Peruvian Squill

Peruvian squill (Scilla peruviana)

Peruvian squill (Scilla peruviana)

Among the photos and queries e-mailed by readers last week was the following, sent by Terri Sammarco of Northridge.
“We have lived in our house for three years and this flower just sprung up out of the blue (no pun intended).” Sammarco wanted to know the identity of what is perhaps the most outstanding February flower that grows in Valley gardens.
Without a doubt, Sammarco has a giant scilla, sometimes known as Portuguese squill, which cannot be mistaken for anything else. Giant scilla (SILL-a), which grows from a bulb, is an unpredictable herbaceous perennial that may not flower each year. But when it does bloom, you are completely forgiving of its inconsistency. It is enough to see a giant scilla (Scilla peruviana) once, with its symmetrical dome of royal blue florets, to remember it forever.
No plant that I have seen produces a larger inflorescence so close to the ground. Normally, such flower structures are seen perched aloft, upon tall flower stalks, as is the case with those giant ornamental onions (Allium giganteum) and giant white squills (Drimiopsis kirkii). This stunning scilla, however, which blooms humbly close to the ground, could easily be stepped upon or missed altogether, especially in those years when it produces a generous clump of foliage but no flowers.
Squills, in common with many other bulbous plants, whether irises, anemones or tulips, are native to Mediterranean lands and Asia Minor, a dry-climate habitat that stretches from Portugal to Turkey.
Bulb plants are drought-tolerant packages of late winter and early spring delights, but may also produce flowers in summer or fall, depending on the species. Generally, bulbous plants from more tropical climates, such as cannas and calla lilies, bloom later in the year, when the weather gets hot.
Franklin Whittemore sent a picture of an attractive fruit tree, wanting to have it identified. Whittemore informed me that the fruit forms in late summer, has large seeds, sweet flesh and tough skin. This description perfectly matches a Catalina cherry tree (Prunus lyonii). It is a highly attractive and underutilized species, being both drought and cold tolerant (surviving 10 degree Fahrenheit cold after its third year in the ground), and makes an excellent evergreen hedge.
Some classify it as a large shrub due to its girth of 10 to 15 feet, whereas it typically reaches a height of only 25 feet although, under ideal growing conditions, it could reach twice that height.
It has glistening, heart-shaped leaves and assumes a domed form as it matures. If you like having birds around, this is the tree for you since its fruit are irresistible to avian creatures of every type.
Catalina cherry is a subspecies of holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). Holly-leaf cherry has somewhat spinier leaves and a form which is squatter and shrubbier than its Catalina derivative. On both species, fuzzy cream-colored caterpillar flower clusters put on a dazzling display around this time of year.
Ruth Unter wrote: “Where I live in Northridge the ground is clay. What product can I use to get the water to penetrate the soil? There used to be a product called ‘Water-In’ that would aerate the clay. I have not been able to find another product like it. Do you know of one that I can use?”
Such products are frequently used in agriculture to increase soil absorption of water by breaking the surface tension of water molecules. One of the best-known products is Panhandler, so named because of its effectiveness in increasing crop yields in the Texas Panhandle, where the soil is notoriously hard. You can find such products through Internet vendors.
I have had success using gypsum to increase water absorption in hard soil. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) is one of the best soil amendments, and probably the least expensive. A 40-pound bag costs only a few dollars. As a general practice, it is advisable to broadcast a light coating of gypsum over plants and lawns twice a year. Always don a dust mask before doing so because of gypsum’s powdery consistency.
Hard soil usually is the result of clay particles held tightly together. Gypsum rearranges these particles in such a manner that space is created between them. This space allows water to move through and roots to grow.
Gypsum, applied in its pure form, may be dusted lightly over planter beds and lawns where soil compaction is a problem. There is also a product called gypsite, which is gypsum plus nitrogen, that may be broadcast as though it were fertilizer.
The beneficial powers of gypsum are demonstrated in its use as a carrier for most fertilizers manufactured for use in Southern California. Fertilizers that are gray in color contain a large percentage of gypsum.
Bidens aristosa is a late-winter plant that grows wild in most of the United States. It is a star performer in the late-winter and early spring garden. A member of the daisy family, its sunny character will remind you of coreopsis. This is a wonderful filler or background plant and it self-sows with alacrity.
English daisy (Bellis perennis) is another strong bloomer at this time of year. Its charming button flowers with yellow centers are seen in white, pink, magenta and red.
Tip of the week
Lauristinus (law-ris-TEE-nus) is a sun-loving shrub whose foliage appears more and more in floral bouquets. Lauristinus (Viburnum Tinus) is a popular selection for Valley gardens. It blooms in white from February through April.
Although its flowers will do fine in a vase this time of year, its simple, slightly undulating leaves may be utilized in centerpieces all year long. An added bonus is the wine-red color of its stems. I know of no plant with darker foliage or whiter flowers. The contrast between them is compelling and makes quite an impact, whether in the garden or in flower arrangements.

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