Peeling Bark

In a not uncommon response to summer-dry heat, a number of trees and shrubs shed their bark in the middle of the summer.

Summertime bark break, Manzanita, Arctostaphylos

In California, this exfoliation seems to happen almost instantly in Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and many species of Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) with great delight to any observer who watches these natives with any regularity.

One day a walk in the dry woods, the always beautiful red-mahogany bark will be split open, as the bark rolls back and the girth expanding just that much more.  In manzanita the bark will curl back in neat tight curlers.

Manzanita – Summertime Bark break, exfoliating

Madrone seems to come off in ribbons.

Madrone, Arbutus menziesii – Summertime bark break

Both of these genus are well adapted to summer-dry conditions but one must be careful to match the right species to the right microclimates. Manzanita are native to many parts of California and gardeners would do well to check with local nurseries, or if you are lucky enough to be in California, check in with your local native plant society chapter to find the best ones.

In nature Madrone are found in dry sloping conditions often in the company of taller Bay and Oak trees, and usually need just the right soil mycorrhizal relationships to thrive.  Gardeners might consider the Arbutus unedo, a mediterranean native, more adapted to garden conditions.  The bark is lovely and the large fruit are highly ornamental but you don’t get the exploding bark.

Madrone – Summertime bark break

Oleander

Nerium oleander

Every so often it is worth reconsidering a once wildly popular plant that, apparently for no reason other than overexposure, has fallen completely out of favor. Agapanthus is one of those plants. Oleander (Nerium oleander) is certainly another.

Overplanted in housing developments and along freeways in the 1960s and ‘70s, oleanders now seem to be seldom planted except by those who appreciate the dense screening provided by their lush evergreen foliage, their lengthy period of exuberant flowering, and their robust constitution.

Oleanders are astonishingly tolerant of drought, reflected heat, wind, salt spray, poor soil, neglect, severe pruning, and almost every other insult that can be directed their way. Other than full sun and occasional summer water until fully established (which can be five years or more), oleanders seem to have few requirements. One thing they cannot stand is prolonged freezing, although even from that they may quickly recover.

Forty years ago I planted oleanders in gardens I made for others.  Twenty-five years ago I planted them in my own garden as a screen between me and my neighbors. A dozen years ago I cut them to the ground and authorized their destruction by backhoe during a major garden renovation. They sprang up again and are still thriving.  Faced with such determination, who am I to say they cannot remain?

Native to or naturalized in warm temperate and subtropical areas from southern Europe and north Africa east to southwest Asia, oleanders are upright woody shrubs eight to ten feet tall and wide, although there are dwarf cultivars half that size and others that reach heights of eighteen to twenty feet.  All have long, narrow, lance-shaped leaves and funnel-shaped flowers in showy clusters at the ends of branches.  Flowers are pink, red, white, salmon, or yellow and some are lightly scented though, lacking nectar, they are not noticeably attractive to bees and butterflies.

Deer grass

Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass)

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is a fine-textured bunchgrass with erect to gracefully arching grayish green leaves to three feet tall and four feet wide and a haze of tawny or silvery gray mid-summer flowers on stems that rise two feet above the foliage.

Native to many plant communities throughout much of California south and east to New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, this adaptable grass prefers some moisture but can go all summer without irrigation if winter rains have been sufficient.  Occasional summer water may keep plants nearly evergreen.

Easy and fast-growing in full sun or filtered shade, deer grass reaches its full size in a season or two and can go years without shearing, though it can be cut back in late fall or tidied up occasionally by raking out dead leaves and stems.  Untrimmed, it becomes an attractive mix of tan, gray-green, and bright green as new leaves emerge and old leaves go over.

Attractive as an accent or in mass plantings, deer grass is also good for erosion control, as its roots spread widely and thickly within the top twelve or so inches of soil. Tolerant of seasonal flooding as well as drought, it is a fine choice for a dry stream bed or a rain garden that retains stormwater just long enough for it to seep into the ground. Space plants at least four feet apart to allow each enough room to show off its symmetrically mounding form.

A good habitat plant, deer grass is a winter host for some butterfly larvae and its seeds are favored by many songbirds.

Pittosporums

Pittosporum crassifolium blossom

Pittosporums are a large group of tough and adaptable evergreen shrubs or smallish trees native to subtropical and tropical Australasia, Africa, and Asia and grown in warm temperate climates throughout the world.  Most are fairly fast growing in full sun to part shade in any reasonably fertile soil with decent drainage and little to moderate moisture.  All bear small, fragrant, late spring or summer flowers in clusters at the ends of stems followed by conspicuous fruits with bright orange seeds. Several species and quite a few cultivars are commonly found in the nursery trade.

Pittosporum tobira is a rounded shrub to 15 feet tall and ten feet wide with leathery, dark green leaves, shiny on the uppersides and slightly turned under along the edges. The small, intensely fragrant flowers open white and soon turn creamy yellow. Native to Japan, Korea, and parts of China, this densely foliaged plant makes a fine hedge or privacy screen and is attractive with lower branches pruned up as a small specimen tree.  The cultivar ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ is two to three feet tall and four to five feet wide. ‘Variegata’, three to five feet tall and wide, has variegated leaves.

Pittosporum crassifolium ‘Variegatum’

Pittosporum tenuifolium, 25 to 30 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide, bears glossy, medium green, slightly wavy leaves on distinctive nearly black stems that accentuate the upright form of this attractive shrub.  The flowers are dark reddish purple.  Native to New Zealand, it is tolerant of salt spray, dry soils, and shade.  Many cultivars are in the trade, including ‘Golf Ball’, an amusingly rounded shrub three to four feet tall and wide with exceptionally dense foliage, and ‘Marjorie Channon’, eight feet tall and wide with creamy white margins on the leaves.

