Saturday, November 29, 2014

Let's hear it for google!

On my regular running route, my eye was caught the other day by a pretty blue pea-like flower that I had not noticed before. it was particularly noticeable as the blue flowers were nicely contrasted by the orange tree through which it was scrambling. Not a manicured garden and I very much doubt this little pair were ever planted for their companionship.  I whipped out my iPhone and took some pictures. Another new plant to me without a name! Back home I typed  'blue, pea-like climber, California' into google and it dutifully spat back a series of possibilities. After a few false forays and dead ends, it came up with Phaseolus giganteus, the snail vine - isn't google wonderful. I wonder how long before we will be able to feed a picture of a flower into a computer program and like facial recognition, it will churn out a name for us?

I then went to my other great friend Wikipedia and found that this originates from South America and was a favourite of Thomas Jefferson. Although plants and seeds are available, it is said to be invasive. It is often confused with Cochliasanthus caracalla, another member of the pea family, also called the snail vine, which as you can see below, has some similarities!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Think pink!

I admit it, I've goofed, had another senior moment and got confused. Over the last few years as I've been getting to know the trees here in California, I have totally muddled two different trees, the orchid tree and the silk floss tree. I hardly dare admit my ignorance! Admittedly both are pink but close examination shows totally different flowers and foliage. Sadly both are often butchered by tree trimmers, so it is tricky to get a real feel for the natural shape of either tree - my only defense!. 

Bauhinia in Palm Springs street in springtime

Anyway - I first became aware of the orchid tree - Bauhinia and I have written about this before, (Name Dropping - Feb 2012)  finding its link to the botanist Linnaeus and his predecessors, the  Bauhin brothers fascinating. Here in Palm Springs, Bauhinia flower in the spring and are as common as flowering cherries back in the UK.  There are over 200 species occurring naturally in many areas of the tropics. They are actually legumes, so amazingly related to peas and beans.  the commonly grown one is probably Bauhinea x blakeana, the Hong Kong Orchid tree, although it could be B. variegata which confusingly is now called Phanera variegata - maybe I can be forgiven for my muddle! Then over the years I have observed similar trees flowering in the autumn and without stopping for close examination, assumed they were another species of Bauhinia.

Ceiba (syn Chorisia) speciosa flowering now in Palm Springs
This year I have been more observant and realise that they are silk floss trees, Chorisia or more correctly species of Ceiba. I first became aware of this tree in its winter form up near Los Angeles last year,  where I saw them bearing huge seed pods bursting open to reveal a fluffy white interior and dark seeds.  Then this summer, Jim sent me pictures of a tree in Italy which I identified as Chorisia.  I then observed them flowering down in Florida a few weeks ago. Returning to Palm Springs I realised we had the same trees flowering here and they were not Bauhinia! At last I have them clearly in my mind!

Searching my pictures, I find I do have a few other species of both genera, so here they are to add to your knowledge or my confusion!

Chorisia insignis photographed in the Huntington Gardens

The curious bottle-shaped trunk of Chorisia insignis

Bauhinia galpinii - seen in Florida
Bauhinia variegata Alba

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cacti and cupcakes

What you may you ask have cacti in connection with those rather sickly looking items of cakery?  I decline to call them patisserie which is much more refined. Anyway I am digressing before I start!

In my front yard here in Palm Springs we have two fine clumps of prickly pear - Opuntia of some sort. They grow superbly here in the desert and are part of many landscape schemes in ordinary gardens. I rather like them and they flower prolifically in the spring each year. And hey - they are just as colourful as cupcakes!

Those of you that have stayed the course may recall that I painted them back last spring. I entered the painting of the yellow one in the Painter of the Year competition locally but the juror didn't have a good word to say about it. Public critique - very humbling! It sold however and hangs in a very nice apartment in Chicago, so I am inclined to think that the purchaser had more taste than the juror had wisdom but that's my opinion. I'm digressing again!

Back to the plot - recently I noticed that one of the clumps of opuntia had a severe infestation of a pest that covers itself in a woolly coating, rather  like mealy bug or woolly aphid. In the case of opuntia,  it is a scale insect called the cochineal and immediately those of you that are more mature will recognise the link with cup cakes. Cochineal insects produce carminic acid that was for many years used as a dye and red food colouring. Although it lost popularity in the 19C, it is being increasingly used again as a product with less safety issues that synthetic dyes. 

However, not wishing to make my own food colourings or go into dye manufacturing I decided that I needed to free my opuntias from their stifling cocoon of white fluff. Avoiding pesticides in this instance, I opted for a garden hose and the jet setting which neatly cleaned off most of the infestation leaving a snow-like frosting over the desert gravel.  I guess I may have to repeat the treatment but it was much easier than mixing and spraying pesticides. Stupidly I forgot to take a picture before the treatment but you can get the idea from the above internet pic - messy creatures! The picture below is after the deluge.

