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.

Periwinkle

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Bloom is sporadic, but the delightful purplish blue color is worth it.

If the Latin name of dwarf periwinkle is Vinca minor, it is logical that large periwinkle should be Vinca major. Large periwinkle is more commonly known simply as periwinkle or common periwinkle, although it is not as common as dwarf periwinkle is, at least in landscapes. In some regions, it has naturalized as an invasive weed.

Some might accurately say that periwinkle is shabbier than the relatively neat and dense dwarf periwinkle. Others might say that it is just rustic or informal. The wiry stems stand less than a foot tall before they bend over from their own weight. Fallen stems can root where they touch the ground, and grow into new plants over winter.

The evergreen foliage is rich green, and a bit darker than the top of a billiard table. The simple paired leaves are about an inch and a half to two inches long. The slightly purplish blue flowers are about an inch and a half wide, with five petals each. Bloom is sporadic, but almost continuous, except for a lapse through winter.

Cherry Laurel

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Cherry laurel makes a delightful hedge.

Victorian landscapes made good use of cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus. It works well as a large formal hedge. For more relaxed modern landscapes, it makes delightful informal screen. The main reason that it is now less popular than other hedging shrubbery is that it gets rather broad if not shorn back regularly. If allowed to grow as a low rounded tree, it can get twenty-five feet high!

Regularly shearing is not necessarily frequent. It should be efficient though. Confinement for such broad shrubbery is important. If shorn back farther than where the outer surface is desired late in winter, fresh new foliage can fluff out nicely within allowable space through spring. Subsequent aggressive shearing to maintain confinement may only be necessary once or twice during summer.

The big leaves are about three inches long, and luxuriantly glossy. If hedges get shorn less aggressively, but more frequently than two or three times annually, such big leaves can be rather shabby much of the time. If shorn less frequently, small trusses of creamy white flowers may get a chance to bloom. Cultivars are more compact than the species. One cultivar is variegated with pale gold.

Butterfly Bush

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Garden varieties are less likely to naturalize than the straight species is.

Many plants are so easy to grow that they become invasive weeds. Butterfly bush, Buddleja davidii, has done exactly that in some regions, and is only controlled here by the arid climate. Yet, once established, it does not need much water at all, and can survive on rainfall in some spots. They only want good sun exposure.

Mature plants can get more than 15-feet tall and half as broad, with long arching limbs. Most garden varieties stay smaller, and some do not get much more than six feet tall. The evergreen foliage is sage green, grayish green or chartreuse. The paired leaves are about the size and shape of willow or eucalyptus leaves.

Conical trusses of densely packed tiny flowers that bloom in mid-summer can be various shades of blue, purple, red and pink, as well as dusty white. Some new varieties bloom soft orange or yellowish orange. The more compact and colorful modern varieties are not as fragrant as old classics are.

Zucchini

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Zucchini is the exemplary summer squash.

Zucchini, Cucurbita pepo, is the epitome of summer squash. Because it is so easy to grow, it is the primary choice for gardens that can accommodate only one set of summer squash plants. The fruits can be yellow, dark green or dark green with a lacy gray pattern, Yet, the common medium green variety is still the most popular. It is likely the most vigorous and most productive of them all.

Like all summer squash, zucchini wants good warm exposure, rich soil and regular watering. Powdery mildew can be a problem if the foliage gets wet from watering late in the day. Foliage that is ruined by powdery mildew should be removed. Plants are easiest to grow from seed sown directly where they are desired, after the last frost. Two or three plants should grow together in each set.

Fruits are best before they get longer than eight inches or so, although they are edible at any stage. They can eventually grow as big as baseball bats. However, plants that produce such big fruits produce almost nothing else. Regular harvest promotes prolific production. Male flowers are more abundant than females flowers that produce the fruits. All flowers are edible before they shrivel.

Agave filifera

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Foliage is better than bloom, and lasts longer.

For a tough perennial that is is grown for striking foliage, the small Agave filifera has a remarkably striking bloom as well. The one and a half inch long flowers are impressive pale green, and mixed with faded flowers. What makes them so compelling is that they are displayed on sculptural floral spikes that stand nearly six feet tall.

Unfortunately, each dense rosette of foliage is monocarpic, which means that it dies after bloom. Pups (sideshoots) sometimes develop as a main rosette deteriorates. If multiple pups develop and get crowded, they can be divided. Each rosette takes a few years to bloom, so should be around for quite a while.

