Friday, January 31, 2014

A much maligned plant

The pink powder puff plant is a common landscape plant, frequently planted in California but rarely seen at its best. It's a member of the pea family and originates from tropical areas of the Americas. Being evergreen and tall, it is often planted as a wall plant but then because of its rapid speed of growth, it is regularly and unremittingly trimmed, usually with hedgetrimmmers. The result is that although it forms a green wall, the pretty deep pink flowers rarely have a chance to develop. In our last home, we had two against the walls and although I trimmed them, I used to stop pruning around November and then by this time of the year, the beautiful reddish flowers would appear to the delight of the humming birds who appreciate them as much as we do. There is also a white form which is far less common.

Calliandra haematotocephala

When we moved into our new property a year ago I was delighted to see that the neighbours had a hedge of this that topped their wall, allowing us the benefit of the fringe of evergreen foliage and flowers. Last year, just as it was flowering, I was horrified to see the gardeners one morning attacking the hedge and removing all growth and flowers - yes in full bloom! Why they do that I do not know but it regularly happens. The work stopped about 2/3 of the way down the hedge and we later discovered that the home owner had been equally horrified and stopped the work.

Neighbour's hedge last year before pruning

Pruning halted!
We were pleased therefore this year to see the hedge growing freely and flower buds forming. But it seems this hedge is doomed! Sadly in the last couple of weeks, the whole whole central section has become scorched and appears to be dying. I can only guess that something can contaminated the soil and killed this section - so sad! Just hope it hasn't seeped into our garden!

Friday, January 24, 2014

A trip up north

Last weekend Philip and I spent a few days in San Francisco, a beautiful city with a mellow climate that I have visited several times before. If I had to live in a big city, I could settle for SF! It is nearly 500 miles north of Palm Springs and has a maritime climate, meaning that it is neither very hot nor excessively cold but can be very wet and foggy! We were lucky and enjoyed mild sunny weather for our January stay. The reason for the visit was a major exhibition of David Hockney's art in the De Young Museum which was truly startling!

However I am always aware of plants and gardens wherever I am and it was lovely to see the varied flora in this different climate. There was peach blossom, polyanthus, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, hellebores and rhododendrons, all lovely temperate species that would often be seen back home in the UK but never in Palm Springs. However there were also Proteas, agave, aloes in full bloom, bromelliads  and queen palms used as street trees plus a whole host more.

Magnolia campbelii

In particular it was lovely to see Arbutus 'Marina'  freely used. This is a lovely hybrid strawberry tree that was raised in San Francisco; evergreen, pink flowers and typical red fruits. We had one at the University that grew well but was damaged in the hard winter of 2011. I believe it has regenerated from the base.

We are now back in the desert and today's job, completed under a surprisingly cloudy sky has been to fine tune the irrigation system on our new plantings. Its done but we won't really know if its adequate until the heat of mid summer - fingers crossed!

Friday, January 17, 2014


One of my favourite flowering trees is Jacaranda mimosafolia, with delicate feathery foliage and beautiful soft blue flowers in mid spring. In the past I have rarely been in Palm Springs at flowering time, so not often seen them at their best. When allowed to grow freely they are a wonderful sight and in full bloom, look like a tree full of bright lavender blue hyacinths. The tree originates from South America and is often planted in frost-free countries. Back home in the UK I have only ever seen it as a small leafy foliage plant.

Sadly they are often brutally butchered into ugly shapes. The tree has a reputation for being brittle and dropping branches but in my humble opinion if it were pruned less, there would be fewer weak joints and rotting crevices, and the tree would be more stable. Any way the sad point of today's post is to record that all the jacarandas that I pass on my morning run have just been hacked - probably just a couple of months before they should bloom. What is the sense or logic in that? All that flower potential lying on the ground! So sad!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Finally a Garden!

Well our backyard has finally turned into a garden. Apologies to my American friends but the word yard always smacks of something industrial - concrete, loading bays, machinery - a place where noisy work is done. The space around a house, peacefully quiet with plants, flowers, maybe a lawn or a water feature will always be a garden to me! When I was still employed, managing many acres of gardens, we also had yards, the places where our tractors and machinery were stored, where we collected rubbish for composting - very essential but not attractive or peaceful!

Plants laid out ready for planting

job done - they just need to grow!

