Agave parryi

Agave parryi

Agave parryi

Agave parryi is quite variable, some forms or varieties an ethereal blue-gray, others a silvery gray-green, some with leaves that are broad and rather blunt on top, others with narrower and more elongated leaves.  But all are elegantly symmetrical, and all bear leaves with distinctive dark brown to maroon to almost black marginal teeth and an equally dark, viciously sharp terminal spine.

Agave parryi grows fairly slowly to about two to three feet tall and wide, and most spread by offshoots or “pups.”  As the plant grows the leaves open from a tightly packed central core, and on the back of each leaf is the delicate tracery of overlapping leaves that spread out before it.  Plants bloom only once and then die, reportedly after twenty years or so.  Flowers are borne on a central stalk up to fifteen feet tall, and are vegetative magnets for hummingbirds.

Agave parryi leaf detail

Agave parryi leaf detail

I grew this agave many years ago in southern California, where it flourished and multiplied, reliably sending out offshoots until a fairly sizable colony had formed.  From this colony I recently brought a few north to the San Francisco Bay Area, a quite different climate, but one that seems to have satisfied this adaptable succulent, at least so far.  Agave parryi is native to high deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico, so it should not be bothered by even our most prolonged winter frosts.  To help them withstand our sometimes drenching winter rains, I set them out in large, shallow pots in commercial “cactus mix” for fast drainage.

Agave parryi is best planted where it will receive full sun a good portion of the day except in hot interior climates, where a bit of afternoon shade seems to be appreciated.  This is a care-free plant, requiring no maintenance and little to no summer water once established.  Plants will naturalize if given space and time.

Dasylirion

Dasylirion wheeleri in succulent border with barrel cactus.

Dasylirion wheeleri in succulent border with barrel cactus in foreground

A boldly architectural plant for big drama in pots or in the ground, Dasylirion wheeleri (desert spoon or sotol) forms a dense, symmetrical rosette of long, narrow, silvery blue-green, somewhat twisted leaves with aggressively hooked teeth along the margins and attractively frayed straw-colored tips.  Over time plants develop a short, stout trunk, which may not be noticed unless older brown leaves are removed.

Native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, Dasylirion wheeleri is rather widely available in the trade.  Several other dasylirions are available with a little hunting about, including D. texanum (Texas sotol), with paler green leaves that are not twisted, D. leiophyllum (smooth sotol), with glossy green leaves and, despite its common name, equally wicked spines, and D. longissimum (Mexican grass tree), with gray-green leaves that lack the fearsome spines and, after many years, a substantial tree-like trunk.

Dasylirion wheeleri grows moderately fast, but can be held to a large container for quite some time.  Mine were installed as decent sized five-gallon plants in thirty-six-gallon pots six or seven years ago.  They are now six feet wide and four feet tall, spilling out in all directions.

Dasylirion wheeleri spines

Dasylirion wheeleri spines

Because of the sharp spines, which catch and hold onto skin or clothing when they are so much as gently brushed or touched, all dasylirions except the smooth-margined Dasylirion longissimum are almost impossible to comfortably work around.  They should be placed away from paths likely to be traveled by the unwary and spread far apart if more than one is planted in the ground.  Pulling weeds, removing fallen tree leaves, or attempting to cut off dead leaves at the base are hellacious tasks, with outcomes ranging from snagged clothing to bloodied body parts.  It’s best to locate these plants where no maintenance will be required.

Dasylirions flower on spikes that arise from the center of the rosette, reaching ten feet or more above the foliage by early summer.  Flower stalks appear only once every few years, but, unlike the agaves, the plants do not die after flowering.  For some reason, my plants have yet to flower.  Perhaps they are not sufficiently mature.  Maybe it’s the afternoon shade (they are said to resent shade).  Or possibly it’s the constraints of growing in containers.  I can wait.  Flowers are just a bonus on plants as spectacular as this.

Salvias

Salvia officinalis (Garden Sage) in bloom with Origanum vulagare 'Aureum' (Oregano).

