Elephant’s Foot, Lisianthus, and 100 year old Lilies

Lauren Zeldin’s elephant’s foot in bloom

flowering elephant’s foot, corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevards


crinum lilies, close to 100 years old

‘Zutano’ avocadoes

Loren Zeldin calls me and says I must come by right away and take a look at his elephant’s foot. No, Zeldin does not work for a zoo or a circus, and he does not have an ailing elephant. He has not mistaken me for a veterinarian or dialed the wrong number.
Zeldin, the dean of West Valley gardeners, is simply sharing his passion for an arborescent phenomenon that bears the moniker of a pachyderm’s appendage on account of the bloatedness of the base of its trunk – as in tree, not elephant’s, trunk.
Zeldin, who has lived in the same house in Reseda all his life, has called to justifiably crow about a forty year old elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata) specimen that is in the midst of its glitzy annual flower display, a fireworks show in white. Two score years ago, a gardener gifted Zeldin with a baby elephant’s foot in a 4 inch pot and today it is a serious tree, having reached its mature height of around 15 feet. If you plant an elephant’s foot, you won’t see it flower for years, yet unlike in the case of the Agave genus, to which elephant’s foot is closely related, death does not follow flowering. Elephant’s foot, in fact, in its dry forest Mexican habitat, can live for several hundred years. Its swollen foot is designed to store water in the event of drought, yet the more you water elephant’s foot, the more swollen its lower extremity becomes.
Although of arid zone origins, elephant’s foot, also known as pony tail palm, thrives in the tropics as well. It can grow anywhere, as long as temperatures stay above 25 degrees Fahrenheit and its soil is fast-draining. This means that it is horticulturally apolitical and will grow happily in both conservatively and liberally watered gardens. It prefers full sun but can handle some shade, too. Grow it indoors next to a south facing window.

Zeldin is not influenced by gardening trends.  He plants what appeals to him.  For example, he is growing Lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum), a florist’s specialty that,although native to Texas, is seldom encountered in California gardens. Its flowers rival roses in their beauty and are similarly used in vase arrangements. Lisianthus, although a perennial, is often grown as an annual but it will self-sow when soil drainage and pH, which must be on the acid side, are perfect. It is somewhat thirsty and appreciates protection from hot sun. Zeldin has tried to grow Lisianthus several times without much success but that does not stop him from trying again.

Four o’clocks, in the opinion of many, are not much better than weeds and might even be worse since they defy eradication on account of their tubers and prolific self-sowing. While some people object to the invasive presence of four o’clocks, Zeldin delights in it. Myriad four o’clocks grow amongst his roses and flower with reckless abandon this time of year. Four o’clocks (Jalapa mirabilis) are so named because their flowers open in late afternoon or toward evening, as the day cools. Yet this time of year, in Zeldin’s garden, they do not open until much after four o’clock, at around 8 p.m., closing the next morning at around 10 o’clock or even later on overcast mornings. The flowers are noticeably fragrant and their scent is attractive to moths which serve as their pollinators. Because they hybridize and self-sow with alacrity, Zeldin has many four o’clock blooms which are combination of colors. In spring, when roses are most susceptible to mildew and rust, he keeps his four o’clocks cut back. At that time of year, allowing them to grow to their full height and restrict air movement around his roses would encourage growth of fungus diseases. However, once the heat of summer prevails and mildew and rust are not an issue for his roses, he lets his four o’clocks have their way. I can’t help thinking that the unusually smoggy air in Los Angeles this summer may have also contributed to less plant fungus than usual since sulphur, a constituent element of smog, is a powerful fungus antagonist.
Although Zeldin thinks California natives are generally boring, that has not prevented him from featuring two of them in his garden, a consequence of his extreme fondness for flowering maples, otherwise known as abutilons. Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri) has soft, silvery foliage with apricot flowers that are nearly always in bloom. Desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) has similar features, although it may flower in pink, red, or white as well. Zeldin was frustrated because most of his plants are not natives and, in applying regular water, he would kill the neighboring desert mallow. He solved this problem by keeping the mallow in his garden, but confining it to a large container. Although its roots have grown through the container into the ground, the plant has stayed healthy for many years because of the drier conditions, inside the container, where the bulk of its roots are found.
Most of Zeldin’s plants come with a story, and the one concerning his Crinum lilies bears repeating, if only as a testimonial to the durability of this species. In the late 1960’s, when the land that was to become the mall known as Northridge Fashion Center was being prepared, there was an old house that needed to be taken down. Zeldin made acquaintance with the owner who informed him that the patch of Crinum lilies on his property had been there since the 1920’s. On the day when the bulldozer came to plow up the garden, Zeldin was given a half hour by the bulldozer operator to evacuate the plants. Those crinum lilies were transported and transplanted into Zeldin’s garden where they found a happy home that they have eminently hospitable ever since.
Tip of the Week: Zeldin planted a green avocado variety known as ‘Zutano’ a number of years ago but did not see any fruit until his neighbor planted the black ‘Hass’ variety. Avocado trees are not completely self-sterile, as opposed to certain fruit trees, and they may produce some fruit when planted individually. However, the presence of another compatible avocado variety in the proximity of your own will increase the number of fruit produced on both trees. ‘Fuerte,’ the most commonly grown green variety, is also compatible with ‘Hass.’
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