Greatness may best be evaluated not by natural talent or achievement or an applause meter, but by response to adversity.
The greatness of plants is thus demonstrated, since many of them can be cut to the ground or die back completely, and then come to life again, often stronger than before.
In fact, the strategy of plants with bulbs, upon the death of their foliage after they have bloomed, is to undergo a long dormant period before coming to life again the following year. It is as though these plants, most of which originate in arid climates, welcome the adversity of a long, dry, hot, leafless summer, if only to prove their indifference to conditions which would threaten the survival of nearly every other leafy species.
Bulbous plants do not stop living when their foliage dies, as their bulbs will now fatten and “give birth” to baby bulbs under the earth. This is why it is so important not to remove their leaves that have flopped and shriveled. As long as these leaves are green, they are producing carbohydrate, which feeds the invisible bulbs.
Even woody plants may be cut down to the ground and grow again. A redwood tree destroyed by fire survives by producing a circle of seedlings that sprout up around its scorched stump. Poplars are indefatigable, too. Once you have a Lombardy poplar, esteemed for its columnar growth habit, you will probably have its clonal offspring forever. Leafy sprouts, known as adventitious shoots, grow out of roots located so far from the tree that you are sure, upon first sighting them, that they must have come from seeds. Only upon tugging the little sprouts and feeling the resistance do you begin to understand the vast extent of your poplar’s root system.
I had a beautiful red hibiscus plant over 15 years old and it grew almost two stories tall. I asked my gardener to cut some brunches off to make room for surrounding plants to breathe and grow. He cut the plant down to a height of 6 feet and the hibiscus died. I would like to know if it is due to the cutting or to the plant’s age.
— Sophia Barkhoudarian, West Hills
Although some woody plants and trees can be cut to the ground (see above) and grow again, most cannot and severe pruning should be avoided. It is recommended not to prune back any plant by more that 2/3. Although older hibiscus types may live for more than half a century, 15 years is considered old age for some newer varieties.
It may also be that your tall hibiscus was reaching for the sun because it had gotten shadier down below as other plants/trees grew up around it. When it was reduced in height, it was now growing in a much shadier exposure, which led to its death.
That being said, I was surprised by the result of some radical pruning that was done last fall by a neighbor. Six months ago, he decided he had enough of a yucca tree that had grown to over eight feet tall. He cut down the tree, leaving about one foot of stump because, as he confessed, he was simply too lazy to dig it out. I was certain that the tree was dead but then, only a week ago, I saw some leaves begin to emerge from the stump. At the same time, several leaves started poking up out of the ground around it.
I have since learned that cutting the top off of certain yucca species leads to new growth along the trunk and to production of pups, which are whole new plants that pop out of the decapitated tree’s roots. Previously, my neighbor’s yucca had not sprouted a single pup during many years of growth but now, due to the radical pruning, it was giving him a large litter of pups.
Tip of the Week: There is an extremely drought tolerant ground cover known as lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) that is seldom seen but is a pleasant garden curiosity. Both green and gray leaved versions are available. It is distinguished by scads of small yellow spherical flowers that will remind you of those on acacia trees. This plant has a misleading name since it has no botanical relationship to either lavender or cotton but is a member of the daisy family.