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

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.

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.

 

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.