Hedging your bets for low-maintenance foilage

27-wintercassiaIf you are pondering low-maintenance hedge possibilities, think about lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) before making your final decision.

Lemonade berry has undulating, leathery sea green foliage and dense clusters of pink and white flowers followed by utilitarian fruit. To be precise, the fruit should not be eaten whole but can be masticated or sucked for its juice, after which its pulp should be discarded.

Soaking the fruit in cold water also makes a tart and refreshing summer drink. In fact, all plant parts are edible and/or medicinal, as attested to by the many Native American tribes who relied on it for a variety of uses. The only caveat is to experiment with this plant in small quantities for its edible and curative properties since some people experience allergic reactions to it.

Lemonade berry is in the sumac family, with cousins such as poison ivy, poison oak, cashew, pistachio, mango and pepper tree (Schinus species), all of which are distinguished by turpentine-scented sap. Although it can grow to a height of 10 feet, with an equal or greater girth, lemonade berry may be kept to half that size with occasional pruning. Some people have a dermatitic reaction to contact with lemonade berry sap so, to be safe, wear gloves while pruning it.

Lemonade berry is a California native that is suitable as either a formal or informal hedge. It is also appropriate for espalier training against fences or walls.

Foliage over flowers

At this time of year, when flowers and fruit are gone from most plants, your focus may turn to foliage. Two soft-leaved agaves are relaxing to gaze upon throughout the year and difficult to resist touching due to their tactile friendliness. One is pale green and the other is gray-blue to blue-green, depending on light exposure.

The green species is known as foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) on account of its arching, attenuated and fluffy inflorescence. The development of this unparalleled appendage signals the death of the plant as all agaves die after they flower. However, a foxtail agave mother plant will produce abundant clonal offspring known as pups around her base, so that the next generation is well on its way before she dies.

Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), so named on account of its tentacled foliage, is a darker-leaved companion to foxtail agave. Octopus agave, although it does not form pups, may be propagated from the dozens of small plants formed on its flower stalk prior to its death. Both of these agaves require moderate water and, in the Valley, perform best when exposed to half of the day’s sun.

I never cease to marvel at the foliage of woody leguminous plants. The foliage of leguminous shrubs and trees — including carob, mesquite, wattle, Acacia, Albizia, Senna and Cassia species — is invariably pinnate or bipinnate, meaning that leaflets are arranged like silky feathers in a bird’s plumage. Pinnate foliage is a soothing and welcome sight for sore eyes. More often than not, the foliage of leguminous trees is made for contemplation and meditation; it is finely and symmetrically patterned, a visual antidote to anxiety and stress. Not long ago, at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes Estates, I was privileged to lay eyes on winter cassia (Cassia bicapsularis), a rangy shrub with sunshine yellow flowers, growing next to the dainty leaved and elliptically podded African wattle (Peltophorum africanum).

Exposition Park roses

The other day while at the Exposition Park rose garden — located downtown between the California Science Center and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — I was amazed at the sight of a shrub rose full of flowers, a most unusual sight this time of year. Upon closer examination of the blooms, I was even more amazed since, lo and behold, the vermillion roses there were in the shape of a Star of David. I also took note of ‘Day Dream,’ a lemon-peach blend. The Exposition Park rose garden has 200 varieties of roses and is open to the public at no charge. However, it is closed from Jan. 1 until March 15, for annual pruning.

Tip of the week

Major annual rose pruning is best conducted after Jan. 1. The reason for this is that major pruning conducted prior to this date, followed by a warm spell, could force out tender new growth that might be killed in a subsequent frost. To prevent emergence of foliar growth, even at this time of year, remove all leaves from your rose bushes after they are cut back. Removing all leaves will coax the plants into dormancy, a necessary physiological resting period, during which time metabolites are mobilized for next year’s growth.

The more you cut back, the larger each spring rose, but the smaller your total crop of spring roses, will be. You can cut back to a minimum height of 18 inches or keep your bushes as tall as three feet after pruning. Leaving the bushes taller will result in abundant spring blooms, even if their size is smaller than flowers on more radically pruned bushes.

Upon completion of pruning, your rose bush should be vase-shaped so that, during the growing season, light and air will freely circulate within the plant, minimizing fungus problems. Always cut just above a node, where leaf and bud meet stem. Observe which way buds are directed since that is the direction they will grow. You always want to cut above buds that point outwards in order to direct growth away from the center of the bush since inward growth is more susceptible to disease problems. Just before bud break, mixing one half cup of Epsom salts into the soil around the base of each rose bush is recommended.

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