A fellow gardener asked the question about whether there were a list of sure thing Agapanthus, plants that a beginner could confidently choose and have success with in most of the maritime PNW. I’m going to say no. All of these are South African natives and while many of us can grow these in our gardens, because our conditions overall are marginal, a gardener is going to have to possess a good understanding of their site in particular and some knowledge of the cultivars that they are choosing. I’m going to borrow here from Manning and Goldblatt’s book, “The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs”, which discusses the bulbs of the Cape Floristic region and those adjacent areas spilling over into other parts of South Africa. Agapanthus species are native there, endemic in fact, occurring naturally no where else in the world. I’m also relying here on the SANBI website, the South African Natural Biodiversity Institute which has put together an incredible national program, which all countries should be building for their own countries. Being a South African plant aficionado I visit it frequently. To this I add my own observations and speculations, having grown several Agapanthus over the last 25+ years in Portland: These come from warm temperate and subtropical areas in South Africa, 10 species total, 3 limited to the Cape itself, all of which tend to occur in rocky grasslands. Other botanists have downgraded 3 of Manning and Goldblatt’s species and given them subspecies status recognizing only 7 species. Continue reading
interest, their leaf color, substance and sculptural qualities, the margins of its broad, thick leaves, with their rhythmic rounded ripples, each tipped with a prominent ‘teat’ and spine. This is not a large plant, typically growing 23″- 47″ in diameter and my plan was always to keep it in a pot as it is from coastal areas of the Mexican state of Sonora, found sporadically in a narrow ‘band’ south into Sinaloa. Agave colorata is very rare and uncommon in nature and growing on steep slopes of the volcanic mountains in the coastal region in Sinaloan thornscrub. It often emerges from apparently solid rock cliffs sometimes clinging high above the water below.
Growing in Sonora and at Home
It is poorly adapted to our wet winter conditions though it is reputedly hardy into USDA zn 8, or as low as 10ºF. Its natural northern limit is thought not due to cold, but by excessive aridity in the northern parts of Sonora. I didn’t test it, leaving it outside under the porch roof, bringing it in when forecasts called for below 20ºF, as any plant is more susceptible to cold with its root zone subject to freezing. With perfect drainage and overhead protection, you might be able to get away with this in the ground, but the combination of significant wet with our cold is likely too much…still if someone wanted to try….At best I suspect this one would still suffer from fungal leaf diseases, disfiguring the foliage.
This is usually solitary, but it can be found occasionally in small clumps/colonies up to nearly 10′ across, pushing up against each other on their slowly growing and short ‘trunks’ to 4′ high. My plant produced just a few pups over the first third of its life.
Sonora has three distinct geographic areas all running along a ‘line’ from the northwest toward the southeast, the Gulf of California and its associated coastal landscape paralleling the Sierra Madre Occidental, sandwiching plains and rolling hills in the middle. The coast and plains/rolling hills are arid to semi-arid, desert and grasslands, while only the higher elevation of the easterly mountains receive enough rain to support more diverse and woody plant communities, scrub and Pine-Oak forests.
This region also varies north to south, the climate drying as you go north into the Sonoran Desert. Moving south on down into Sinaloa, and further, is the some what wetter ‘dry deciduous forest’ biome with an array of woody leugumes, including several Acacia. Agave colorata resides in the transition zone in between, in the portion of ‘thornscrub’ near the Sonoran/Sinaloan border. North and south the Thornscrub itself changes in composition. The Sinaloan Thornscrub serves as a transition zone between the desert and the slightly wetter, taller growing, Tropical Deciduous Forest that continues the south. All along this band running north on into Arizona’s Sonoran Desert are various columnar cactus a food source for Mexico’s migrating nectarivorous bat species. It is a unique flora community, containing species from bordering floral regions and other species unique or endemic to this transition zone itself. The area continues to be under threat, primarily by cattle ranching that moved into the region in the ’70’s and ’90’s bringing with it clearing and the introduction of non-native and invasive Bufflegrass, Pennisetum ciliare, also known under its syn. Cenchrus ciliaris, for pasture. Bufflegrass is also a serious problem north into Arizona. In Sonora many of the cleared woody species have since begun moving back in, while the smaller, more sensitive species have not. Climate change promises to further squeeze it. (The World Wildlife Fund maintains a website with good descriptions of many eco-regions I sometimes find it very helpful when trying to understand the conditions of a plant I’m less familiar with.)
