It would be dereliction of duty on my part not to mention two plants, blooming now in all their glory, that defy the hottest weather with an outrageously floriferous late summer display. You look at either one of them and think to yourself “This just can’t be. How in the world, after a summer of sizzling heat, does this plant do it?”
It’s sobering but also instructive to understand that a plant flowers strictly for its survival as a species. In other words, a plant flowers when it “thinks” that death is at hand. The driving force in the life of any plant is to reproduce. Flowering signals that desire. In order for a plant to ensure its future as a species, it needs to make seeds and, without flowers and the pollination that follows — whether by insects, birds, bats ( which pollinate many tropical fruit trees), or wind (which pollinates corn, pistachio, walnut, and olive trees) — no seeds will form.
It has been said that all natural phenomena, if you listen closely, find their echo in human experience and behavior. In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (7:2), for instance, it is written that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting for death is everyone’s end and the living should take this to heart.” Many of the world’s most creative individuals confided that the thought of death was a constant companion and served as an incentive not to dawdle but to get down to work, bringing them to flower, as it were, to their maximum potential.
Monocarpic plants such as agaves, those that bloom only once before they die, are paradigmatic examples of the the relationship between flowering and death. But even plants that flower each year for many years are often more flowery when watered sparingly. Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), for example, flower more when soaked once a week than when they are watered every day, and mature citrus trees respond in a similar fashion. An abundance of water conveys a message of easy living and no imminent death so flowering is reduced. A comparative scarcity of water, on the other hand, communicates an urgency to flower since droughty conditions are a threat to survival.
I think it is also fair to say that drip irrigation produces more flowers than overhead spray or rotary sprinklers. During summer, wet foliage can lead to insect pest infestation, disease, and general malaise, especially where California natives and other Mediterranean or arid climate plants are concerned.
Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens), one of the two late summer to early fall bloomers referenced above, belongs to that category of plants that thrive on being ignored. The reason you do not see more Texas Ranger plants, despite their spectacular autumn bloom, is because they are typically coddled to death.
After their first year in the ground, they require minimal water, no fertilizer and no pruning. No insect pests bother them. The main reason for their virtual absence from our gardens is due to over watering or poor soil drainage.
The healthiest Texas Ranger I ever saw was a large specimen that, seemingly by a miracle, was blooming adjacent to a freeway entrance ramp near USC. It was at least 6 feet tall and its silver leaves were blanketed with pink flowers, despite having exhaust belched upon it from thousands of passing vehicles each day. Of course I had to park and examine its growing conditions.
The soil was a loamy sort of sand pile that was drier than a bone. For several minutes I searched for any kind of a sprinkler by which water could have reached the plant, but my search was in vain.
Mature Texas Rangers should never be watered more than twice a month. But even before watering comes into play, it is essential that Texas Rangers be planted in perfectly drained soil.
Test your soil by digging a planting hole and filling it with water. After the water drains through, fill the hole again. If, after filling the hole a second time, the water is still standing after an hour, it is too heavy and must be amended with compost or other additives to assure that water drainage is adequate.
Today, there are more than a dozen Texas Ranger type shrubs in the Leucophyllum genus, including 8-foot tall giants and 3-foot tall, compact ornamentals. You can regularly shear the larger varieties and keep them as hedges, but this will diminish their flowering and shorten their garden life expectancy.
The second super bloomer at this time of year is known as coral fountain or firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) If you are looking for a long-blooming stand-alone shrub that grows to around four feet tall, coral fountain is perfectly suitable as a garden accent, as well as a container selection for patio or balcony. It spills with intrigue over block walls, too. Its string-like, leafless green stems do, indeed, arch and spill over like a fountain, and its flowers are red to scarlet. Coral, when used in plant appelations, refers to a color spectrum that stretches from burnt orange to brilliant red, the same colors seen in the flowers of coral trees (Erythrina species). Coral fountain can be grown in full sun to shade, although a sunny exposure will yield vastly more flowers.
Coral fountain begins to bloom in late spring and continues to flower throughout the summer and into the fall. It does have limits where winters are cold, although it will survive a freeze in locations where it is protected by overhanging tree branches or the eaves of a roof. Coral fountain responds well to monthly fertilization during the growing season. However, preparing the ground with well-drained topsoil and compost prior to planting will result in reduced fertilizer and water needs and impart a greater tolerance to cold. Although native to the Central American tropics, it is highly tolerant of drought, if not outright abandonment, as well.
Tip of the Week: Lydia Eltringham, who gardens in Tujunga, wondered about the metallic green beetles that are feeding on her plumeria flowers. Known as fig or figeater beetles, their diet consists of flower petal nectar and soft-skinned, ripe or rotting fruit such as peaches, plums, grapes, tomatoes and, especially, figs. You will sometimes find whole groups of them attached to figs still hanging from a tree. These beetles are a minor pest that lay their eggs in compost piles. Thick, white, two-inch long grubs may be spotted when you turn over your compost before they bend into c-shaped pupae from which the green adults emerge this time of year. If you have a chicken or two in your yard, they will happily consume the grubs. Another strategy for their control is to place over ripe fruit throughout your garden. The beetles will congregate on the fruit and then it is simply a matter of ambushing and trapping them with a plastic bag, which is then tossed into the trash.