 Pittosporum eugenioides is a shrubby tree to 30 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide with wavy-edged, glossy green leaves and yellow flowers. Native to New Zealand, it makes a good, fairly fast-growing screen. It needs part shade away from the coast.

Pittosporum phillyraeoides, slow growing to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, has narrow, dark green, willow-like leaves and a weeping habit. Native to coastal northwestern Australia, it is tolerant of considerable heat and dryness.

Attesting to the wide adaptability of most plants in the genus, at least two pittosporums have become weedy pests in Australia, while others occasionally have been described as “garden thugs.” All probably should be watched for any inclination to take over or escape. The worst offender is Pittosporum undulatum, commonly known as Victorian box, which is highly invasive in Australia and South Africa.  P. crassifolium, an attractive gray-leaved shrub with maroon flowers and several named cultivars in the trade, has also shown invasive tendencies in Australia.

I should put in a good word for Pittosporum tobira in this regard, three large shrubs of which graced the wooded portion of my lot when I settled here almost forty years ago.  Mature then, they are elder statesmen now. They make a fearsome mess in winter with their sticky discarded seeds, but these are loved by birds and not once have I seen new plants appear.

Is The Drought Over ?

It has been raining like crazy in California this winter.  Or rather, it has ben raining like a normal winter. In a summer-dry climate we expect it to be winter wet.

But is the California drought over ? Here is a map showing the overall change in exactly one year, since February 2, 2016.

California drought map January 31 2016 - Feb 2 2017;

California drought map January 31 2016 – Feb 2 2017;

While it has been a dramatic change it its not over; Southern California is still below average.  Although there is above average snowpack in the mountains, which will insure adequate water, the State is still experiencing water supply shortfalls and five years of drought have left California with a significant water supply deficit, especially when it comes to groundwater basins.

Who decides when the drought is officially over ?  The State Water Resources Control Board will vote on Feb. 8 whether or not to officially extend drought regulations. Item 9.

Raindrops and bubbles in street puddle

To follow the progress of the drought and the many water conservation resources that various government agencies provide, we have listed the most active Resources and summarized them below, including a few timely rainfall reporting sites:

California Water Year Totals from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration NOAA

California DWR Daily Reporting Stations – Department of Water Resources

Two great websites with up to date news:

Water Deeply In-depth coverage of the California drought.

California Water Blog –  UC Davis Center for Watershed Science

Government resources:

Drought Portal California official website

California Water Science from US Geologic Survey and specifically CA Drought

Save Our Water State of California Water Conservation tips and action

California Drought from Pacific Institute

Background Report defining drought from DWR (Department of Water Resources):  “California’s Most Significant Droughts; Comparing Historical  and Recent Conditions | February 2015″

Pacific wax myrtle

Myrica californica as a tall privacy hedge

Myrica californica as a tall privacy hedge

Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) is a tall, dense evergreen shrub, perfect as a backdrop for any garden large enough to accommodate it.  Fast-growing, adaptable, and good looking year round, this is a fine choice for informal hedges, windbreaks, and privacy screens.

You will hear that Pacific wax myrtle can be sheared as a formal hedge, but don’t do it. Shearing destroys the natural grace of the glossy green leaves, which are long and narrow, softly serrated, and elegantly displayed on multiple upright stems. If you find its height of 12 to 20 feet too tall or its spread of 10 to 15 feet too wide, this shrub is easily maintained at smaller sizes by hand pruning.

Native along the coast and in coastal valleys from southern California to southern British Columbia, Pacific wax myrtle will tolerate almost full shade inland, but full sun to part shade is best.  It accepts dryish conditions, but responds enthusiastically to summer watering, especially in interior gardens.  It is at its finest in full sun in foggy coastal gardens, where it thrives in sandy soils and wind.

The luscious leaves of this plant look like deer salad at all ages and all times of year, but my deer generally ignore it after a nibble or two when plants are first set out or when new bright green leaves appear in spring. Clusters of tiny yellowish spring flowers are followed by small, waxy, purple-black berries that are popular with many birds.

The scientific name of Pacific wax myrtle was changed to Morella californica, but you may not see it listed or sold as such until the change is embraced by those who have long known and grown this plant as Myrica.

 

Carpenteria

Carpenteria californica

Carpenteria californica

Gardeners who relish a bit of a challenge and delight in a smashing success probably already grow California’s native bush anemone (Carpenteria californica).This is a connoisseur’s plant, elegant and refined virtually year round and seasonally extravagant in its flowering. Where it is happy — and there’s the catch — it is surprisingly easy to grow.

This splendid multi-stemmed shrub is grown mostly for its impressive early to midsummer display of large, glistening white, lightly fragrant, simple but showy flowers with bright yellow stamens.

Carpenteria is evergreen, with long, narrow, somewhat leathery, dark green leaves that are grayish white on the undersides. New stems are dark red or purplish, shredding with age to reveal tan-colored bark beneath. Upright and generally taller than wide, carpenteria can be kept to six feet tall and four feet wide with annual post-bloom pinching back. Left on its own, it eventually will grow larger and may become open and rangy.

Carpenteria accepts full sun along the coast, but prefers high shade or afternoon shade inland. It will grow in full shade, but may have fewer or smaller flowers. Tolerant of some dryness once established, it looks best with occasional to moderate deep watering in summer.

As with most California natives, it is best to plant carpenteria in the fall. If your soil is heavy clay, plant on a mound or a slope for good drainage. For at least the first year, water deeply twice a month — more in hot interior locations. Gradually cut back on watering as the plant becomes established.

Do not be alarmed if leaves droop, curl under, or turn yellow in the hottest weeks of the year. This is a natural response to heat and drought. Mulch, water deeply to moisten but not drench the soil, tip prune, and wait for the plant to respond to the cooling days of fall.