When growing plants like this, one should keep in mind the concept of heat zones. The American Horticultural Society has created a map of the US delineating its ‘heat zones’. It is based on the average number of days an area experiences temperatures over 86ºF. At that temperature most plants begin to shut down their metabolic processes…they slow their growth. Check out the AHS map (AHS US Heat Zones pdf.) and keep in mind that we are warming up! The AHS map has us, Portland, OR, in zone 4, meaning we experience 14-30 days with highs over 86ºF each year. Last summer, ’18, we actually had a record 31 days over 90ºF! Now consider that the coastal/plains region of Sonora likely experiences between 180-210 such days! Agave colorata may not need this, but it is certainly adapted to such a level of heat stress. Something to think about, especially when you consider that we receive the bulk of our rain over the winter when our daily highs and lows average for Nov. 40º-53º, Dec. 35º-46º, Jan. 36º-47º, Feb. 36º-51º and Mar. 40º-57º…keeping in mind that we could freeze on most any of those dates. The Sonoran Desert receives its minimal rainfall in a summer/monsoonal pattern….This is why bringing such ‘low desert’ plants to the Pacific Northwest can add another degree or two of difficulty to your success!
Growing this in a pot made perfect sense to me, but every decision carries consequences, not all of which I anticipated. Most Agave don’t form a ‘trunk’ growing its leaves, in a tight spiral, crowded along a very abbreviated stem, which adds little to its length to separate each consecutive leaf., but Agave colorata adds a little ‘extra’ slightly separating its leaves, resulting in a weak and kind of puny stem. If you’ve ever shuffled pots containing Agave more than a few years old, you understand that their crown, their substantial top growth, is relatively heavy, A. colorata is no exception, in fact their leaves each seem more substantial than leaves on many other similarly sized Agave. This results in a plant that as it grows begins to lean over, eventually, laying flat across the ground. As a Monocot the stems of Agave don’t caliper up over the years as does wood. These have no cambial meristem which would add secondary growth, and diameter, to the stem and as I said, with its relatively massive and heavy crown, it leans. This is the same characteristic that gives their small colonies their height.
[I wrote this originally about 2 years ago as part of what turned out to be a too long look into the Bromeliad Family. Here I present only the genus Puya spp. in an edited form with the addition of the species Puya berteroniana. Go to the original article to read about the shared evolution of the several genera and families that comprise the family, why these are not considered succulents and a look at the armed defenses of many plants. My plan is to breakout at least some of the other genera as well as I think the length of the original post may have put some readers off.]
Puya: one of the Xeric Genera of Terrestrial Bromeliaceae
The name “Puya” comes from the Mapuche Indian word meaning “point” (The Mapuche people are indigenous to Chile and Argentina. They constitute approximately 10% (more than 1.000.000 people) of the Chilean population. Half of them live in the south of Chile from the river Bío Bío to Chiloé Island. The other half is found in and around the capital, Santiago and were mostly forced to the city after Pinochet privatized their lands giving them to the wealthy.)…the assignation is clear and the pointed, spiky, nature of this genus is immediately obvious to anyone. But there is something easy and comfortable about the sound of the word in your mouth when you speak it…poo-‘yah. Puya are native to the arid portions of the Andes and South American western coastal mountains. (Oddly, two species are found in dry areas of Costa Rica.)
