It sleeps, its creeps, it leaps

creeping fig (Ficus pumila)

creeping fig (Ficus pumila)

Q. We planted creeping fig along our back fence in May and it’s done absolutely nothing all summer – it looks exactly the same as the day we planted it. I thought it was a fairly quick-growing plant, no? Should we give up on it?
-Erin Newman, Simi Valley
A. Of creeping fig and similarly aggressive ground covers and vines, it has been said: “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.” You have no reason to doubt that your creeping fig (Ficus pumila) will eventually perform as advertised. In fact, it may do so all too well.
I must confess to holding a grudge against creeping fig, having had to maintain it in certain impossible situations, such as when it has to be constantly trimmed to keep it from covering windows or when it grows into cracks and crevices in walls, causing all sorts of damage. Creeping fig adheres to paint and stucco so it is a given that, sooner than later, your creeping fig fences and walls will need resurfacing.
The best use of creeping fig is to cover and soften plain, cinder block or concrete walls. Plant at the base of partially shaded walls. Some gardeners, while planting, bend their creeping fig plants so that they are prostrate upon the ground, since roots will grow wherever stems touch the earth and, in this way, plants will establish more quickly.
Actually, creeping fig is delicate when it is planted and needs regular moisture to stay hydrated. Eventually, though, once roots are established, it is water thrifty.
Creeping fig roots can be highly invasive, cracking and lifting up patios and foundations. Root diameter can reach four inches and creeping fig will eventually cover shaded, adjoining lawn.
Provided with a root barrier, it actually makes an exotic lawn alternative for shady areas where grass won’t grow. Creeping fig is also a favorite plant for topiary as it obediently grows over wire-framed shapes of all kinds. Although native to tropical East Asia, it survives temperatures down to 20 degrees or colder.
As long as it remains in a juvenile state, creeping fig shows off small, oval to heart-shaped foliage. If planted against a wall, all growth will initially be vertical. However, when creeping fig matures from juvenile to adult after several years of growth, it sends out horizontal branches. Upon these branches, dainty, clinging leaves give way to considerably larger, floppy adult leaves, which are accompanied by plum-sized fruit. Although this fruit resembles edible figs, it is not fit for consumption, even while its juice is made into jelly in Taiwan and Singapore. A vining hybrid between creeping fig and conventional tree fig, however, has yielded a vine with comestible fruit. To prevent creeping fig from transitioning to its adult stage, snip off all horizontal growth.
While the transition of creeping fig from juvenile to adult is marked by a change from vertical to horizontal growth, the opposite process is at work with ivy, the most widely planted ground cover. When ivy is in its juvenile stage, it wants to grow horizontally, even while it will veer skyward when given vertical support. Upon reaching adulthood, however, ivy stems shoot straight up, creating shrubs and even small trees where once there was a flat expanse of ground cover. Adult ivy foliage loses its sharp edges and triangularity as leaves become ovate and there is proliferation of chartreuse flower spindles.
Creeping fig and ivy share at least one regrettable trait: They love to clamber up tree trunks.
On a number of occasions, I have seen ivy suffocate and kill a tree. This usually happens in a side yard or toward the rear of a property where a small ornamental tree, such as a flowering pear, is neglected and, after a few years, completely engulfed by ivy.
Rare palms sighted
Two palm trees that are not often seen are worth consideration in select microclimates where topography is sloping and humidity is higher than what you would expect in our area. The trees in question are fishtail palm, with fronds composed of fishtail shaped leaflets (Caryota mitis), and triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi), named for their three-sided trunks. I noticed these palms growing on Beverly Glen Boulevard and on Roscomare Road, transitional zones between the Valley and West Los Angeles, just south of Mulholland Drive. It is worth noting that these byways are protected on both sides by hilly terrain, so warmth on cold nights and humidity on hot days is somewhat conserved.
Tip of the week
Epidendrum orchids are among the longest blooming plants. They do well in nearly any type of soil but prefer it to be fast draining. They respond well to fertilizer and seem to be in flower, to one degree or another, in every season. They thrive in container confinement, whether perched on fence pedestals or displayed on patios or balconies. There are more than 1,000 Epidendrum species and you will see them in pink, purple, red, yellow and orange. Reed stem Epidendrums, the tallest types, are favored for flower bed and container plantings. Another excellent container candidate that blooms at this time of year is montbretia (Crocosmia hybrid). This corm (similar to bulb) forming plant from South Africa flowers in yellow, orange or red. There are many types, ranging in size from 2 feet tall with slender leaves and delicate flowers to 5 feet tall with strappy foliage and highly ostentatious floral displays. Montbretia is cold hardy, its corms withstanding freezes. Both Epidendrum and montbretia are clumping plants that may be divided and spread throughout the garden.

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