Sweet Box

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Foliage of sweet box outdoes flowers.

While bloom cycles of most plants are accelerated by the unusually warm winter, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, seems to be blooming a bit late. It should have bloomed sometime in winter, and finished a month ago. The tiny pale greenish white flowers are certainly nothing to look at, but they produce a remarkably rich fragrance that seems like it would be delicious with coffee.

The foliage is very glossy and dark green, like that of English holly, but the leaves are small and lack spines. Red berries sometimes develop, but are only abundant enough to be notably colorful on plants that are distressed. Sweet box may take a few years to get established and grow to only about three feet high and wide, although it can slowly get a bit larger.

Since it is naturally an understory plant, sweet box prefers at least a bit of shade. Harsh exposure fades foliage. Because of its tolerance of partial shade, as well as its low and dense growth, sweet box is ideal for obscuring foundations. After the first few years, it does not need too much water. It gets established more efficiently in rich soil.

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.

‘Eureka’ Lemon

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‘Lisbon’ lemon actually came first. It is still grown in orchards for lemon juice and other lemon products. The glossy evergreen foliage is a nice bright green. The late winter bloom is nicely fragrant. Mature trees can be kept about twelve feet tall, or allowed to get much taller. Besides the nasty thorns, the only other problem is that all the fruit ripens within a limited season.

‘Eureka’ lemon, Citrus limon ‘Eureka’, is a mutation of ‘Lisbon’ that is more casual about its schedule. It produces a good quantity of fruit in season through the end of winter, and also produces lesser quantities throughout the year. Because it is so productive, the lesser quantities should be more than sufficient whenever lemons are needed.

The ‘Variegated Pink’ lemon is a mutation of ‘Eureka’, so is a mutation of a mutation. The foliage is nicely variegated with white. The green fruit is striped with yellow until it ripens to yellow. The pulp and juice are pink of course. Like many variegated plants, the ‘Variegated Pink’ lemon stays much smaller than ‘Eureka’ lemon, and is more sensitive to frost.

Onion

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Onions are weirdly bulbous foliar vegetables.

Although it is the most cultivated species of its genus, no one knows the origins of domestic onion, Allium cepa. Leek, shallot, garlic, chive, and a few other species are also popular vegetables. Most common bulbing onions produce familiar distended bulbs that are ready for harvest after defoliating and initiating dormancy in autumn. Green onions are leaves and attached juvenile bulbs.

Onions are probably easiest to grow locally from small juvenile onions known as ‘sets’, that grew from seed during the previous summer. Alternatively, seed sown during summer grows into small plants that go dormant to overwinter, and then resume growth the following spring. Mature onions should go completely dormant in autumn before storage, but are usable directly from the garden.

Yellow or brown onions are the most popular for cooking. Red or purple onions are milder and more colorful for fresh use, and are also popular for stir fry. White onions, whether fresh or cooked, are even milder, and are the traditional onions for salsa. All onions produce distinctively bluish foliage that stands about a foot high. The hollow leaves flop over and shrivel for dormancy in autumn.

Buckbrush

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Buckbrush is California lilac without lilac.

Most other specie of ceanothus are more colorful and tame than Ceanothus cuneatus is. It is known as ‘buckbrush’ because the abundant round trusses of minute flowers are typically dingy white instead of the more familiar shades of blue that have earned other ceanothus the common name of ‘California lilac’. However, a few wild plants and some garden varieties bloom blue.

Mature plants are at least six feet high and wide, but typically less than ten feet high and twelve feet wide. They are pleasantly fragrant as they bloom between March and April or May. Roots seem to tolerate almost any soil that drains well and does not get watered too much. Once established, no watering is needed. The scrubby evergreen foliage likes full sun exposure.

Although it is a bit unrefined, and does not want to be pruned for confinement, buckbrush works nicely as screening shrubbery on the perimeter of a landscaped area, or in unlandscaped areas. Newly installed small plants only need to be watered occasionally as they disperse their roots through their first year. Since they are native, established plants are satisfied with rainfall.

Potato

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Grow potatoes now to dig later.

First thing first. Potatoes are not roots. They are only classified as a root vegetable because they grow underground. They are actually a sort of specialized subterranean stem known as a ‘stolon’. Because they are so distended, a more accurate distinction might be ‘tuberous stolon’ or ‘stoloniferous tuber’. Their eyes are buds, which roots lack. Their roots extend from eyes and other roots.

