Goodbye Stocks, Hello Exotics

necklace vine (Crassula perforata)

peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum)

prostrate elephant’s food

Dyckia remotiflora

swizzle sticks (Senecio anteuphorbia)


If you visit Worldwide Exotics Nursery in Lakeview Terrace, I promise that you will encounter numerous plants that you have never seen before and will probably never see again, unless you take them home to plant in your garden. 

Shelly Jennings, the nursery’s proprietor, was a stockbroker 25 years ago.  “When I left the stock market, the Dow was at 2,600 and today it’s over 18,000,” she informed me.  “But money is not the most important thing.  Being a part of nature is.  Besides, growing these plants is something I just have to do.” 
“You mean, this is your calling?” I suggested, to which she approvingly nodded in reply.  It’s a variation on the theme heard from those fortunate enough to make an avocation into a vocation.  “I didn’t choose horticulture,” Jennings could have been saying.  “Horticulture chose me.” 
In Jennings’ case, it was her next door neighbor, Gary Hammer, the nursery’s founder, who placed exotic plants in her path. Hammer traveled the globe in search of unusual species that could be introduced into Los Angeles gardens.  Hundreds of succulents, flowering woody perennials, ground covers, and ornamental grasses that we take for granted as garden choices would not be available were it not for Hammer’s efforts.  
Often, when Hammer would return from one of his expeditions, he would hand over specimens to Jennings and tell her to plant them in her garden.  A year later he would ask about their progress.  Jennings, who was still a stockbroker at the time and barely gave her garden a second thought, would report on the plants’ progress.  Those that thrived with little care were propagated and became staples in Hammer’s nursery.
To say Jennings is knowledgeable about the plants in her nursery would be a gross understatement.  She provides detailed information about their origins as well as how to care for each of them.  If you do not have a garden but must make do with a condominium patio or an apartment balcony, you can still have a vibrant garden since many of Jennings’ selections perform quite well when confined in containers.  She is also a garden designer and will give instructions as to which plants go well with one another.
At Worldwide Exotics, two pelargoniums, a group closely related to geraniums, caught my eye.  The first was Pelargonium sidoides, whose gray foliage is perfectly complemented by spidery, yet glowing, burgundy flowers.  The second was Pelargonium tomentosum, whose leaves are more redolent of pungent peppermint than the leaves of true peppermint (Mentha x piperita) itself. 
In the succulent category, I was mesmerized by swizzle sticks (Senecio anteuphorbium), an unusual combination of cactus like spires with rudimentary, yet charming, leaves attached, developing into a robust 3-5 foot shrub.  Copper spoons (Kalanchoe orgyalis) are equally hypnotic, with foliage covered by cinnamon felt, growing eventually into a highly symmetrical six foot tree.  Crassula perforata is a plant with stacked, square foliage that may remind you of an abacus.  It is known variously as necklace vine, string of beads, and pagoda plant and is a whimsical creature that grows up to eighteen inches tall but is probably best planted in a pot from which its foliar chains can cascade without conscience.  Where it gets good light, its leaf edges are etched in red. 
A last but not least succulent worthy of discussion is prostrate elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Prostrata’).  Up till now, I had only seen elephant’s food in an upright form and was delighted to learn that this version of it hugs the ground. Its delicate appearing, yet water retentive leaves, are only one half inch long and cling to wine red stems.
Dyckia remotiflora is another wine red subject.  In this case, all you see are claret colored leaves.  The biggest challenge with this plant is getting it in the ground due to the formidable shark’s teeth along its leaf margins.  Once planted, however, you will probably never need to water it.  Mature dyckias are burgeoning masses of star shaped rosettes that may be divided, as long as you are wearing chain mail gloves, into a large garden plot’s worth of individual subjects.
The nursery is located at 11157 Orcas Avenue, open to the public on Saturdays between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.  The rest of the week, you can make an appointment with Jennings to consult with her, at the nursery or on your own property, for a fee of $100 per hour, which will be waived should you purchase plants of equal value.  I should point out that her prices are quite reasonable.  Most one gallon plants are $6 or $8 dollars and most five gallon plants are $15.
Tip of the Week:  For the time being, and for two reasons, Jennings advises against planting agaves in the garden.  The first reason is our continuing drought.  When plants are under stress, they flower prematurely.  This is an issue with agaves since once they flower they die.  Jennings noticed that old and young agaves alike flowered this summer (and died), presumably due to drought stress.  Another reason to refrain from planting agaves in the garden is on account of the spread of a pestiferous beetle known as agave snout weevil.  This weevil pierces the rosette or innermost leaves of agaves with its elongated snout.   The weevil’s injected saliva contains bacteria that liquefy the agave core which is then feasted upon by weevil grubs, causing the entire plant to collapse.  It is thought that keeping agaves in containers may protect them from snout weevils, whose larvae will only pupate in garden soil but not in container mix.  If you still want to plant agaves in the ground, you should select narrowleaf agave (Agave angustifolia) since it has demonstrated remarkable resistance to the snout weevil.

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