Perfumed Hydrangeas and Other Delights

Hydrangea angustipetala ‘Golden Crane’

Kate Karam says she has the greatest job in the world.  Karam edits newsletters and authors a blog for Monrovia Nursery, in addition to dialoguing with people in the media about what the world’s largest nursery, which sells 22 million plants each year, has to offer.  Karam is either writing or talking about Monrovia’s plants all day long, except for after hours when she occupies herself by taking care of her own.

Karam grew up on a small farm in New Hampshire and, after stints as an editor for garden magazines and at HGTV, came to Monrovia, whose headquarters are still in Azusa.  I say “still in Azusa” because, although the nursery was founded in 1926 and flourished in Azusa for more than sixty years, the nursery’s growing grounds became so valuable as real estate that the land was ultimately sold off to residential property developers..  While the corporate offices remain in Azusa, Monrovia has divided its growing grounds into four, with production facilities presently  to be found in Visalia (in the San Joaquin Valley), Oregon, Georgia, and Connecticut.
Karam commisserated with me about the fate of mom and pop nurseries in general, and of  Southern California nurseries in particular.  There are fewer and fewer of them.  Typically, after the founders have retired or passed on, the children’s enthusiasm for continuing the family business flags once the nursery’s land value is assessed.
Still, there is a place for niche nurseries that “offer a lifestyle, and not just a gardening experience,” according to Karam.  These days, a successful nursery will typically offer classes not only in horticulture but in cooking garden edibles and in environmental stewardship as well.  At one nursery in New Hampshire, Karam even indulged in “an amazing yoga class.”
The way people shop has also impacted how Monrovia does business.  You can now order more than 3,000 different Monrovia plants online ( which are then delivered for pick up at the retail nursery nearest to you that carries Monrovia plants.  Monrovia has also ventured into the big box retail market, making its plants, including annual flowers, available at Lowe’s.
I asked Karam about trends in gardeners’ buying habits and she sited edibles and compact, container friendly plants as those showing a marked increase in popularity.  Fragrant plants are also eagerly sought.
Karam notes that “gardeners today want plants that do more than just one thing.”  Being ornamental is not enough.  They should bear sweet fruit, have fragrant flowers, or enjoy being confined to a container, too.
Hydrangea ‘Golden Crane’ is such a plant, whose seeds were recently brought to these shores from China. ‘Golden Crane’ is a lace cap hydrangea whose white and gold flowers emit a perfume — unusual for a hydrangea — that will permeate the air throughout your garden.  Other scented selections sited by Karan include:  a compact sweet bay (Laurus nobilis ‘Little Ragu’), Himalayan sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) for dry shade, and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), a large shrub native to the Southeast with pyrotechnic and aromatic red to maroon  flowers.  Her mention of Calycanthus conjures up our own Calycanthus occidentalis or western spice bush, a California native species with characteristics that mimic those of Monrovia’s species.  She also advocates for night blooming jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum).  Although its flowers are unremarkable in appearance, their long distance night time fragrance more than makes up for lack of visual appeal.
When it comes to a large shrub to medium sized tree with fragrant flowers, nothing can compete with Michelia, a magnolia relative.  Michelias are not easy to find in the nursery trade and Monrovia has a difficult time keeping them in stock.  Two species are noteworthy. banana shrub (Michelia figo), growing slowly to around 10 feet, flowering for months on end — with a banana to vanilla custard scent — but most heavily in the spring and suitable as a stand alone subject or in a fragrant hedge, and Michelia champaca ‘Alba,’ an evergreen tree that eventually reaches a height and width of thirty feet.
As for edibles, ‘Kadota’ fig, that grows to twenty-five feet in height, is in great demand as is the compact pomegranate ‘Angel Red,’ that grows only ten feet tall.  Berries are loved by all and, in addition to ‘Beautiful Blue’ blueberry, whose bushy growth habit is what you would expect, the thornless and rounded forms of compact ‘Baby Cakes’ blackberry and ‘Raspberry Shortcake’ raspberry are completely unexpected but thoroughly welcome.  Karam recommends planting these compact, container friendly berry selections in half whiskey barrels.
As for popular compact ornamentals, Karam extols the dwarf, non-fruiting olive known as ‘Little Ollie,’ a globular pittosporum called ‘Golf Ball’ Kohuhu, and the miniature ‘Tiny Tower’ Italian cypress.  She extols Ilex ‘Emerald Colonnade’ as the perfect plant for a hedge.  It will grow slowly to twelve feet tall but only needs trimming once a year.  Crape myrtle ‘Arapaho’ is a smallish variety of the ever popular street tree, but it only grows to 20 feet, shows bright red flowers and demonstrates resistance to powery mildew fungus.

Tip of the Week:  In the groundcover department, Karam advocates for a trailing lantana that combines white with violet blooms and goes by the name of ‘Lavender Swirl’ and a peach-salmon-pink ‘Amber’ flower carpet rose.  ‘Oo-la-la’ bougainvillea is a frost sensitive ground cover so you would have to grow it as an annual where it freezes.  Still, its brilliant magenta display and its height of only eighteen inches just might make it worth considering, whether in the ground or spilling out of a container, during our long growing season.  Last but not least is a rare bigeneric cross between Heuchera and Tiarella known as Heucherella x ‘Redstone Falls’ whose scarlet foliage has the classic ivy leaf shape of Heuchera, the highly esteemed California native.

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