Most cultivated potatoes are of the species Solanum tuberosum. Some of the thousands of cultivars that were developed during the thousands of years that potatoes have been in cultivation are distantly related to other species. Hybridization was a means with which to incorporate desirable characteristics of other species. Potatoes are presently one of the main food crops in the World.

Small potatoes or pieces of potatoes, which are known as ‘seed potatoes’, start to grow in home gardens after the last frost. Potatoes are not grown from actual seed because of the potential for genetic variation. After bloom later in summer, their coarse foliage dies to the ground. Potatoes that grew during the previous season are then ready to get dug. Fruit and all green parts are toxic.

Boston Fern

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This fern is nowhere near Boston.

It is not actually from Boston. The first Boston fern, Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’ was merely discovered in Boston, as a mutant in a shipment of otherwise normal ferns. Unlike the more upright parent plants, Boston fern has softly arching fronds that can hang vertically at the ends.

The fronds are typically about a foot and a half long, and can be a few feet long in humid and partly shady environments. Each frond is comprised of many pinnae that are neatly arranged on both sides of a wiry rachis (leaf stalk). Each leaflet is an inch or two long or longer. Delicate aerial roots sometimes dangle below the foliage.

Through the 1970’s, Boston fern was one of the most popular houseplants. Yet, it really prefers more humidity than it gets inside. It is actually happier on porches or in atriums where it is sheltered from frost and harsh sun exposure. It prefers partial shade outside, but likes abundant ambient sunlight as a houseplant.

Winter Daphne

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Simple daphne flowers produce complex fragrance.

While winter weather is still cool and damp, winter daphne, Daphne odora, provides an alluringly fresh fragrance of spring. It is easy to dismiss the abundant but rather small domed trusses of tiny pastel pink flowers as the source of their formidable fragrance. Like so many fragrant blooms, daphne bloom is visually demure. Nevertheless, blooming stems are delightful with other cut flowers.

‘Aureomarginata’ is the most popular cultivar of daphne, and is the only cultivar available in many regions. The handsomely glossy evergreen foliage is variegated with yellowy white or light yellow margins. Mature plants get about two feet tall and about twice as wide, with a delightfully tame hemispherical form. They may get slightly taller with slightly less refined form where partially shaded.

Daphne prefers rich and loose soil, and with sufficient organic matter, will tolerate rather sandy soil. Partial shade might inhibit bloom somewhat, but is otherwise not a problem. Proper placement is important. Established daphne recover slowly from transplant. It is also important to be aware that even the healthiest of plants may live for only five years, and rarely live for more than ten years.

Barrel Cactus

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Barrel cactus spines are serious business!

‘Echino’ translates to ‘spiny’; so the genus name of barrel cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, means ‘spiny cactus’. Duh! The nearly spherical and furrowed (ribbed) plants are completely covered with stout and dangerously sharp spines. The most popular variety, known as golden barrel cactus, has pale amber yellow spines. Another variety has white spines. Tan or ruddy spines are rare.

Growth is quite slow. It takes many years for plants to get to three feet tall. Only plants that are quite mature bloom in spring or early summer with bright yellow or orange flowers that develop in a circle, like a halo around the top of the plant. Pink or red flowers are rare. Old plants typically develop a few pups (side-shoots), which may likewise take many years to bloom.

Like most cacti, barrel cactus wants a warm and very sunny location, and very well drained soil. If they do not get watered too much, they can stay potted for many years. However, because they are so nasty, they are not too welcome on porches or patios where most potted plants live. Because they are so heavy and difficult to handle, they are not as portable as they should be.

Sword Fern

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Sword fern looks like Boston fern.

This is not the native Western sword fern of forested and riparian regions here on the West Coast. This sword fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia, is native to Northeastern Australia, Southeastern Asia and Hawaii. It is naturalized in many regions beyond its natural range, and is considered an invasive exotic species in some regions. Its resiliency and reliability are appreciated in local gardens.

If it resembles the popular houseplant, Boston fern, it is because this sword fern is of the same genus. It just happens to prefer to be out in a garden rather than inside a home. Much or even most of the light green foliage stands more upright, rather than cascading from pots or elevated planters. Foliage of mature plants can get almost three feet high, with an even broader horizontal reach.

In fact, sword fern is notorious for sneaking around the garden and spreading wider than just a few feet. It is not particularly aggressive about. It creeps slowly but steadily until someone eventually notices that it has gotten a bit too prolific. Their abundant runners are wiry and strangely hairy, and produce small round tubers. Foliage can be yellowish if not watered enough in sunny situations.