From Gold Medallions to Angel Trumpets

Over time, shrubs and trees that bloom every year, but only briefly, are increasingly welcome, much like old friends, each time they flower.
Your appreciation of them grows from year to year as you learn more about them and want to study them up close. You conduct research on their names, their origins, and their culinary, medicinal, household, textile, olfactory or other utilitarian purposes.
I have yet to encounter any tree or shrub or flower or weed that has not been put to some practical use at some time in history. The field of economic botany, which delves into the practical uses of plants, is broad in scope and continually expanding.
There is every reason to believe that — with more than 250,000 botanical species worldwide — the cures to most, if not all human diseases, lie hidden within plants. It’s simply a matter of extracting and isolating those biochemical compounds that contain the healing properties we seek.
More often than not, the practical uses of any plant may be traced back to the people who originally lived in that plant’s vicinity.
The annual July display of brilliant yellow — a kind of sunny shock and awe —provided by the gold medallion trees in my neighborhood got me thinking about the historical uses of plants.
The botanical name for gold medallion tree is Cassia leptophylla. Upon investigation, I learned that Cassia is derived from ke’tzia, one of the 11 spices used in the incense mixture that, in ancient times, was burned twice a day in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to most opinions, ke’tzia had a cinnamon fragrance. It contributed to a perfumed mixture so purifying that it banished negative thoughts from all who inhaled its fragrance.
Another eponymous reference concerns Job, the long-suffering biblical figure, who had a beautiful daughter named ke’tzia.
Cassia leptophylla, unfortunately, does not have flowers, leaves or bark with a distinctive fragrance. But its wood, while not for heavy-duty use, is suitable for making boxes, as well as for crafting toy boats and dollhouses.
Because of its drought tolerance, this Cassia is used for reforestation of natural landscapes in arid zones that have been destroyed by fire or rendered barren due to overgrazing by animal herds.
At the corner of Whitsett and Addison avenues in Valley Village, I was recently privileged to watch the free annual show of angel trumpets (Brugmansia sp.).
If you go to that location today, you may only see one or two flowers still in bloom since, as spectacular as they appear, the duration of their full bloom period is short. However, individual flowers will continue opening up until fall. Be aware that angel trumpets are toxic.
Recently, I saw two vines blooming gloriously that I wanted to bring to your attention.
One is bower vine (Pandorea jasminoides ‘Rosea’). In our region, this vigorous grower performs best in half-day sun. Full sun will burn its foliage. Flowers are white trumpets with red throats.
Chilean jasmine (Mandevilla laxiflora) will accept two-thirds of the day’s sun or less and, from all accounts, is a hardy vine that deserves wider use since it survives a freeze without problems and can sustain cold temperatures down to 5 degrees.
I mentioned in a previous column that all cactus species are native to the Americas, only to be corrected by John Matthews, who informed me that there is one cactus species which, in addition to a Central and South American habitat, also finds its home in Africa and Sri Lanka. That cactus is a mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera).
Mistletoe cactuses are epiphytic, which means they grow on or hang from trees. Like epiphytes generally, they make excellent subjects for hanging baskets. Mistletoe or Rhipsalis cactuses are easily identifiable since they typically appear as masses of long, pendant string beans.
Matthews advised me that the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society, which sponsored the recent Drought Tolerant Plant Festival at the Sepulveda Garden Center, meets the first Thursday of each month at the same location, 16633 Magnolia Blvd., Encino. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. but the plant sales begin at 6 p.m. Find out more at the society’s website,
As a result of mentioning bromeliads, I was contacted by George Allaria, a member of the South Bay Bromeliad Association, regarding the association’s annual show and sale, which will take place next month at Rain Forest Flora, 19121 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance. Show hours are noon-4:30 p.m. Aug. 2 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 3. Parking and admission are free.
Allaria pointed out that in this column two weeks ago, South Africa was erroneously named as the habitat of bromeliads, whereas their actual habitat includes North, Central and South America, with most species indigenous to South America.
Their preferred ecosystem is a tropical rain forest, where they grow as epiphytes, in tree canopies.
Many bromeliad species, despite their wildly exotic looks, are among the most drought-tolerant plants you can find and, with proper soil amendments in place, make colorful additions to any sort of garden of water-thrifty species.

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