Do not pity the Pittosporum.
Its flowers smell like cheap perfume, and it proffers no spectacular colors in the landscape. Yet the Pittosporum, like all plants, has its moments of glory and, by virtue of its diverse species, is a genus that demands wider recognition and use.
Pittosporums are dignified, respectable, honorable. They wear cheap perfume because that’s all they can afford. Pittosporums usually play a supporting role; they are seldom the stars of the garden show. Yet the Pittosporum is worthy of honor precisely because it does not seek to be honored. Its function is usually as a background or as a hedge, yet it performs its allotted task to perfection. Without complaint, each leaf is always perfectly in place, keenly aware of its purpose. If only such greatness pertained to other kinds of living things.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a large stand of Victorian box (Pittosporum undulatum) trees. They were planted as a barrier between two properties in Santa Monica, less than a block from that familiar bluff that overlooks the Pacific. I remember staring at those trees in reverential silence, turning away, and then gazing upon them again. They simply did not look real. The leaves were shining so brightly, almost too brightly for this world. Their green was dark and glistening, as if each leaf was a rare sapphire of many facets. To say the leaves looked polished would not do them justice, unless you said “polished by angels.” The trees had reached their mature height of more than 40 feet and yet they seemed to be taller, much taller still, reaching up to capture and reflect ever more brilliantly the light that was streaming down during a moment which, it seemed, would never end. Their domed silhouettes against the sky appeared, at first glance, to have been shaped by human hands, but longer scrutiny made plain that such perfect symmetry could only be the result of a natural habit of growth.
There are other, more mundane Pittosporum moments. The most popular Pittosporum is a compact mounding shrub, Pittosporum Tobira “Wheeleri,” familiarly known as Wheeler’s dwarf. It is used in industrial landscapes as a low hedge; an excellent local example of this can be seen along the north fence of the Budweiser plant on Roscoe Boulevard. This long hedge of Wheeler’s dwarf has parts that appear to have been broken off or gouged out, a common occurrence where such hedges are grown. It turns out that rodents have a sweet tooth for Wheeler’s dwarf; they like to gnaw on its woody shoots close to ground level.
Wheeler’s dwarf is a cultivar of a more old-fashioned plant, the regular Pittosporum Tobira, or mock orange – so-called because its flowers (which are beginning to bloom now) have a resemblance, both in appearance and in scent, to orange blossoms. Pittosporum Tobira “Variegata” has pale blue green leaves marked with splotches of white; it is a nice background plant for moderately shady conditions and may even be grown indoors; its leaves glow where its exposure to light is somewhat restricted.
Pittosporum eugenioides has wavy golden leaves and black stems. It is known as the New Zealand lemonwood due to its country of origin and the scent of its leaves when crushed. This plant makes an unrivaled hedge, a pleasing alternative to the regular fare of privet, oleander or ficus.
Pittosporum phillyraeoides, the willow pittosporum, is a small weeping tree that is invariably planted next to a pond or other water feature. Specimens of it may be viewed in the grove of trees adjacent to the Sepulveda Community Garden, located between Magnolia Boulevard and the Ventura Freeway (101) just west of Hayvenhurst Avenue.
Recently, in many parts of Los Angeles, Pittosporum crassifolium ”Compactum,” the dwarf karo, has begun to take the place of Wheeler’s dwarf where low hedges are needed. The karo has unusual gray-green foliage and, although less hardy than Wheeler’s dwarf, is the preferred culivaTr for windswept coastal locations.
Pittosporums require more water than xeriphytic plants but still may be considered reasonably tolerant of dryness. When grown in full sun, they should be soaked once a week during the summer.
Pittosporum – pronounced either pit-to-SPOR-um or pit-TOS-por-um – is made up of “pitto,” the Greek word for pitch or tar, and “sporum,” meaning seed. The seeds of these plants are indeed as sticky as tar, which does not interfere with their capacity for germination. Press Pittosporum seeds gently into the earth and they will sprout without difficulty.
Tip: March 15 is generally considered to be the latest frost date in Los Angeles. This means that frost-tender fruit-bearing vegetable plants – tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers – may now be planted with little risk of cold damage.