Anyway, a year after we moved into this property we now have a reasonably attractive simple design which has just been planted with many of my favourite desert tropicals. The last couple of weeks have been fun, visiting the local nurseries and sourcing the plants I wanted. Apart from a couple of elusive plants I have found exactly what I wanted and all at a very reasonable price. Many of the shrubs are grown in 3.5 gallon containers and cost around $15. Some are 3ft+ tall. This equates to about 13 litres and £9 in the UK. When you consider most garden centre shrubs in the UK are grown in 2 or 3 litre containers, you will see what good value they are! Installing the irrigation wasn't quite so much fun but its done, connected and the pipes buried. It works!

Standard sized shrub
Strelitzia - ready to burst into bloom

I have three different bird of paradise plants - confusing - yes! The first is Strelitzia regina, probably the most readily recognisable with its huge parrot like orange flowers. This was the most expensive at $49 but its a huge plant with three emerging flower spikes and will be potted on our patio. Then there is the orange Caesalpinia pulcherrima, a very common but beautiful landscape plant and the yellow flowered C. gilliesii which is less widely planted but so attractive with its long red stamens over yellow flowers. No relative to Strelitzia even if they do share a common name.

Strelitzia regina

Caesalpinia pulcherrima
Caesalpinia gilliesii

Two Australian plants that I have not grown before are Grevillea 'Red Hooks' which has lovely delicate foliage and typical spiky red Grevillea flowers. Then there is Eremophila 'Valentine' in a lovely cerise pink. If the latter grows well I may be tempted to buy the yellow and orange forms of it. There is also a red Australian kangaroo paw.

Grevillea 'Red Hooks'
Eremophila 'Valentine' - emu bush
Anigozanthus - kangaroo paw

The rest are familiar sights here in the desert, Bougainvillea, Lantana, Callistemon, three species of Tecoma, a red Hibiscus, Cassia and the lovely blue Alyogyne. In general I have restricted the planting to species I cannot, or have not grown back home in the UK but I cannot resist purple fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' which or course dies in the UK winter but just thrives here. The pictures below are of course not taken of the current plants but will give you an idea of what I am hoping to have in a while.

One of many cultivars of bougainvillea

Gelsemium sempervirens - a climber
Alyogyne huegelii

Hamelia patens - particularly for the humming birds

Hibiscus  - hummers can't easily get at the nectar so they bore through the petals!

Lantana - this one 'Monike'

Muhlenbergia 'Regal Mist'

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'

Russelia equisetiformis

Cassia artemesioides

Tagetes lemmonii - shrubby species

Tecoma stans - tall but a real favoirite

Plants grow so fast here with the heat and all essential irrigation, so hopefully it won't be too long before Philip and  I and of course the humming birds can enjoy the same blooms in our little American yarden - how about that for a new word!

Friday, January 3, 2014

In pursuit of the humble root.

Once again my regular running route provided me with inspiration for this blog - roots although whether inspired or not is up to you!  I have many times passed an old property with Ficus roots that creep across the surface under the bushes like some scaly monster waiting to pounce. Yes imagination running away. Others are absolutely wrapped around the perimeter brick wall. Which all led me to think of roots, those all important parts of a plant which we so rarely see and are often forgotten or abused. When in my last job at the University, I was in constant battle with the engineers who felt it was fair game to dig through the roots of a tree to install pipes or cables - 'Oh are they important?' as they hacked through half the major roots of a tree!

Last year's Chelsea Flower Show had an exhibit demonstrating the extensive nature of tree roots with a large tree suspended in mid air with its roots exposed and cleaned. Equally, every time their is a major storm, trees are uprooted and the immense size of their root plates exposed for the first time.

Sometimes roots can be visible and ornamental or just plain curious. The aerial roots of banyan trees are well know but less so the  pretty pink roots of  Metrosideros trees, seen in San Francisco. Old beech and yew trees will show immense roots buttresses and surface roots of enormous proportions.  Of course the roots that actually do the hard work absorbing water and nutrients are the tiny root hairs at the end of all roots. These feed into the larger roots which in turn connect with the rest of the plant via its stem or trunk.

Metrosideros exelsa
Buttress roots of an ancient beech
Gnarled roots on a nenerable yew
Curious aerial roots on sweet corn

Pneumatophores - breathing roots on swamp cypress that allow the roots to absorb air when growing in waterlogged conditions - sort of botanical snorkel!

Amazingly shoots of plants have the ability to produce new roots when in contact with the soil or moisture and this is of course the basis of propagation by cuttings or layering.
Roots are of course also valuable as food crops with everything from the humble sugar beet through to carrots, parsnips, beet and all the rest. And of course there are those patient individuals who can grow these simple vegetables into amazing, prize-winning show specimens. Sadly roots are not always so popular and with the wrong tree next to a building, serious subsidence can occur or blocked drains. Anyway spare a thought for the humble and often hidden root!