Salvia officinalis with oregano in background

There are sages (Salvia) for almost any garden.  Annuals, perennials, or shrubs; low and spreading to tall and upright; sun or shade loving; moist or dry soils or anywhere in between.  If you are unsure what a particular sage needs, look it up or consult your nursery professional before adding it to your garden.

One of the most reliable low-water sages for full sun is Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), and one of the best varieties is ‘Winifred Gilman’.  The spikes of bright lavender-blue to purple flowers in early summer are memorable, especially against the silvery gray aromatic leaves.

Salvia leucophylla (Purple Sage) with smaller leaves in summer, silver gray foliage

Salvia leucophylla

Topping out at three or more feet tall and wide, Cleveland sage will thrive with little care for many years.  Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love it and deer ignore it.  Native to southern California, this sage needs good to excellent drainage and, in inland locations, seems to prefer, but doesn’t require, a deep soaking monthly in the hottest weeks of the year.  As with many summer-dry plants, a really dry winter or spring will result in loss or shriveling of leaves if no supplemental water is provided. But the plant probably won’t die – leaf drop is a drought response that conserves moisture.

You can trim Cleveland sage back after flowering or take stems for arrangements during bloom, but don’t cut into old wood.  This sage, like many other shrubby perennials, responds well to frequent but gentle trimming as you would lavender or rosemary.

There are many other beautiful sages for the summer-dry garden. White sage, Salvia apiana, is four to five feet tall and wide with fragrant, woolly, almost white gray leaves and white flowers tinged with lavender in spring.  Native to southern California and Baja California, it likes sun and good drainage and needs little to no summer water.  In my garden it sheds many leaves in response to drought, but retains enough of its stunning white foliage to capture attention at any time of year.

Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) is a long-lived shrub three to five feet tall and wide with wrinkled, silvery gray leaves and pale purple flowers flowers in spring.  Native to southern California, it thrives in full sun with no summer water once established.

Salvia semiatrata (Bicolor Sage) flower detail

Salvia semiatrata

Sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis) is a mat-forming creeping or trailing evergreen perennial a few inches to a foot tall and spreading three or more feet wide.  Native to California in coastal mountains and Sierra foothills on dry slopes, in chaparral, or in open woodland, this lovely low sage prefers light shade and little or no summer water.  Branches root as they travel across the ground and cascade nicely over walls, the softly textured gray-green aromatic leaves inviting touch. Spikes of medium blue to blue-violet flowers on leafless stems cover the plant from late spring into summer.

Sonoma sage is one of those plants that simply won’t tolerate poor drainage, fertilizers, or more than the slightest summer irrigation.  Give this sage a fast-draining spot on a slope or a mound of rocky soil and resist the urge to “help” it through the dry summer months.  Old plants may get woody and bare in the center, but robust new growth and a slightly mounding habit give the overall effect of continuous cover in lightly tended further reaches of the garden.

Salvia apiana (Bee Sage, California White Sage) California native perennial shrub with silver gray leaves

Salvia apiana

Other drought-tolerant shrubby sages include the long-blooming autumn sages (Salvia greggii), flowers usually red, but many other colors available, and Salvia muelleri (rich dark purple flowers).  S. greggii is about three feet tall and wide; S. muelleri is usually somewhat smaller. Both have diminutive green leaves, very different from the larger gray and grayish white leaved sages.  These sages look best with occasional deep watering in summer, though they will survive without it.  Both can be cut back fairly hard to renew.  Some afternoon shade is beneficial in the hottest locations.

Coffeeberry

Rhamnus californica Coffeeberry, evergreen shrub in California native plant garden, Schino

Frangula californica (Rhamnus californica)

California coffeeberry (Frangula californica, formerly Rhamnus californica) is a handsome evergreen shrub with significant wildlife habitat value.  Low and spreading to tall and upright, coffeeberry is an excellent candidate for the summer-dry garden.

Coffeeberry can grow to ten feet tall or more and eight or more feet wide, but some varieties are only four to six feet tall and others are mounding groundcovers.  All have substantial dark green to olive green leaves, gray-green beneath, inconspicuous greenish yellow flowers, and copious berries loved by birds and other wildlife. Berries turn from lime green to red to purplish black as they mature. Stems of new growth are reddish.

