In Los Angeles, February is known as the month when winter merges into spring. The Super Bowl, in early February, coincides with a major botanical event: the onset of flowering — known scientifically as anthesis — of ceanothus and manzanita, California’s pre-eminent woody plants. This is also the time of year that we are witness to eruptions of white blossoms on almond, apple, and ornamental pear trees, pink blossoms on ornamental peaches, and white or pink blossoms on ornamental plums, apricots, and cherries, depending on the species. Ornamental fruit trees are grown for their brilliant, if brief, flower show. Occasionally, as in the case of purple leaf plums and Bradford pears that turn burgundy each fall, foliage is also of interest and, as demonstrated by weeping cherries, weeping apricots, and weeping peaches, a pendulous form is sometimes an additional attraction. On none of these ornamental trees, however, is the fruit of any edible significance.
When I was younger, I never understood the attraction of these trees. They flower briefly and have weak immune systems, most of them living no more than twenty or thirty years. They take up valuable space in the garden and, for eleven months of the year, are not much to look at. However, a person’s perspective changes with the passage of time. After six decades on earth, more or less, recognition of your own mortality and the brevity of life impart a keenly revitalized appreciation for shooting stars, lightning bolts, and ephemeral flowery explosions.
Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) is also flowering now. Unlike flowering trees that crave most, if not all, of the day’s sun, laurustinus handles partial shade without complaint. Its name hints at the shape and deep emerald green color of its leaves, which resemble those found on bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), whose bay leaves make a culinary spice of distinction. Laurustinus is highly suitable for Southern California gardens due to its habitat. It is native to the maquis of Southern Europe, an ecosystem which is remarkably similar to our own chaparral, if slightly wetter. Laurustinus may also be found in the vicinity of live (evergreen) oaks, whose characteristics resemble the live oaks of California. If you are seeking a hedge with a lush look and a modest water requirement, you might choose Laurustinus. It grows densely and rapidly to a height of twelve feet or more, although a compact cultivar may be found that does not exceed six feet in height. In addition to its pink buds that open up to reveal fragrant, wedding white flower platters that contrast perfectly with its dark foliage, new growth features red stems and flower clusters are eventually replaced by berries of gun metal blue. Japanese viburnum (Viburnum suspensum) also makes a worthy hedge, even if its ornamental qualities are less vaunted than those of laurustinus. Japanese viburnum is distinguished by lustrous foliage that is often utilized in flower arrangements, providing a full and steady green complement to any bouquet since true green is the one color absent from the spectrum of flower colors.
Two weed control issues were recently raised by email. Jennifer Coker wrote that her mother, who gardens in Granada Hills, “has a border of amaryllis that has been colonized by devil’s grass. (Editorial note: devil’s grass may refer either to crabgrass, an annual weed, or Bermuda grass, which is perennial.) She was wondering if there is anything she can apply that would kill the grass but not harm her bulbs.” After donning rubber gloves, spray herbicide on a sponge and dab it on the grass. If Bermuda grass is involved, several applications may be required to keep it down. Also, Bermuda grass is dormant or semi-dormant in winter, with roots that mine to a depth of ten feet, so you should expect return growth when whether warms. You will never completely eliminate Bermuda grass but you can certainly keep it under tight control. Terri Glaser, who gardens in Simi Valley, wonders if there is herbicide that will kill weeds without being harmful to her dog. Avenger Weed killer is a product whose active ingredient is citrus oil, which is non-toxic to pets. You can order it as concentrate or in a spray bottle through the website at avengerorganics.com. Organic insecticide and fertilizer may also be found there.
Adding to local nursery recommendations that appeared in a recent column, Stephanie Clements wrote: “I shop at Carillo’s Landscape and Garden in Pasadena because it’s a beautiful neighborhood nursery, and I trust Carlos Carillo’s advice. He has a degree in agronomy from Cal Poly Pomona and years of experience. I’ve never gone wrong following his advice about selecting and caring for plants. I also shop there for ideas and interesting pots. Carlos and his wife Carol have designers’ sensibilities. I love that. Shopping there is a mini-vacation. No parking hassles and I like Ginger, the garden kitty, and Carlos’ small aviary.”
Tip of the Week: If you have never grown flowers from seed but would like to try your hand at it, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a good place to start. Just soften up some soil through cultivation or by mixing in a little compost or amendment and scatter your seeds over the surface. If you live on the coast, alyssum, which is a member of the cabbage family, will grow fine in full sun but it will do better in the Valley in light shade. It forms a finely scented mat of white which resists heat and drought. Pink and purple cultivars are occasionally seen but they are not as tough as the white.