Late Bloomers

It’s the end of a brutal summer and you would think that every plant would be all bloomed out or unable to flower, even if now is its usual time to do so.


But that thought would be incorrect. Some plants inexplicably come into their own just as summer wanes and fall arrives.


You wonder how one of these plants could be allowed to be so beautiful. You gaze at it and think, no, it just can’t be true that this exquisite little thing, known as a tuberous begonia, with multilayered miniature roses for flowers, can be planted in anyone’s garden and actually grow for some time.


Why do I say no plant should be allowed to look this beautiful? Because you will want to pamper it and the pampering of any plant invariably leads to untimely demise. Indoor plants demonstrate this horticultural truth, since they often have an opulent and must-be-pampered look. It has been noted that most indoor plants die within a year of acquisition due to overwatering.


With little or no fuss, other than making sure soil is friable – you should probably add some compost to it – and slow-release fertilizer provided, tuberous begonias give you nonstop luxurious blooms from summer to fall. They may even survive for more than a year if during winter, their dormancy period, you withhold irrigation.


You can dig up the little tubers before winter rain begins and store them in a paper bag in your garage or in a cool closet until spring, and then plant out the tubers for another crop of flowers.


Much hybridization has occurred with tuberous begonias and many colors – though not blue or purple – are available. Begonias are named after Michel Begon, a governor in the French West Indies two centuries ago who specialized in tuberous begonia hybridization.


Now that’s a politician I would have truly wanted to meet.


Bougainvillea, named for the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, has made quite a journey from the equatorial tropics to becoming a favorite in arid zones throughout the world.


Being of Amazonian origins it may be surprising that it has the capacity to go an entire summer, if not an entire year, in a desert environment with little or no water. Yet the Amazon has two seasons, one wet and one dry, and the dry season means that bougainvillea carries the genes needed to live in arid zones. For the same reason, orchids, nearly all of which are tropical, are often quite drought tolerant as well.


The reason bougainvilleas have thorns is so they can get a grip on the rain forest trees surrounding them and then climb toward the sun.


Not long ago, I was in Efrat, a semi-desert town between Jerusalem and Hebron. In new landscaping there, I noticed a bougainvillea unlike the rest. It is thornless and has a shrubby growth habit, ultimately developing into a many-armed candelabra. This is a cultivar known as ‘Torch Glow’ since its colorful bracts hug the ends of its stems. ‘Torch Glow’ is even more drought tolerant than the vining types although a bit more sensitive to frost.


Some people are like bougainvilleas – they ask for little and give much. An established bougainvillea provides a generous display of color practically all year without need for water or fertilizer. When young, especially during its first year or two in the ground, supplemental irrigation is vital but, beyond its second year in the ground, it should be self-sufficient.


With thorns up to 3 inches long, thorny acacia (Acacia nilotica) is an untouchable plant. With age, however, the thorns become much smaller and are barely visible from a distance.


In this species, oversize thorns are a sign of juvenility, as they disappear with the onset of flowering as the plant embarks on adulthood. These thorns would appear to exist to protect young plants from browsing animals. You can keep this, or any plant, in a juvenile state by keeping it pruned back.


With most plants, onset of flowering depends on size as opposed to age. Ultimately, thorny acacia matures into a spherical 60-foot tree.


The word acacia is derived from the Greek word for thorn and points to the thorniness, to one degree or another, of many plants in this genus.


Nilotica, the species name, refers to its habitat along the Nile River. The accompanying photo was taken at Or HaGanuz, a small village near Safed, in northern Israel. It is ironic to find this plant at Or HaGanuz since the people living here are singularly kind and not at all thorny.


The healthiest Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens) I have ever seen is growing in a state of benign neglect. After studying plants for nearly three decades, it appears to me that when a woody plant – that is, any tree or shrub or vine – has the proper conditions for growth, it needs next to nothing to thrive.


Bougainvillea, cited above, is the classic case. I know, some will say “But that’s the easiest plant to grow!” and I would counter with “Yes, as long as it gets at least five hours of direct sun each day and its soil drains well.”


The same could be said for Texas ranger. In fact, I would go so far as to say that wherever bougainvillea thrives, Texas ranger will also thrive. The only difference is that Texas ranger demands nearly bone-dry earth once it is established while bougainvillea can handle sprinkler irrigation without any ill effects other than being leafier and less colorful the more water it gets.


Even when Texas ranger is growing in a virtual sand pile, a mature specimen should only need to be soaked once or perhaps twice a month during the hottest part of the summer.


Tip of the week


In a response to last week’s column on gardeners’ obsessions with black plants, Lewis Weiss, of Winnetka, wrote in praise of the deep purple to black foliage of a succulent known as black rose, whose variety name means “black head” (Aeonium arborescens ‘Schwartzkopf’). Unlike most aeoniums, which are typically ground-hugging species, this aeonium grows into a mini-tree as tall as 5 feet. It also has large golden yellow flower cones that create an eye-popping contrast to its leaves.




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