Native to much of California and parts of the West, these are rugged, adaptable, attractive shrubs good for informal hedges or screens or as specimens.  They look well groomed without pruning, but can be gently pruned to control size or shape.  Give them sun to light shade or afternoon shade and reasonably good drainage.

Coffeeberries do tend to be heavily browsed by deer in some locations and at some times of year, especially when newly planted.  They require little to no water after establishment, although an occasional deep soaking is appreciated, especially inland.

Named varieties are commonly available in nurseries and at native plant sales. ‘Eve Case’ is 6-8’ tall by 6-8’ wide, densely mounding with broad leaves and large berries, and seems to prefer coastal conditions. ‘Leatherleaf’ has large, dark green leaves and grows 5-8’ tall and wide.  ‘Mound San Bruno’ makes a good large-scale groundcover, 3-6’ tall by 6-10’ wide, dense and compact with narrow green leaves. ‘Seaview’ is even lower, about 2-4’ tall and 6-8’ wide, with small dark green leaves and dense clusters of berries.

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’

Silver gray foliage drought tolerant groundcovers, Leymus (Elymus) condensatus 'Canyon Prince' (Lyme Grass, Wild Rye) and Artemisia pynocephala 'David's Choice' (Beach Sagebrush) in foreground

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ with Artemisia pynocephala ‘David’s Choice’ in foreground

This is a wonderful grass if you have the space for it and don’t need to try to contain it.  Left to its own devices, Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ billows around in a large meadow planting, giving the impression of movement without the slightest breeze. It also makes an effective bank cover, its extensive root system grabbing and tightly holding the soil and its leaves cascading like falling water.  It is especially nice as a background or complement to other plants.

Coming out bright green in spring, this warm-season grass turns a lovely gray-green as the season progresses, ending in a striking late-summer display of wheat-colored seedheads on tall stalks.

It’s only fair to warn those considering this plant that it is decisively invasive.  Infiltration is initially slow, so you may not notice it for some time.  But ultimately this grass will try to take over adjacent plantings, and chopping out advancing pieces may slow but not stop the invasion.

I cut this grass a few inches above the ground in late winter or early spring every year, in part because this provides an opportunity to pull out invasive weeds hiding beneath the grass.  This also allows me to see and remove dead culms that impede the growth of new stems, ensuring that both the plant and the colony retain their dense and appealingly architectural form. New growth begins to return almost immediately after cutting back.

Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince' - Giant Wild Rye with rush, Juncus polyanthemos in urban park groundcover landscape design meadow garden, Jeffrey Open Space, Irvine California

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ with Juncus polyanthemos in Jeffrey Open Space, Irvine California

‘Canyon Prince’ grows two to three feet tall with flower stalks another foot or so above the leaves.  Spread is indeterminate, with gradual widening to cover extensive areas if not continuously restrained.  It is best planted where spread need not be controlled, and is striking in a large container along with orange or purple-flowered companions spilling over the sides.  I first saw it, many years ago, in a pot with epilobium and was instantly smitten.

Plant this grass in full sun almost everywhere but in desert or hot interior locations, where it will appreciate either part shade or water.  In sun near the coast it is best with little to no summer water, which will only encourage its rampant spread.

 

 

Coast silktassel

Garrya elliptica (coast silktassel) in bloom

Garrya elliptica (coast silktassel) in bloom

Coast silktassel (Garrya elliptica) is best known for its elegant display of silky, silvery green to creamy white catkins that decorate the plant in mid-winter.  No matter how many times you’ve seen the show, a mature silktassel in full bloom never fails to amaze and delight.

This lovely evergreen shrub is resilient and easy if you plant it where it is content.  Native to coastal California and southwest Oregon, silktassel needs good drainage and, near the coast or with some afternoon shade, requires little to no summer water unless winters are exceptionally dry.  On even a slight slope, with protection from the hottest sun and protracted freezing, it needs no care at all.

