If you have lived in the same neighborhood for nearly three decades, as I have done, and if you are an obsessive plant watcher, as I have been, you will have witnessed a fair share of horticultural fashions come and go. Typically, the fashion is over when the plants involved either die or become so unattractive that they are pulled out.
Here is a fashion that appears to be in rapid decline: New Zealand flax mixed with ornamental grasses or sedges. On both counts, this horticultural garb has proven ill-suited to our gardens. Given too much sun, New Zealand flax (Phormium species) and ornamental grasses and sedges, after two or three years, look tired and pale. Given too much shade, they weaken from insect infestation or disease. Then it’s just a matter of time until you decide to remove them.
In the San Fernando Valley, at least, it transpires that planting New Zealand flax, surprisingly enough, is a much worse bet than planting azaleas. Azaleas often become chlorotic and die not long after planting due to alkaline soil, the dominant soil type in our area, which is hospitable to the Phytophthora water mold fungus that is lethal to azaleas. Yet, while I have seen many azaleas persist for 20 years or longer in the garden, I have yet to encounter New Zealand flax or ornamental grasses that lasted in a reasonably attractive state for even one decade, and frequently not even for half that time.
If you crave the fountainesque growth habit that flax exhibits and don’t wish to settle for thorny agaves, grow lightly spined, soft-leaved agaves such as ‘Blue Glow,’ soft-leaved yucca (Yucca recurvifolia) or the increasingly popular — for half-day Valley sun — Mauritius hemp (Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’) instead.
I was reminded of the flax and ornamental grass debacle upon passing a Van Nuys Boulevard median planting that is located just south of Burbank Boulevard. I remember some years ago when New Zealand flax was planted in the center of that median strip, flanked by blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca) on either side. I was eager to jump on the flax and blue fescue bandwagon at that time and praised the choice of drought-tolerant plants. The problem is that neither flax nor blue fescue can abide direct Valley sun, especially when combined with radiant heat emanating from the surrounding asphalt.
After a few years, the flax and blue fescue were removed and replaced with dwarf heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Compacta’), red ‘Flower Carpet’ roses and variegated winter creeper (Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n Gold). This second planting is far more successful than the first, even though none of the plants appear on anyone’s list of drought-tolerant species. Yet nearly all woody shrubs and roses, including these, when irrigated with bronze Netafim drip tubing, do not require copious amounts of water to thrive. Such relatively water-thrifty shrubs routinely outlive highly vaunted species from drought-tolerant plant lists. On a personal note, I have a heavenly bamboo specimen growing next to my front door, ever fresh and vibrant, that has been thriving for 30 years and is watered sparingly, if at all.
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t find long-flowering plants to grow. And sometimes it’s the familiar choices that take your breath away. Take sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Everyone has seen this easily germinated, fragrant annual flower. You can scatter alyssum seeds upon the soil surface at any time and watch them sprout. You can also acquire sweet alyssum plants from the nursery in six-packs or 4-inch pots. If you place them in a hanging basket, they will produce a fountain of white in due course. Keep in mind that rose and purple sweet alyssum cultivars are much weaker and shorter-lived than the classic white.
Spanish lavender, which is native to North Africa, has flower petals that are distinctively purplish, sprouting from black caterpillar-shaped structures. The color of Spanish lavender petals is easily distinguished from blue English lavender and mauve French lavender flowers. All three lavenders, though, have the same unmistakably musky, yet cleansing, fragrance.
Anise-scented sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’) has black calyces from which blue to lavender purple flowers are attached all summer long. Flower petals are shaped like a lobster’s claw and unusual crinkly leaves release a licorice aroma when rubbed.
Nemesias and Linarias are garden treats most familiarly seen in pink, white and lavender that are well-suited to a sunny winter garden. It seems that new African bush daisies are being hybridized each year as ‘3D Silver,’ a recently introduced Osteospermum ecklonis cultivar, proclaims.
The flowers of lucky nut (Thevetia thevetiana) provide an embarrassment of golden yellow riches. The name lucky nut carries a strong dose of irony since this is one of the world’s most poisonous plants. It grows happily in a sunny garden spot even if it is frost sensitive.
Speaking of yellow, two species of Jerusalem sage grow well when planted side by side. The larger species, Phlomis fruticosa, grows to a height of 4 feet, while its counterpart, Phlomis lanata, reaches no more than 2 feet tall, with smaller leaves and flowers, and is content to grow as an understudy to its taller cousin.