For several months on my daily commute, I had passed by a glorious cascading shrub with lilac blooms. It was planted at the top of a retaining wall, over which it generously spilled, and flowered with increasing fervor as winter turned into spring. Finally, just the other day, I could no longer resist the impulse to pull over, get out of the car and take a closer look.
To my surprise, its flowers and leaves betrayed its identity as that of a heliotrope, but it was a far cry from the heliotropes I had known up till then. If you go into a nursery and ask for heliotrope, you will be shown a spindly specimen with dark violet, fragrant flowers and purplish-black leaves. I have grown that plant, which also goes by the name of “Black Beauty,” on several occasions and was invariably disappointed with it. It grows to a height of about 2 feet in partial sun, is highly susceptible to mildew and never flowers as much as you think it should.
The heliotrope on my daily commute is a contrastingly robust, profusely flowering plant that reaches a height and spread of nearly 5 feet. After calling several growers, I learned that this stronger heliotrope is the species-type, or ‘wild’ heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), of which ‘Black Beauty’ is an exotic, if weaker, garden variety.
Heliotrope is named for its habit of following the movement of the sun (helios = sun; trope = movement). In the morning, the flowers of the heliotrope face east and by late afternoon they are facing west. One of the common names for heliotrope is “Cherry Pie” since, in the opinion of some, the fragrance of its flowers resembles that of fresh-baked cherry pie.
Cascading Pink Jasmine
The list of cascading plants – for use on terraces, above retaining walls, in window boxes or even patio flower pots – includes a sumptuous variety of vines, ground cover and annual flowers. At this moment, pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) is in full flower with clouds of scented white flowers tinged with pink. Its billowy presence will soften walls of block or stone. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), whose stellar perfumed flowers will be opening in another month or so, is the sturdiest of plants to be draped over a wall or fence, subsisting wonderfully on a single weekly irrigation.
Another spring bloomer is periwinkle (Vinca major), whose oval leaves hang down on stems that connect them as if they were green coins dangling from a chain. The flowers of the periwinkle are lavender blue pinwheels. Not able to endure direct sun for long, periwinkle is the plant you will grow over a parapet that sees nothing more than dappled light. As a ground cover, periwinkle is weedy and invasive, but as a pendant plant, it has no equal.
There is a gargantuan white building in Encino on the north side of Ventura Boulevard, between Gloria and Densmore Avenues, where long, multilevel balcony planters are adorned with a green and frizzy plant. This redoubtable species is known as Sprenger asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus “Sprengeri”), a relative of edible asparagus but not edible itself. Its persistence in the garden, owing to its fleshy tubers, is as legendary as its prickliness. It does have a soft look, however, and takes the chill out of the whitewashed facade over which it grows at the Encino location.
One of the most popular recent introductions for somewhat shady balcony or patio pots is bacopa (Sutera). Scads of tiny star-shaped flowers, in white or lavender, tumble unscrupulously over the sides of containers that can barely contain them.
Cascading Japanese Verbenas
For sunny window boxes, there are two types of verbenas, both hybridized in Japan and introduced only a few years ago, that shout to be planted. Temari verbenas produce flowers in large, distinct clusters, while Tapien verbenas flower in dense and intense profusion. Colors range from pink and red to deep violet blue.