Gardeners are a defiant group. If a gardener is eager to grow a certain plant but is told by the experts “you can’t grow that here,” the gardener may persist and plant “that” anyway. And sometimes “that” grows just fine.
Such thoughts were going through my mind when, just the other day, I walked by the corner of Stern Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. To my astonishment, I saw a healthy lady palm growing in a sidewalk planter there. The palm had reached 10 feet in height and was topped with lush foliage. I had always thought of the lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) as a delicate tropical species with little tolerance for the dry summer heat and occasional winter freezes of the Valley. Upon investigation, however, I learned that the lady palm can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it the hardiest of those palms which, in our area, are normally grown indoors.
Visually, the lady palm is distinguishable from other palms by its stiff, upright habit of growth. This is not a tropical island palm with arching fronds swaying in the balmy breeze. But the lady palm still has character. Each frond is charmingly divided into many finger-like segments and trunks are brown and fibrous, even hairy. The lady palm is one of the few palms that resembles bamboo with its clumping growth habit. A mature lady palm may be propagated by division.
The Ventura Boulevard lady palm faces south but is protected from the sun by two deciduous Chinese flame trees (Koelreuteria bipinnata). It still receives excellent ambient light although it can grow in low-light situations, too.
Adjacent to it in the sidewalk planter is a fascinating member of the hibiscus family known as yellow mallow (Pavonia praemorsa). Yellow mallow is not a plant that will knock your socks off with gaudy flowers or shapely, finely cut leaves. But for the experienced plant watcher, it has subtle charm.
Yellow mallow flowers are produced continuously, but you have to pay special attention to appreciate them. When they first emerge as buds, they are apricot in color, but are suddenly a gleaming butter yellow after they open.
As flowers fade, their color changes to a rosy red. Leaves are blunt along the top, as if they are waiting to expand and finish their apical growth, only they never do. Yellow mallow slowly develops into a stout woody shrub, 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
Another palm that normally grows indoors but may be planted outdoors in protected locations is the Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana). This palm is not cold hardy like the lady palm but if you have a breezeway, alcove or courtyard that is not exposed to more than a small portion of the sky, you might risk planting a kentia there. I have seen it grow well in such cloistered locations.
The Kentia palm is recognizable by its huge arching fronds and is often the centerpiece of hotel atriums. At the Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills, a Los Angeles County botanical garden open to the public, there is a large forest of Kentia palms. If you are a palm enthusiast, it is a site you will surely want to visit.
Tip of the week
I was recently introduced to the paddle plant and highly recommend it to any fan of succulents or of just highly pleasing plants in general. The paddle plant (Kalanchoe thrysifolia) has spatulate, chalky blue-gray leaves with blood red margins. Leaves can grow up to six inches in size and are clustered tightly along the stem. You can find the paddle plant at California Nursery Specialties, located on 19420 Saticoy Street, just west of Tampa Avenue in Reseda. The nursery is open to the public on weekends only. Call (818) 894-5694 for more information.
If you acquire succulents now, keep them in their containers and plant them in the ground when weather warms in March or April.
Correction: Last week’s column erroneously identified the forest at the Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills as consisting of kentia palms when, in fact, it comprises the largest collection of king palms (Archontophoenix cunnighamiana) outside of their native Australia. King palms, whose trunks are green in their youth, are noted for luxurious foliage that detaches on its own so that pruning is never required. You can arrange to visit the Robinson Gardens, which are open to the public, by calling (310) 276-5367.