Thinking of Opuntias reminds me of an experience as a small child. We had visited an uncle, a brother of my father's and I had been given an opuntia as a gift - one of those with the little pads of tiny prickles that look like velvet - little did I know! In order to transport this plant safely home, my father tucked it into one of my wellington boots. Well you can guess the rest of the saga and know why I remember it to this day!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fronds in high places

Recently I was waxing horticultural to Philip, telling him all about the delights of palms and how to distinguish the different types.  He was looking glazed as I droned on in lecture mode. 'Leaves or fronds, as are they are often called,  are either fan or feather leaved and a few with ragged leaf ends are described as fish tailed. And this simple descriptions help with identification - of course - that's what fronds are for, I explained!' I couldn't resist that.

After writing entries for this blog for nearly two years, although I have written about pampas, I've never written about palms. What an omission!  I guess subconsciously I've been avoiding this, as I really don't know much about palms despite living in a city called Palm Springs! My recent trip down to Florida enable me to get several new pictures of palms, some of which I couldn't identify and this set me thinking about this huge group of dramatic trees. 

Love the shadows from the strong but low winter sun

The family may be called Arecaceae or Palmaceae and there are 200 genera with 2600 species - not exactly a minor group of plants, although with  most being tropical, sub-tropical or warm temperate, us chilly British gardeners tend to forget them. Commercially they are the sources of coconuts, dates, palm oil and even raffia. Commonly they are trees with a single trunk ending in a crown of evergreen  leaves and the growing point, although some may be multi-stemmed and more shrub-like.  There are a few that are trunkless and prostrate and even some climbers. Botanically the leaf shapes are termed palmate, the fan palms and pinnate, the feather palms.
Feather palm - pinnate

Fan palm - palmate

Fish-tail palm
 Here in Palm Springs we have two common palm trees, the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta which is fast growing with a very slender trunk and the native Californian fan Washingtonia filifera, which tend to be thicker and shorter. Date palms, Phoenix dactylifera are also grown both as ornamentals and also commercially with the annual date festival held in nearby Indio each February. Butia capitata, the jelly palm grows well as does the almost blue leaved Brahea armata, the Mexican blue palm. My own favourite is the dramatic and silver leaved Bismarckia nobilis, originating from Madagascar. There is also the more delicate looking queen palm with the tongue-tangling name of Arecastrum romanzoffianum.

Washingtonia filifera - Californian fan palm

W. robusta - Mexican fan palm
Palm skirt - natural but is it attractive in a cultivated landscape? Also tend to harbour vermin!

Date palms in a local park - Philip says they look like 'real' palm trees!

Young dates developing
Butia - jelly palm

Mature Mexican blue palms - I think!
Bismarckia nobilis
Arecastrum romanzoffianum - queen palm

In the UK we have only really one reliably hardy palm and that's Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chusan palm from central China.  Around the UK there are many mature specimens of this truly hardy species. My own plant is now about 3m high and came through the tough 2011 winter without a mark. Chamaerops humilis, the Mediterranean dwarf palm is often hardy too in a sheltered location. Other gardeners have tried jelly palms and Mexican blue palms and whilst they will sometimes survive mild winters, they tend to struggle and never look really healthy and vigorous. For UK gardeners, it is probably best to grow these borderline species in containers and move to a a greenhouse or tunnel for winter to give a little protection.
Hardy Trachycarpus
Unscathed Trachycarpus in my UK garden, surrounded by dead plants after 2011 winter

Chamaerops humilis
There are of course many others. Phoenix roebellenii makes a pretty miniature tree-shaped palm with a single trunk but tends to be slow growing and expensive to buy. It is not hardy.  The silver leaved form of Chamaerops sold as 'Argentea' or cerifera has soft grey foliage. Purely for a warm greenhouse, unless you live in a tropical zone, the striking sealing wax palm Cyrtostachys renda  with red stems makes quite a statement. Palms were popular back in the 19C and Victorian parlour palm, Chamaedorea elegans was a familiar house plant along with the typical aspidistra. 

Phoenix roebellenii

Cyrtostachys renda - Sealing wax palm
Chamaerops humilis 'Argenteo'
Cocus nucifera - coconut
I have to admit I don't know a great deal about growing palms. Amazingly they seem to be transplanted at mature sizes with a very small rootball, although they do tie up the foliage! there is some debate as to whether they should be left to grow naturally with the 'skirt' of dead foliage or trimmed. The process of trimming them involves climbing with leg irons and then wielding a machete with one hand whilst hanging on with the other! Safety?

Newly planted palms

Fallen palm after a storm - see the small tootball

Not a job I would envy!
Self-set palm seedlings - weeds?
As always having finished this blog entry, I have learned a bit more myself, checking out the pictures and researching my facts. I also didn't realise I had taken quite so many pictures of palms over the years.