Friday, May 7, 2010

Plants We Like

At Colvos Creek Nursery, we grow anything interesting. Our mild climate (last year's 103 degree heat wave sandwiched between two record cold waves notwithstanding!) allows huge opportunities. Northwest natives are a priority and many of those fit into our second area of interest, rare plants.

Last fall we collected and sent for a great volume of propagating material to replenish and re-invigorate a selection of plants that had dropped off along with the economy. Now many fine plants are ready or will be shortly.

From Chile comes the surprisingly hardy blue abutilon (Abutilon vitifolium). A somewhat treelike evergreen shrub to 10 ft. or so, it is covered in the maple-like foliage common in the genus, though here grayish and fuzzy. In spring, and sometimes fall, come the 3 inch saucers of lilac blue, stopping people in amazement. Also amazing is how hardy this exotic beauty is- to Zone 7- and it is has survived on Long Island.

The red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a delightful deciduous shrub from the eastern US. Its handsome, handlike ('digitate') leaves are like those of other species, scaled down. Indeed, the whole plant is scaled down to garden size, seldom more than 10 ft. by 10 ft. and easily kept narrower. The spikes of tomato red flowers, sometimes salmon pink, are an alluring spectacle in late spring, coming on stage after the flowery extravagance of March and April.

The Australian bottlebrushes are emblematic of that continent's strangely beautiful flora. For those in colder places who want to grow one, especially a red one, the best hope is what we call the hardy red bottlebrush (Callistemon subulatus). Temperatures of 10 degrees will hurt it substantially, but it will usually regrow and bloom the same year. Above 15 degrees it is safe. The narrow evergreen leaves, scented of eucalyptus, line arching branches that create a fountain shape. In summer, brilliant red brushes tip the branches and bring in hummingbirds as well as fascinated passersby.

Loquats are luscious orange fruits that most people have never heard of. The evergreen tree they grow on, Eriobotrya japonica, is equally luscious, carrying corrugated, foot-long leaves in heavy bunches. Even without the fruit, it is a standout ornamental. With luck, and especially with two or more trees, you can look forward to the egg-sized fruit, which has a taste combining peach and pineapple. The tiny white flowers open fall through spring, so frost may ruin them, but if the winter finishes mild, more flowers will open. In any case, the tree is best in Zones 8 and up.

Among Northwest natives, one of the most captivating, the madrone, Arbutus menziesii, is also one of the hardest to grow. Strictly adapted to our dry summers, it will die if watered, and it often suffers disease in urban areas. Still, its lush, evergreen foliage, fragrant white flowers, showy red berries and peeling red-orange bark on a sinuous framework make it an object of desire. Few nurseries grow it, for the reasons above, and they won't transplant from the wild. We seem to have the knack for starting them and have a good crop this year.

Early, fragrant flowers on a drought-tolerant small tree should put the flowering apricot on every gardener's want list, but Prunus mume has not made the horticultural hit parade. It can have problems with disease, but seldom when planted in a sunny, well drained spot. This is the tree that has lent its pink flowers and sweet scent to the many flowering plums. Those are fine, but this has real character, carrying its blooms on gnarled, spreading branches. The flowers, one of the primary subjects in Asian art, lead to the astringent yellow plums that are made into sauces and wine.

Penstemons abound in the Northwest, especially in mountains and deserts. Shrubby penstemon, P. fruticosus, is a mountain species, making evergreen carpets of narrow leaves on sloping scree. Short spikes of flowers in shades of rosy lilac and violet blue smother the plant in late spring, which may be July at the higher passes. Given sun and good drainage, this penstemon, unlike many wild species, takes well to gardens.

It surprises many people that there are evergreen oaks, let alone that most oaks are evergreen. As a group, they offer rugged year-round beauty in a variety of looks. The silverleaf oak, Quercus hypoleucoides from the southwest, carries a luxuriant crown of slender, willowy leaves designed to puzzle. Only the acorns prove it to be an oak. The silver comes from the velvety white undersides of the leaves, which flash artfully in the wind. In habitat, this oak receives copious moisture from summer monsoon rains, yet is very drought-hardy.

Among the deciduous oaks, none makes a grander impression than the daimyo (Quercus dentata) from Japan. The leaves are 12 inch, deeply scalloped paddles that give a tropical texture, carried on soaring and arching branches. Alas, there is only mild amber fall color, but the leaves drop to reveal great natural sculpture.

Brooms (the plants) have a bad reputation in the Northwest, where the yellow of the Scotch broom screams from nearly every vacant acre in late spring. The Atlas broom (Cytisus battandieri) is innocent, quite scarce in gardens and hardly recognizable as a broom. In most species, tiny, often short-lived leaves make the shrub a wispy mass of green twigs. The Atlas broom has real leaves, evergreen, with three 2 inch silvery leaflets. Orange-yellow flowers in tight conical clusters open in late spring with a fragrance of peaches and pineapple. To see one of these unique plants is to want one, and now, for once, we have a good crop.