Geoff Stein, Humble Plant Lover

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

Geoff Stein is the classic example of a plant lover, only moreso.
When you interview him, you quickly realize that his mission in life is to instruct the world about plants, but that he seeks no personal glory in doing so.
Stein simply loves his botanical treasures – and wants to share his passion for them.
He admits to being passionately obsessed and has personally snapped more than 2 million plant pictures, which coexist precariously on his perpetually upgraded hard drive.
Stein appears to have no ego. He never talks about himself, unless prompted to do so. He’s not selling anything.
But he will talk to you about his plants for as long as you care to listen. And he has plenty to say, albeit with the self-deprecation of someone who is well aware that learning about plants is a lifetime process.
He openly admits to his garden failures and to his frustration at having insufficient light in some areas, a consequence of growing a plethora of plants together, which makes it difficult for many of his prized succulents to thrive.
On his 6,000-square-foot lot in Tarzana he nurtures 2,800 different species, situated cheek by jowl, a sort of botanical Noah’s ark.
I learned about Stein through his writings on www.davesgarden.com. This is far and away the best gardening and plant website and I urge you to pay a visit. It is distinguished by a singular feature: the ability of anyone to easily upload pictures of garden plants, pests and wildlife for the purpose of their identification and study.
Stein has written many scholarly articles for Dave’s Garden, which are posted under palmbob, his Internet nom de plume.
In addition to being a plant maven, Stein is both artist and humorist, having contributed breathtaking artistic renderings of succulents and palms as well as sidesplitting horticultural cartoons to the Dave’s Garden website.
Stein’s front yard is dominated by seldom seen silvery palms and a variety of curious trees.
His Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis) are stunningly displayed. These sun-loving palms are a very pale powder blue, almost silver in color. While popular in Florida, they are strangely absent from California landscapes but will certainly become more widely used here as gardeners get to know them.
A Bismarck palm grows up to 100 feet tall in its native Madagascar, while reaching 30 feet in height under cultivated conditions. If you plant one, give it lots of room as individual fronds may reach 10 feet in length.
Stein’s blue Mediterranean fan palms ( humilis var. argentea/cerifera) make a huge impression. After seeing nothing but the ordinary green version of this highly drought-tolerant palm, it is a pleasant surprise to see it in another color. Native to an elevation of 5,000 feet in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, blue Mediterranean fan palm is even tougher than its more familiar green cousin.
Regarding this blue palm, Stein cautions:
“This plant seems to be more sensitive to overhead watering than a normal Chamaerops, though even those can rot from being watered overhead. So be careful if you are depending on a lawn sprinkler or other sprinkler system to keep this plant watered. Water from below: drip, or hose, or ground level emitter.”
Other front yard trees include cockspur coral (Erythrina crista-galli), which may bloom at any time of the year; and the critically endangered Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), discovered in 1994 in Australia, with only 40 trees still alive. It is the most prehistoric evergreen tree and is an elegant specimen, especially when young, with a unique manner of forming cones on branch tips once it matures.
In Stein’s back yard, I made the acquaintance of candle cactus (Pilosocereus lanuginosus). It matches up well with the blue palm trees in front because of its similar color and drought tolerance. Candle cactus is distinguished by tufts of white hair that sprout all along its columns.
Not far away, I was fascinated by what looked from a distance like fat carrots glued one on top of the other. Getting closer, this container-bound specimen looked more like a collection of pine cones. I learned that it’s a cactus known as spruce cone cholla (Tephrocactus articulatus). While appearing smooth-skinned, it is barbed and should be handled from below.
Speaking of barbs, I was captivated by Parry’s agave (Agave parryi), a gorgeous, smooth, blue-gray succulent sculpture tipped with jet-black spines.
‘Blue Glow’ agave, with its thin lines of yellow and red along the margins of blue leaves, is the perfect plant for softening an entryway. It is the ultimate specimen for a terra cotta pot situated next to a sunny front door, although Stein’s variegated foxtail agave (Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’) could serve a similar purpose.
While on the subject of containers, Stein recommended growing plants that you wish to containerize in the ground. Plants grow more quickly in the ground than in pots. Once they reach the appropriate size, you can dig them up and place them in the containers of your choice.
I could not take my eyes off of what looked like a sea anemone but, in fact, was a plant known as tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). The form of its red flower towers will remind you of the more familiar purple pride of Madeira (Echium candidum).
Although Stein’s plant has not yet flowered, its soft and tentacled vegetative growth is highly ornamental in its own right.
Stein is especially proud of his tree aloes, of which he has a large collection. I had always thought tree aloes were too cold-sensitive to grow in the Valley but he assured me that many tree aloe species, which can reach a height of 20 feet or more, will grow here just fine. I was also impressed by two architectonic, linear-leafed yuccas (Yucca linearifolia and Yucca rostrata).
For ease of propagation, Stein recommended his African milk bush (Synadenium grantii ‘Rubrum’). A member of the euphorbia family, it has caustic sap but may be reproduced by detaching stem pieces with a few leaves and inserting them into average garden soil.
Many of Stein’s plants were procured at Sperling’s Nursery in Calabasas. In his opinion, Sperling’s has the best local selection of palms and succulents, which he says are offered at reasonable prices as well.
– rare palms, cycads and succulents Chamaerops
Tip of the week
Don’t think for a moment that those chrysanthemums you see in 4-inch pots and 1-gallon containers at the nursery are annuals. Although grouped with sun-loving autumn annuals such as snapdragons, pansies and Iceland poppies, chrysanthemums will live for several years or more as fall blooming perennials. Just the other day, I saw several chrysanthemum specimens, several feet tall, in bronze, yellow and mauve. Each plant consisted of more than a dozen flowering stems tied together. The one caveat to growing chysanthemums as perennials is that they tend to flop over unless tied or staked to an upright position. After flowering is over, they should be cut back considerably to assume a bushier stature for the following year’s growth.

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