When visiting the Studio City residence of Beth and Alan Dymond, I was not only delighted at the sight of a California native hybrid I had never seen before, but also impressed by the presence of the healthiest rhubarb I had ever encountered in a Valley garden. Like the wonderful dessert it makes, let’s leave the rhubarb for last.
Over the years, I have come to take a particular interest in plants that sprawl. This evolution in thinking is based on two completely utilitarian factors: first, a few sprawling plants, or even a single such plant, can cover an enormous expanse of ground, so that you can fill a large yard at minimal expense and, second, sprawling plants, as a rule, make significantly water-saving lawn substitutes. Even if a sprawling plant is not particularly drought tolerant, you still need only to place a water stingy drip emitter or two near the root zone in order to satisfy the plant’s irrigation needs. Sprawling plants are especially sensible as front lawn alternatives since a front lawn has no real purpose other than to tidily cover the ground.
One large corner of the slope in front of the Dymond residence is covered with Lavatera ‘Purissima.’ Lavatera ‘Purissima’ is a hybrid of Lavatera assurgentiflora, endemic to the Channel Islands (located off the coast of Southern California) and Lavatera venosa, endemic to San Benitos Islands (located off the coast of Baja California, southwest of Ensenada). Lavatera ‘Purissima’ has silky, five petaled flowers, of an iridescent violet hue. Allthough the plant may eventually reach ten feet in height, and has the common name of Purissima tree mallow, it would really rather sprawl without restraint. By the same token, ‘Purissima’ can be trained into an informal hedge or even as a small tree.
Two robust Baja fairy dusters (Calliandra californica) are brightening the top of the Dymond slope. This is a “must have” species for Valley plant enthusiasts of all stripes, be they native devotees or not. Baja fairy duster is highly ornamental in both flower – a shout-out scarlet red, with a feathery lampshape form – and leaf, a pinnately compound, fern-like, deep green to blue-green beauty. Flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Although slow-growing, Baja fairy duster will eventually grow as large as five feet by five feet. And as long as we are speaking of Calliandra (calli = beautiful, andra = stamen or male flower part), you might also want to consider planting pink fairy duster or mock mesquite (Calliandra eriophylla) as well. This California native is humbler than its scarlet cousin, growing less than two feet tall.
The Dymonds have two purple penstemons, one appearing to be a conventional type around 2-3 feet tall, the other a dwarf approximately half that size. Penstemons are among the sturdiest standbys of the California native flower garden. They are most often encountered in various violets, purples, reds, and pinks, but orange-red and yellow types are also occasionally seen. Relatives of snapdragons, the trumpet flowers of penstemon beckon with a gesture of friendship. Where the soil is right, their seeds will self-sow where they fall so that you will have a perpetuating crop of Penstemons from year to year.
Penstemons also attract hummingburds as does – wouldn’t you know it? – hummingbrid sage (Salvia spathacea). This distinctive perennial has oversize saggitate leaves and enormous flower wands studded with rose red blooms. This sage can handle both sunny and somewhat shady exposures.
As for bushy perennials, the Dymonds are growing brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a rich study in silver (foliage) and gold (daisy flowers). Ironically, or perhaps by design, a mat-like ground cover known as Dymondia has spread out at the base of the Dymonds’ front slope. Complimentary to the nearby brittlebush, it shows off silvery green foliage in addition to miniature golden yellow daisies. Lilac verbena (Verbena lilacina ‘Paseo Rancho’) is a carefree, shrubby ground cover that grows three feet tall and wide.
The Dymonds have shaped upright rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) into a formally clipped hedge. If you are searching for a drought tolerant, three foot tall, evergreen hedge, the Dymonds make a convincing case for choosing rosemary. Once established, rosemary should not requiring a good soaking soaking more than twice a month.
I had always thought that rhubarb needed sun protection in the Valley but here was a healthy specimen thriving on the Dymonds’ slope, basking in most of the day’s sun. Bear in mind that edible rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) has a short harvest period that is confined to the spring. By the time hot weather sets in, care of the plants is confined to watering and fertilization.
Although poisonous, the large leaves of common edible rhubarb are highly decorative during most of the year. Only the leaf stalks are fit for consumption. Ornamental rhubarbs (Rheum australe and Rheum palmatum) are highly worthwhile for garden accents as they sport deeply lobed leaves up to 3 feet wide, with wavy or straight edges, and red veins or red foliage, depending on the variety. Magnificently tasseled, 2-foot-long inflorescences appear in white, pink, or red.
It seems that blueberries are popping up in more and more gardens, including that of the Dymonds. Varieties such as ‘Sharpblue’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’ are eminently suitable for our Valley climate and soil conditions.