After a slow start, coast silktassel grows quite fast to 8 to 15 feet tall and 10 or more feet wide, usually with multiple trunks from the base.  The dark green, leathery, wavy-edged leaves are woolly gray-green on the undersides.  From a distance and out of bloom, the plant looks somewhat like a small evergreen oak.

On male plants the catkins may be eight or ten inches long, swaying in the slightest breeze; female catkins are only a few inches long.  Both must be present for female plants to produce their purplish berries.  ‘James Roof’ and ‘Evie’ are male varieties with especially showy tassels.

Coast silktassel responds assertively to pruning, sending out long, gangly branches if cut back too hard.  This presents both challenges and opportunities for gardeners willing to put in the effort to train and shape.  If you start when plants are established but still quite young, coast silktassel can be trained as a small tree or espaliered for maximum floral display.  Pruning at maturity can be tricky because the plant may produce multiple long branches at each cut that defy further efforts to control its shape.

Silktassel seems to be unpalatable to deer, at least at maturity and in some locations.  In my garden deer have never touched this plant, yet just across town newly planted garryas are regularly munched to the ground.

California pipevine

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine flowering with chrysalis of Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine,  with chrysalis of pipevine swallowtail butterfly

California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) is one of the first plants to flower in my northern California garden, sending forth dozens, no hundreds, of tiny blossoms on leafless stems in mid-winter, after the manzanitas but before flashier plants such as native irises grab center stage.  Their appearance, noticed only up close at first, signals the approaching end of winter and fuels my anticipation of full-on gardening weather.

The flowers are, to say the least, unusual.  They grow more like fruits than flowers, maturing, right before your eyes, from a millimeter or two to an inch and a half long on the vine.  Most plants hide their flowers in one way or another before they spring into view, full size, at maturity.  On plants of California pipevine, you can see the tiniest immature flowers alongside partially mature and mature flowers at the same time.  I go out daily to check on the progress of tiny flowers I saw the day before.

Aristolochia californica - Dutchman's Pipe, flowering California native plant

Aristolochia californica flower

Reputed to prefer lots of moisture, even riparian sites, California pipevine seems to do quite well with little or no summer water in shade to part shade or at least afternoon shade, even on the inland side of central California’s coastal hills.  While the upper leaves seem to like some sun, the roots must be cool, especially in hot summer weather.  I have one planted in an oversized clay pot that receives morning sun but is fully shaded on summer afternoons by a second-story deck.  I attached the vine to a deck post and strung it along the joists, mostly because I wanted to see the details of the individual flowers and the bright green heart-shaped leaves.  In nature it is often a tangle of stems with a mass of old leaves along with the new, as some spent leaves tend to stay on the plant well into the following year.

California pipevine is the only host plant of the native pipevine swallowtail, which is why I planted it in the first place.  I have yet to see a single caterpillar on my plants, but hope, even hope in vain, is what keeps gardeners going.  The leaves are said to produce a toxic chemical that, when ingested by caterpillars, makes them and the butterflies they become unattractive to predators.  I cannot attest to any of this as I have not seen a pipevine swallowtail in my garden.

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine used as sprawling vine on hill by steps in Schieffelin native plant garden

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine, used as sprawling groundcover

You will hear that California pipevine is slow to start, even hard to grow.  That has not been my experience.  The first year I planted my vine in the pot underneath the deck it was ripped out, likely by a raccoon.  I stuffed it rather hastily back in the pot, unwilling to just let it go, and in weeks it was showing signs of new life.  The first year it grew perhaps six feet tall, no flowers.  The second year it had many flowers and had extended its reach perhaps twice that high.  By the third year it was covered in flowers and had reached more than twelve feet.  This winter, six years in, it is easily fifteen feet in full extent and the flowers are coming out an inch or two apart.

This is a vigorous, robust, vital native California plant with great habitat value, well worth a place in any summer-dry garden.  It is native to central and northern California in foothill woodlands, chaparral, and mixed evergreen forests, usually but not always on sites that provide at least some moisture year-round.