Irises, Lemon Fragrances, and Strawberry Trees

“The sages taught: whenever you see a beautiful tree (or animal, or human being), you should bless God for having created it.”
This instruction was recorded nearly 2000 years ago in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot, 52b), a text that was compiled in Sura, a city that still exists today in southern Iraq.
Such a blessing seems fitting – many times over – as winter turns to spring and long-dormant trees of every description, both deciduous and evergreen, begin to bloom.
It is said that poets are people who are forever looking at the world with new eyes, that each time they see something, no matter how familiar, it is as though they had never seen it before.
This poetic tendency is found among plant lovers in general, and within the souls of gardeners in particular.

Pacific Coast Iris (Iris douglasiana)

No matter how many times you may have observed irises when they first begin to bloom, for example, you cannot contain your excitement when encountering them anew.  They are as opulent as orchids, require zero maintenance in the garden, yet reliably burst into silky bloom each year between late winter and early spring.

If this was not enough of an attraction, irises multiply vegetatively by rhizomes and are easily divided and dispersed throughout the garden in full to partial sun exposures.  Looking for a gift for a friend who has everything?  Dig up some of your iris rhizomes and transplant them into your friend’s garden or into their patio/balcony flower pots.
Typically, a plant achieves fame on account of its flowers.  But some ornamental plants have non-descript flowers and are regaled instead for their foliage, their decorative fruit, their bark, or their fragrance.

lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla)

The leaves of lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) have a stronger lemon scent than those of any plant, yet this species could easily be missed during a garden stroll.  Its growth habit is haphazard and its form is devoid of symmetry.  Leaves are pale green and sprays of white flowers are unremarkable.  Moreover, lemon verbena gives no hint of its potent fragrance since its leaves emit their mellifluous scent only after being crushed, torn, or bruised, and then brought right up close to your nostrils.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.) is even more of a conundrum since its appearance is positively weedy, growing as a tall, clumping grass.  Yet it is highly desirable for flavoring dishes of every description, and is a widely used condiment in Asian cuisine.  Lemongrass is also used as an insect repellent in both ornamental and vegetable gardens.  But if you have lemongrass in your garden and just want to enjoy its scent . . . here, also, the leaves must be crushed in order to emit their fragrance.
It is ironic, you might think, that these lemony plants are not only devoid of visual interest, but that their outstanding aromatic quality should be hidden, too.  But then hiddenness might be related to holiness since the sense of smell was the only one of the five senses not corrupted in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit was attractive to the eye and pleasant to touch.  The voice of the serpent, downplaying the prohibition of consuming this dangerous fruit, had an appealing sound, and the taste of the fruit was sweet.
Only smell will forever remain beyond corruption since, according to Bnei Yissachar, it is sensed by the same nostrils through which God blew into Adam the holy breath of life.
Getting back to plants recognized for their physical beauty, occasionally you come across a trifecta or a species with three simultaneously noteworthy aesthetic attributes. This time of year, I am always mesmerized by Arbutus trees, known commonly as madrones or strawberry trees.  Their flowers are tiny upturned urns, white or cream or pink in color, leaves are lush and pendant, and bark exfoliates to a smooth, dark cinnamon bronze.  There is even a fourth quality on display, especially in Arbutus andrachne, as the tree’s form is symmetrically fountainesque, a result of multiple trunks emanating from a single point.  Later, orange to red fruit will adorn the trees.  The fruit is edible but rather bland and, fittingly, there is a common strawberry tree species that goes by the Latin name of Arbutus unedo.  Unedo means “I eat one” and refers to the fruit which, despite its appealing look, is barely palatable and you will be deterred from eating more than one.

Marina’s strawberry tree (Arbutus marina)

Marina’s strawberry tree (Arbutus marina) is an increasingly planted hybrid, one of whose parents is Arbutus unedo. Marina’s popularity stems from its pink flowers, large and lush foliage, as well as a relatively rapid growth rate to a mature height of 40 feet.

Sometimes it is the combination of colors or characteristics among a grouping of plants that invokes a feeling of awe.  Not long ago, I saw a yellow daffodil, a burgundy cyclamen with heart-shaped foliage adorned with white markings, a trailing mauve bacopa, and a silvery dusty miller sharing garden space in close proximity one another.  Each color benefited from those around it, each serving to highlight the others.
About a month ago, I encountered a red and purple spectacle involving the uncontrolled eruption of Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus drummondii) alongside that of coral pea or lilac vine (Hardenbergia violacea).  I am sure that whoever planted these two together had no idea that they would one day look like they do now, a gleeful pandemonium of red and purple.
And then, in a planter box, I noticed a pink geranium with the deepest green, nearly black foliage, touching the lacy light green leaves of some anemones, whose bulbs had been planted in the fall.  Even without their flowers, which should be opening shortly, the finely cut, parsley green anemone foliage is a perfect contrast to the dark lobed geranium leaves.
Last but not least, in an indoor planter, I witnessed a brilliant juxtasposition of two species which, generally grown indoors, will thrive in an outdoor environment such as that provided from Camarillo west to the ocean.  The planter featured a collection of mother-in-law’s-tongues (Sansevieria laurentii), which are conglomerations of sword shaped leaves thinly outlined along their edges in yellow, interplanted with yellow guzmania bromeliads, the combination providing a keen horticultural study in green and yellow.
Tip of the Week:  If you want an indoor plant whose inflorescences display their color non-stop, consider Anthurium.  This indestructible beauty consists of large lush leaves and spathes, or modified leaves, that are heart-shaped and look and feel like plastic.  Each spathe,which may be white, pink, or red encircles a spadix, a yellow or flesh-colored flower spike.  The actual flowers appear as tiny bumps up and down the length of the spadix.

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