Puya spp., populate arid western regions of the Andes Mountains up into southern Central America. These are terrestrial plants, relying on their roots to find the moisture that they need. They possess the same basic rosette structure common to all members of the Bromeliad family to which they belong, including their petiole-less leaves, which clasp directly to a compact stem structure, funnelling the infrequent, and seasonal, precipitation they get into their crowns and root structures where they can take it up, a strategy very similar to Agave and Aloe which grow under similar conditions. Continue reading
Sometimes called Velvet Groundsel, this plant has been living and marketed under several different names. The first name in the heading is the one Jimi Blake ascribed to it, a name I didn’t recognize for a plant I’ve grown off and on in the past…it got lost in his list paired with a particular Thalictrum and I simply missed it…until recently. I knew it as Senecio cristobalensis and, had I recognized it, would have included it with an earlier post in which I focused on his favorite Asteraceae. I did actually mention the plant there simply as another Senecio that I’ve grown of value. Here I shall treat it more directly. The genus, Roldana, was recircumscribed in 2008 to include some 54 different species. Other authors include as few as 48 and as many as 64 in the genus, most of which used to belong to Senecio and are native to the extreme Southwestern US, Mexico and Central America. Most of the Roldana species are somewhat ‘shrubby’ herbs with a few, like this one woody, even tree like. Both genera are within the Asteraceae and share tribe status as well, Senecioneae. For the curious, Roldana spp., even more finely, are included in the sub-tribe, Tussilagininae, which includes the very commonly grown genus of garden plants…Ligularia! On closer examination the morphological similarities will begin to stand out to most of us. Check out all of the photos on the Wikimedia Commons page for Roldana petasitis. Roldana petasitis is the correct species name for this plant. With all of the shuffling and consequent confusion still going on in the world of taxonomy, especially in such a mixed large genera like Senecio, we must all be allowed our mistakes of nomenclature. It is a volatile changing world out there. Continue reading
I think it’s safe to say that the longer that I garden, the more plants that I grow and learn about, the deeper my appreciation for all plants and the living world becomes. Life itself takes on a more ‘miraculous’ quality and I am both humbled by this and saddened by the indiffference and wide spread disregard and destruction that dominates the relationship of so much of the human population with regards to the green world. (sigh) How, I sometimes wonder, can so many people not ‘see’ what is around them, the beauty and the miraculousness of it? Having said that, I dive back into another installment of Jimi’s ‘Obsession’!
Impatiens omeiana ‘Sango’
Everyone has grown Impatiens, right! It’s one of those ubiquitous bedding annuals even many non-gardeners know that they might put in a pot on their shady porch. I used to grow these by the hundreds when I put together display beds for Parks as they were one of the few freely flowering options available from the bedding plant industry that could ‘produce’ on shade sites. It’s so well known that its common and genus name are the same, a relatively rare occurence in the plant world. As they tend to do, hybridizers pushed the limits on these and, over the years, have developed a good number of cultivars that are tolerant of direct sun, probably increasing their popularity while at the same time teaching an unhelpful message to the general public, that it isn’t really necessary to pay attention to a plant’s requirements…ours are what matters, but that is an entirely different issue than what I want to cover here. Continue reading
Last summer was a sit, wait and worry, summer. The previous winter of ‘16-‘17 was a hard one here. Because my Butia capitata had been sailing through its previous nine winters, in this location, without damage, I assumed it would be OK this time, but it wasn’t. Our 12” snowfall weighted the fronds down splaying it open and no doubt allowing moisture, ice etc. to penetrate down into the trunk to the meristem, the critical tissue from which all growth in the plant begins. Last summer not one new frond emerged, an indicator that the meristem was damaged or killed. The good thing was that there was no sign of rot. The new ‘spear’ could not be pulled free….The same winter killed my Trachycarpus martianus darkening and shattering much of the fronds’ cell walls and structure in a way typical of many freeze damaged plants. Its center spear, the newly emerging fronds, pulled free. My Butia spent last summer in a kind of limbo. This last winter was much more mild. Now, finally, with the heat settling in around us, those old spears are growing again, their leaflets opening wide, while their long rachis/stems, fully extend and arch! New spears are forming still pressed tightly against the most vertical and longest of these whose leaflets you can see below just beginning to fan open. This is slower growing than the Trachys, working on opening its third frond of the year! Typically my Trachycarpus fortuneii form 15-20 fronds in a year. I’m wondering now how this lost year of growth will effect the Butia’s trunk diameter. Because of how Palms as monocots grow, I suspect that it will result in a narrowing of its ‘waist’, with a swelling back to normal above when more normal winters prevail. Continue reading
People will often ask me how I grow something, generally when its something they’ve killed, when our conditions, exposure etc, seem pretty close. I’ll shrug, because I may not have done anything special for my plants beyond, hopefully siting them appropriately. Then, there are all of the plants I’ve killed, sometimes repeatedly, that others seem to have success with while doing little more than ‘dropping’ them in the dirt.
