Matilija Poppy

90703If California poppy had not been designated as the California state flower, Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, might have been. It was nominated, but was less popular at the time, partly because it was familiar only to those near its native range in Southern California. Some of us know it as ‘fried egg flower’, because the big and floppy white flowers with yellow centers look like fried eggs.

Matilija poppy is a big and bold perennial, with flowers that are bigger than any other native species. They can get more than six inches wide! These flowers stand on top of lanky stems that might get taller than six feet. The somewhat sparse and light grayish foliage has a uniquely bristly but also slightly rubbery texture. Individual leaves might be longer than six inches, with elongated lobes.

As a native of dry chaparral regions, Matilija poppy is very resilient, and does not need watering once established. However, to survive long and dry summers, it starts to die back early, so should get cut to the ground later in summer or early in autumn before it becomes too unappealing. It then stays dormant through winter before regenerating in spring. Rhizomes can spread aggressively.

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Ivy Geranium

90626This is one of the more traditional perennials for old fashioned window boxes, not only because it cascades downward to avoid obstructing associated windows, but also because, back before window screens were commonly available, the aromatic foliage was purported to repel mosquitoes. Ivy geranium, Pelargonium peltatum, is splendid for hanging pots and retaining walls as well.

The best bloom is usually later in summer or in early autumn, but sporadic bloom can continue almost throughout the year. The flowers are very similar to those of more common zonal geranium, but perhaps more abundant. The slightly more extensive color range goes beyond hues of white, pink, red and peach, to include rich burgundy, pinkish lavender and candy striped red with white.

The rounded and lobed light green leaves are rather succulent, so are easily damaged. Some cultivars have slight foliar halos (semicircular zones of darker color around the centers of the leaves) almost like those of zonal geraniums, but not quite as prominent. The thin and nearly succulent stems are easy to root as cuttings. Although fragile, they can sprawl or cascade as much as six feet.

Deadheading Promotes And Prolongs Bloom

90612thumbApril showers bring May flowers. May flowers make a mess. Well, some of them do. Most simply disintegrate and fall from the trees, shrubs and vines that produced them, and decompose into the soil below. Some might have needed to be swept off of pavement and decks. Regardless, most of us do not notice the very minor consequences for the majority of spectacular spring bloom.

However, there are some flowers that demand a bit more attention after they finish blooming. They linger after the show is over, and can look shabby as they deteriorate. Small ones can simply be plucked. Larger blooms might need to be pruned out. The process of removing deteriorating blooms is known as ‘deadheading’, and it is done for more reasons than just to keep plants groomed.

Plants bloom to produce seed, and the production of seed takes resources. Removal of seed structures not only diverts resources to more useful functions, but for many plants, it also stimulates subsequent bloom in response to interrupted seed production. They literally keep trying until they are able to produce viable seed, even if they must continue all season until late autumn dormancy.

Most plants that benefit from deadheading are perennials. Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, cone flower, yarrow, lavender and beard tongue (penstemon) bloom more abundantly and for a longer time with regular deadheading. The various lavenders, as well as other perennials that are comparably shrubby, are easily deadheaded by shearing after profuse bloom phases.

For bulbs and bulb like perennials that bloom only once annually, deadheading will not promote subsequent bloom during the same year, but conserves resources for the following year. Daffodil, lily, clivia, various iris and, during summer, gladiolus and dahlia, all appreciate diligent deadheading.

Petunia and marigold are two annuals that happen to bloom better with regularly deadheading. They bloom so profusely that deadheading can be quite a chore. Plants that can be invasive, such as salsify, should be deadheaded before dispersing seed.

Rose Lily

P90601KWhat a delightful surprise! It happens sometimes here in the rose garden. It may not look like much, as a short stemmed single lily floret that is mostly overwhelmed by the English lavender that I held back with my boot for this picture. It should be three feet tall or so, with several florets. The surprise is that no one planted it. Well, at least no one planted it recently. This rose garden has more history than is obvious from what blooms here now.
Old pictures show that it was formerly an extravagant perennial bed, with an abundance of canna, dahlia, penstemon, pelargonium, Shasta daisy, Japanese anemone, various iris, and of course, various lilies. Lower annuals were cycled through the seasons at the front edge. Only a few roses bloomed against the low wall at the rear. Soil was likely regularly amended with compost and fertilizer. Someone put significant effort into maintaining it.
Nearby redwoods appreciated all the effort, and extended their roots into the fertilized, richly amended and regularly irrigated soil. Their growing canopies extended over and shaded the upper portion of the perennial bed so that all but daylilies and Japanese anemone were replaced with ferns. Perennials that got dug and stored for their dormant seasons were later installed elsewhere as it became obvious that they would not be happy here.
Because the few roses did not seem to mind the redwood roots, a few more, as well as English lavender, were added in informal rows to replace deteriorating perennials. Annuals require more effort than they did originally, but are still cycled through the seasons in a narrow row at the front edge. The rose garden now seems to have always been here, as if intentionally planned. Every once in a while, we find reminders of extravagant history.