The stiff evergreen leaves get about a foot or a foot and a half long, with unpleasantly sharp tips. Vigorous plants have white filaments that peel from the edges of the leaves. Like all agaves, Agave filifera, does not need much water once established. Unlike other agaves, it can tolerate a slight bit of shade.

Smokebush

00624Cliche is barely avoidable regarding smokebush, Cotinus coggygria. It provides rich foliar color from spring until autumn, with uniquely billowy bloom through summer. Then, it provides exquisite fall color until winter. Then, it provides sculptural form of bare stems until spring. Smokebush ‘has it all’. . . almost. All the spectacle distracts from a lack of floral fragrance. Will anyone ever notice?

Foliage is rich purplish bronze, bright greenish yellow or olive green through spring and summer. Formerly common old fashioned cultivars with olive green foliage are now rare. Nowadays, most are rich purplish bronze. Fall color is fiery yellow, orange and red. The round leaves are about one to three inches long. Purplish to pale pinkish plumes of smoke-like bloom are a striking contrast.

The largest of smokebush grow at a moderate rate to more than fifteen feet high and wide. Most cultivars are more compact. They get wobbly in the ground if they grow too vigorously. Aggressive pruning during winter improves stability and enhances foliar color for the next season. However, minimal pruning of stable plants promotes bloom. Smoke tree wants full sun, but is not demanding.

Fan Aloe

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Some aloes should have more fans.

most aloes are tough perennials that do not need much water. Unfortunately, they do not have many fans. Maybe that is why fan aloe, Aloe plicatilis, makes it’s own. The plumply succulent leaves are distichously arranged, which is a fancy way of saying that they are either to the left or to the right, flaring out to form foliar fans.

Individual leaves are just as distinctive as their arrangement is. They are not tapered and pointed like those of other aloes. Instead, they are about an inch and a half wide from end to end, with weirdly blunt tips. They get almost a foot long. The soft gray color contrasts nicely with coral flower spikes that bloom at the end of winter.

It grows slowly, but fan aloe is one of the few aloes that eventually grows into a big shrub with several sculptural trunks on a flaring base. In their native habitat in South Africa, old specimens grow as small trees more than ten feet tall. Branches that need to be pruned away can be rooted as cuttings after the cut ends dry out a bit.

Rat Tail Cactus

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Not many cacti cascade from planters.

When first imported to Europe from the Americas, cacti were very strange. Their distended green stems do all the photosynthesis. Vestigial leaves develop into sharp protective spines. Vestigial stems develop into more formidable thorns. One of the first cacti imported is among the weirdest. Rat tail cactus, Aporocactus flagelliformis, develops pendulous stems that do not stand upright.

In the wild, rat tail cactus cascades from rocky ledges and crotches of trees. In home gardens, it cascades splendidly from elevated planters or hanging pots. Pruning scraps make good cuttings to plug into loose stone or broken concrete retaining walls. Rat tail cactus likes warmth, but also some partial shade from hot afternoon sunshine. Yellowish stems appreciate a bit of mild fertilizer.

Old stems grow longer than three feet if they get the chance. However, they discolor with age. Pruning them out from the base promotes healthier and more compact growth. Most stems emerge from the base, with minimal branching beyond the base. Bloom is slightly purplish pink. Individual flowers are about two inches long and slightly wider than an inch. They last for three or four days.

Zinnia

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zinnia

The lineage of modern zinnias is too complicated to describe. Most are still known as Zinnia elegans, even though they have been bred extensively with several other specie to produce an impressive variety of flower forms and colors. The shortest varieties get only a few inches tall. Big varieties get about two and a half feet tall.

The two to five inch wide flowers, which bloom in phases from spring until autumn, can be yellow, orange, red, purple, pink, salmon, peach, chartreuse or bronzy brown. Some are striped or freckled.

Some flowers look like colorful daisies, with big petals (ray florets) neatly and flatly arranged around prominent centers (disc florets). The overly abundant petals of pom-pom types make rounded blooms with nearly obscured centers. Most are fuller than the daisy types, but not as plump as pom-poms.

Zinnias are warm season annuals that like good exposure and rich soil. The paired leaves are slightly raspy, like kitten tongues, and can be susceptible to powdery mildew. Deteriorating flowers should be deadheaded, although a few can be left for seed.