I have a bit of a thing for the members of the Podophyllum…and almost everyone I know, who grows them, does so more successfully. I do have a very ‘happy’ clump of P. pleianthum, and I’ve grown it in Park beds very successfully downtown, but until now I’ve had very little success with any of the others. Most have lead short, tragic lives….P. delavayi…dead; an unnamed P. delavayi hybrid…dead; P. versipelle…dead; P. x ‘Kaleidoscope’…dead; P.(Sinopodophyllum) hexandrum…dead; P. x ‘Spotty Dotty’…dead; even P. peltatum...dead. Some of these I’ve killed more than once. These are usually relatively costly plants to acquire and their loss is more than emotional. Sometimes I’ve grown them on in their pots for a year before I’ve thrown them into my garden to their deaths. I’ve lost several other plants from the Barberry family as well, having consistent success only with the shrub forming species and Epimedium spp.. I’ve lost both NW species of Vancouveria as well as Achlys triphylla, one of my favorite ground covers, all of which I’ve grown successfully when I worked in Parks. These shouldn’t be hard. I’ve grown quite a few different Epimedium spp. and varieties at home and several in Parks, all of which have been consistent and dependable performers. For a long time, my failures with Podophyllum and assorted woodlanders, was an embarrassment. I couldn’t figure out why I kept losing them. I have a hard time with many Himalayan plants in my garden and a lot of woodlanders in general, I think because it may just get too soggy over the winter. They’ve taught me to shrug when they fail to emerge in spring.
Flowers can be ‘incidentally’ beautiful. We often selfishly view them as products of nature intended to fulfill our own hunger for beauty, failing to recognize them for what they are, living organic structures evolved over time to continue their own species, organs and tissues meant to attract the necessary attentions of pollinators, to produce the seed of generations to follow. We, as a society, have learned to view a select few of these as beautiful. We respond to them in a way not unlike the pollinators themselves do, and by either ignoring them or focusing our attention upon them, we too alter their future form and their very existence. Sometimes we do this more directly through choosing the plants we want around us. Other times it is our indifference that seals the fate of a plant or landscape, especially when the flora is unable to grab our often preoccupied attention and we clear land for development wasting all of the ‘lesser’ weedy natives we’ve learned to undervalue, or, through our efforts to ‘improve’ plants by controlled breeding and hybridization, intentionally altering their form even the conditions under which they will grow. Sometimes, in our desire, for fashion and an idealized beauty, we attempt to control and remove that which we don’t want, creating sterile flowers, the antithesis of what a plant would ‘want’. We select for bloom size, scent and color, for period of bloom, we seek to increase the number of petals and alter the pattern they may be held in, even the lifespan of the individual flower, the height of the plant so that it doesn’t flop over, the ability to grow it in more sun or shade, the shape and color of leaves and the form of the whole plant. We attempt to control all of this and crank out a uniform product that can be ‘plugged’ into landscapes and gardens as desired. Plants with dependable performance characteristics, a pedigree.