Zonal Geranium

60525New and improved is not always better. Modern garden varieties of zonal geranium, Pelargonium X hortorum, with bigger, fuller and more profuse blooms, are more colorful than the relatively weedy classic varieties, but they are considerably more demanding. In fact, because they are so unhappy through winter, they are often grown as warm season annuals instead of as perennials.

They are certainly worth growing though, and are reasonably easy to propagate from cuttings. Flowers can be red, pink, white, peachy orange or almost purple. Bloom is almost continuous. Each rounded dark green leaf might be adorned with a darker halo about halfway between the center and the outer margin. Mature plants do not get much more than three feet tall, and not much wider.

Old varieties might get twice as tall, with smaller blooms, and lighter foliage.

Try Some Unconventional Cut Flowers

P81214There is nothing like growing our own; whether vegetables, fruit or cut flowers. Most fruit and vegetables are grown to be eaten, so are not missed too much when harvested. Even colorful citrus fruit is better harvested than left out in the garden. No one wants to waste it. Flowers are not so simple. They are so colorful and fragrant in the garden, that it is tempting to leave them all out there.

Cosmos and many kinds of daisies are so abundant that there are plenty for both the home and garden. Gladiolus are not so fortunate. They bloom only once. Cutting the flowers to bring into the home deprives the garden of their color. What is worse is that cut gladiolus, although excellent cut flowers, do not last quite as long as they would in the garden. Roses at least continue to bloom.

Daylily can be a good cut flower, but individual flowers last only a day (obviously). This is not a problem in the garden because new flowers bloom daily to replace those that that have finished. Cutting stems not only takes flowers in bloom, but also takes the flower buds behind them that are waiting for their turn to bloom. However, not many, if any, of the unbloomed buds bloom once cut.

Many types of iris, except for Dutch iris, have the same problem. Attentive garden enthusiasts might leave iris to bloom in the garden, and might even groom fading blooms from fresh blooms on the same stems, and then cut stems to bring into the home when the last bud on each stem is just beginning to bloom. The last flowers are not as excellent as the first, but it is a fair compromise.

Cannas are not so functional. They are great in the garden for both flowers and foliage, but fade too soon in the home. Bougainvillea and crape myrtle stems likewise start to wilt and drop flowers immediately after getting cut, but for those who do not mind cleaning up after them, there are plenty of papery flowers to last a few days. The wilted tips of bougainvillea stems can be pruned out.

There are no rules to cut flowers. Lily-of-the-nile might seem like a silly choice, but works quite nicely for those who dare to try it. New Zealand flax flowers are not very colorful, but provide striking form. Zonal geranium and nasturtium work well with or without foliage attached. Lemon bottlebrush, photinia, New Zealand tea tree, bugle lily, various hebes, and all sorts of salvias are worth a try.

Some Annuals Are Really Perennials

90529thumbAnnuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle from germination to death within a single year. Biennials complete their entire life cycle in two years, mostly by developing vegetative growth during their first year, and then blooming, producing seed and then dying after their second year. Perennials are the many herbaceous plants that survive longer than just a few years or indefinitely.

As simple as these definitions seem to be, the plants that they describe are a bit more complicated. Some biennials can regenerate from the roots of plants that have already bloomed and died. Stems of some annuals can root where they touch the ground, to form new plants that survive for another year. Some annuals seem perennial if they replace themselves with their own seedlings.

Of course, none of that matters for the many biennials, perennials and self perpetuating annuals that get grown as mere annuals. At a time when ‘sustainability’ is a fad and trendy buzz word, it is ironic that so many bedding plants that could contribute more if given the chance to do so, continue to get discarded as soon as their primary season finishes. Most have more potential than that.

