Many of the perennial groundcovers and some of the vines are neater if mown or cut low annually. Periwinkle does not need to be mown, but can get rather unkempt before new growth overwhelms the old through winter. Mowing eliminates the old stems, and makes the new growth fluffier. Dwarf periwinkle stays too low to mow.