We need to remember that this is what we ‘want’, not what the plants ‘want’, nor is it necessarily in their best interest as either a species or a member of a plant community. These days most of ‘us’ aren’t gardeners. Our relationships with nature were broken long ago. It is difficult to see the critical connections in nature, between plants and the organisms they have evolved with, upon which they are dependent, especially if someone is not looking. It is even more difficult to see where we ourselves fit into this in our materialistic, consumer society where so many of us measure ourselves and others by the things and property we own…and are quick to ‘take’ from others. I’m going to paraphrase a snarky rejoinder I’ve heard these last several years, ‘Yeah, you’re special, just like everything else!’ and I mean this in the broadest sense. Continue reading
As gardeners we come to know our plants, what to expect from them over time, how we can better meet their requirements, and their contributions to the garden. If we watch we learn when to expect their spring time resurgence, the extension of stems and unfurling of leaves. We anticipate their flowering often recomposing vignettes to best display them. They teach us over time. But with Agaves their flowering is so infrequent, that if we don’t study them in mass over a span of years, we won’t know what to expect. With some it can take as few as six years, some even less, while others will keep us waiting for 30 or more. When we buy a year old grafted Magnolia we are told to be patient and we understand that the tree will take some time to grow and mature. So we wait knowing that once it begins a Magnolia will increase in both size and floral performance rewarding us for many years to come…but with Agave, it is once and done.
Agaves are flowering plants, Angiosperms. Angiosperms all share a broad survival strategy forming complete flowers which produce seed which grow into juvenile plants. If you follow plants back in time you’ll that find that plants can be broken down into a few large groups. The largest such group, the Angiosperms or flowering plants, are also the most recent of these…and the most successful. Angiosperms have seeds encased in a ‘fruit’ that formed within the flower from the ovary. Gymnosperms, produce seed as well, though their’s are ‘naked’ without a covering fruit, as the plants have no ovary nor true flower. There are other differences between them as well both structural and in the details of their reproductive cycles. Other plants like ferns don’t produce seeds at all and instead rely on the more ancient process of reproducing directly from spores which grow into an intermediate form, a gametophyte, with one set of chromosomes. This is the ‘sexual’ stage, either male or female, which mature independently, the male form later fertilizing the female, the product of which grows into the sporophyte, with two sets of chromosomes. The sporophyte later releases the single sex, single chromosome spore that will grow into the gametophyte, continuing the cycle. Agave, as a genus, share much with other Angiosperms, they have several distinct peculiarities they share amongst themselves as well. They are all perennial taking more than a year to mature and flower. This is a very common attribute. What sets them apart is that they are monocarpic, they die after flowering once, and, they can take up to 30 years or better, depending on species and growing conditions, to flower.. Continue reading
When we garden in the public view, and most of us do, at least where we front along the street, or even when we invite others into its more private and inner sanctum, and we grow plants successfully, people are going to ask you: ‘What’s that?’ ‘I didn’t know you could grow those here!’ and, ‘What did you do? they always die for me!’ In short, if you’re successful, people will regard you with respect and assign to you the attributes and position of ‘expert’…when all you did was try to follow the gardening maxim of ‘Right Plant, Right Place!’ In short, you tried not to kill it. Genuine expertise requires broader experience, study even, that the simple buying and planting of one particular plant cannot earn you. If you’re like me such easy success and adulation, can be embarrassing and often serves as a prompt, to look through books, search the internet and ask others, that you know who have way more practical growing experience than you yourself do, and gradually, the assignation of ‘expert’ feels a bit less flimsy, maybe even ‘earned’. I often tell gardening friends that I consider myself to be more of a dilettante, flitting from one plant or group of plants to the next. Inquisitiveness has always been a part of me and growing one Penstemon, one Banana or one Agave, never adequately ‘grounds’ me. Grow a few more and I feel a little more comfortable with it. Look into some of its ‘cousins’ and the particulars of where something grows, its climate and soils particularly, and I feel ‘better’, much like I did when I was preparing for mid-terms at school. And then I move on, my interest sated for the time being, somewhat comfortable in what I know and curious about the next group. Over time they all start forming a bigger picture out of what once seemed like a massive, unknowable puzzle and I enjoy solving puzzles. Having said this, I still don’t consider myself to be an expert, just an avid and focused gardener. Continue reading