Plants are full of surprises. In fact, the more closely you observe plants, the more often you are surprised. Perhaps it involves training the eye to see, as opposed to only glimpse or scan. You may think you know a plant quite well but then notice something in a certain season that you never saw before. It could be the color of new leaves or the presence of flowers that are so small you completely missed them up until now.
Enter the beautyberry. Its charms are clear for all to see, at least in the fall season. It is a shrub that is impossible to overlook in October and yet it is seldom seen in California gardens. At this time of year, the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) shows off clusters of deep violet fruit, neatly arranged in rows along the stem.
This is a deciduous shrub, which helps explain its absence in Valley gardens since Southern Californians have a strong prejudice against woody perennials that lose their leaves in the winter.
Growing beautyberries is not a big deal. They thrive in partial sun in well-drained soil and do not need much water once established. In winter, they look like dead sticks stuck in the earth but, if you cannot stand the sight of them, prune them down to the ground. In the spring they will regrow, reliably putting out attractive lilac flowers in the summer that are followed by the comely fruit. At maturity, they reach 6 feet in height.
Several beautyberry species are available in the nursery trade but you will need to special-order them from your neighborhood nursery or through Internet vendors.
Beautyberry fruit, while attractive to birds, is not fit for human consumption.
Beautyberries are in the verbena family, whose members include a tall, alluring ground cover that blooms nearly all year and is in full bloom right now. Purpletop vervain or tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) is an outstanding perennial for the full-sun garden. It is a strong magnet for butterflies, no less than the butterfly bush (Buddleia) itself, is lightly fragrant, and lasts for 10 days as a cut flower in vase arrangements. It is not a long-lived perennial, but you can keep it for an extra year or two by holding back on pruning old shoots until the spring, when new growth from below is visible.
Where soil conditions are right, meaning that drainage is excellent, tall verbena will self-sow. It is a perfect addition to drought-tolerant and tropical gardens alike, combining well with ornamental grasses, salvias and penstemons, but also serving as a suitable companion to birds of paradise and cannas. The perpetually charming yet understated presence of tall verbena qualifies it as a virtually universal botanical delight.
Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) blooms heaviest during the fall. Unlike other hibiscus species, confederate rose suckers prolifically, producing thicketlike growth. Newly opened flowers are white, gradually changing to deep pink. Established plants are not thirsty, would survive the coldest Valley winter, and may be pruned back radically in any season.
Floss silk tree (Ceiba, formerly known as Chorisia) may be the most outlandish arboreal specimen of the early fall season. Only after its leaves have fallen do its star-shaped, pink to magenta (Ceiba speciosa) or yellow to cream-colored (Ceiba insignis) flowers appear, followed by football-size fruits containing white fluff as soft as goose down, for seed dispersal, within. Of equal interest is the floss silk tree trunk, covered with a watertight, lime-green skin that turns gray with age, and masses of formidable, pyramidal spines.
This tree is native to Brazil, where it survives drought as well as any cactus. It flowers most when summer water is scarce, asserting its determination to reproduce as a response to stress. Floss silk trees can live for several hundred years.
Bottle trees, from Australia, are also noted for their water retentive trunks. In the outback, Aborigines make holes in bottle tree trunks and drain the liquid refreshment trapped within. This is especially true of the Queeensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris), a suitable ornamental tree for the Valley since it is highly drought tolerant and only grows to around 25 feet tall.
The kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus) may grow to nearly twice the height of the Queensland bottle tree. Kurrajong leaves shimmer in the wind like those of a poplar, and thus its species name. Both bottle trees produce highly symmetrical foliar domes, may briefly lose some or all of their leaves in the winter, and never need pruning.
Tip of the week
Looking for a glorious perennial that blooms nonstop and self-sows in any soil? Your best bet is blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora), its name a tribute to the bright colors seen in blankets woven by Native Americans. Indigenous to California, blanket flower has sawtooth daisy flowers in yellow, orange, maroon and red, occasionally with black bands running through the petals.
Able to withstand the worst heat, it will also survive a winter freeze and might even bloom straight through until spring. Blanket flowers are long-lasting candidates for vase arrangements. You can propagate them either from seed or, due to their clumping growth habit, by division.