Self perpetuating annuals like sweet alyssum and nasturtium might only need to be groomed of old plants as new ones take over. Young nasturtium are rather efficient at overwhelming their own parent plants to some degree. Of course, subsequent generations will revert to feral plants. Fancier nasturtium will eventually become basic orange and yellow. Sweet alyssum will be plain white.

Many annuals that are actually perennials might survive through their off season if just overplanted with more seasonal annuals, and then regenerate when the weather becomes more favorable. For example, primrose from last season might be left in the ground as petunias take over for summer, but when the petunias finish next autumn, the primrose can regenerate for another season.

Such perennials regenerate more randomly than they grew in their primary season, and will need some degree of grooming and perhaps mulching.

Wax Begonia

90515Oh, how breeding complicates things. Many years ago, there were only six basic types of wax begonia, Begonia semperflorens-cultorum, with three choices for floral color, and two choices for foliar color. Bloom was white, pink or red. Foliage was either green or dark bronze. Although these choices have not changed, some modern hybrids are difficult to distinguish from other species.

Wax begonia can be either a cool season annual or a warm season annual, depending on when it gets planted. It can be grown as a short term perennial if pruned back in both early spring and early autumn. By spring, winter growth is tired of the cold. By autumn, summer growth is worn out from warmth. Exposed plants can get lethally frosted in winter or roasted by sunlight in summer.

Therefore, wax begonia prefers to be somewhat sheltered. It is more tolerant of full sun exposure in summer if mixed with other annuals or perennials. Too much shade compromises bloom. Wax begonia expects richly amended soil and regular watering, and is just as happy in pots as other annuals are. Potted plants can be moved to sheltered spots when the weather gets too hot or cold.

Clustered Bellflower

90508Do they seem to be early this year? Clustered bellflower, Campanula glomerata, typically waits until the end of spring to bloom. Once the initial and most prolific bloom phase finishes, sporadic bloom should continue almost through summer. Blue is their most popular and traditional color. White is their second most popular option. Bluish purple and purplish pink are still somewhat rare.

Vegetative growth stays relatively low and unassuming through autumn and winter, and then starts to stand up and get noticed just before spring bloom. Short varieties might bloom without getting even a foot tall, while tall varieties can get two feet tall or a bit taller in partial shade. Each blooming stem supports a dozen or so five-pointed flowers that are about thee quarters to an inch wide.

Clustered bellflower looks neater and probably blooms a bit better as the season progresses if stalks are pruned out as they finish bloom and start to deteriorate. However, a few stalks of some varieties might be retained after bloom to produce seed to scatter elsewhere. Some of the fancier or newer varieties do not produce many viable seed, and such seed may not be true to to type.

Spectacular Bloom Can Be Lethal

70510thumbAfter providing remarkably striking foliage for many years, the biggest and boldest agaves bolt with spectacularly tall floral stalks that support horizontal pads of flowers. These stalks can bloom for months, and stand for months after bloom is finished. Then things get ugly. The foliage around each bloom folds back, desiccates and dies. There is no nice way to describe it. Bloom is death.

Plants that bloom only once and then die are ‘monocarpic’. Agaves are not truly monocarpic, since they do not really die completely. They survive by producing pups (offshoots) as their original rosettes of foliage die. Some agaves start to produce pups years prior to bloom, just to be ready. Most terrestrial yuccas (that do not form trunks) go through the same process shortly after bloom.

Pups can be so prolific that they get crowded. Because the larger agaves are so big, they can conquer a significant area with just a few pups. With all their dangerously nasty foliar spines, extra pups are not at all easy to remove. Once removed, pups can be planted elsewhere as new plants, but they will grow up into even more agaves that will eventually bloom and make more pups!

Removal of the carcasses of bloomed yuccas without getting stabbed by the sharply tipped leaves is challenging. Removal of the carcasses of big agaves is hellish! Spines of old foliage never go dull. Pups hiding below the old foliage are just as dangerous. Tall blooms must be cut down like small trees. The debris can not be recycled in green waste, so must be disposed of like trash.

Furcraeas, which are related to agaves and yuccas, produce fewer pups, or may not produce any pups at all. Of course, a bloomed plant without pups will die completely. However, the huge conical blooms (that resemble Christmas trees) produce bulbils, which are tiny new plants that can be plugged back into the garden to grow into new plants! Regardless of all the work, furcraeas, as well as yuccas and agaves (within reason), are worth growing for their dramatic foliage and impressive bloom.