The Secret to Growing Perfect Plants

If, before visiting Louise Olson’s private home and garden, you were not a plant lover, you would, in all likelihood, become a plant lover before your visit was over.
Olson, retired from a career in media advertising, lives in the hilly Cahuenga Pass opposite Universal Studios, and has a knack for planting irresistible species, both in the ground and in containers.
I should probably start with the maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp.) that greets you just outside the front door. If there are people who do not like maidenhair ferns, I have yet to make their acquaintance.
Many familiar species of ferns are characterized by a sort of scruffiness, but not maidenhairs. Maidenhair ferns have smooth, tiny, fan-shaped leaflets that invite you to touch them. Their lime green color contrasts nicely with wiry black stems. Adiantum, maidenhair’s genus name, means “water repellent” in Greek and refers to the slippery and somewhat leathery texture of their foliage.
The name of “maidenhair fern” owes its origin to the ancient doctrine of signatures, dating back to Galen, a Greek physician, who held that the appearance of plants signifies their curative properties. According to the doctrine of signatures, heart-shaped strawberries, for example. would be good for the heart and kidney beans, shaped like kidneys, would improve kidney function. Consumption of walnuts and cauliflower, with their resemblance to our brains, would mitigate against memory loss and the onset of dementia.
Maidenhair fern, in fact, gets its name from the silky hairs that grow out of its roots, whose vigor resembles that of the healthy tresses of a young woman. A decoction of maidenhair roots was thought to stimulate hair follicles and combat baldness.
Spanish moss, a tactile plant that Olson grows to perfection from hanging baskets on a shaded patio, is another universally loved species. If you have ever been to New Orleans, you will have noticed Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from the limbs of live oak and magnolia trees. Given an occasional water spray and protection from hot sun, it will grow down as a long, gray, hoary mass of fine filaments.
Olson’s home’s sunny front slope offers a melange of infrequently encountered drought-tolerant species. She is growing two cacti and one euphorbia, all with unusual spines, that I had never seen before.
A red barrel cactus (Ferocactus pilosus ‘Pringlei’) is graced with — wouldn’t you know it — red spines, while a flat-topped barrel cactus (Ferocactus latispinus ‘Flavis Pinus’) has unusual, flattened blond spines that have a distinct character, unmatched by spines I have seen in any other cactus.
Ferox (as in Euphorbia ferox) means fierce, and it is an appropriate species name for the plant in question since its large purplish spines stretch far beyond what we are accustomed to seeing in thorny succulents.
The piece de resistance of Olson’s slope is a pincushion plant (Leucospermum) from South Africa. Olson says the soil on her slope contains clay and, therefore, Australian natives struggle, even while South African species thrive. She is unforgiving in the annual pruning she administers to her pincushion plant, but the more she cuts it back, the more it flowers the following spring.
Two beauties with bright yellow blooms adorn the slope. One is the Mexican tulip poppy (Hunnemannia fumariifolia), blessed with lacy, bluish leaves that highlight its sunny flowers. The other is Berlandier’s sundrops (Calylophus berlandieri). Her red buckwheat (Erogonum grande ‘Rubescens’), a misnomer since its flowers are more pink than red, presents a wonderful complement to the neon yellow perennials.
Olson, who volunteers at the Theodore Payne Foundation, has the magic touch when it comes to growing plants. She does not seem to pay particular attention to their watering and fertilization requirements, yet they are the picture of botanical health. Her expertise is clearly in the proper siting of her garden and container selections. With plants, as with real estate, location is the most vital component of each species’ success. Olson appears to have an uncanny ability to divine exactly how much sun each species requires.
She solved the problem of a steep slope at the rear of her property by turning it into a terraced vegetable garden. Among the vegetables, several purple petunias are planted. One evening she noticed a perfumed scent coming from her vegetable garden and discovered it was coming from her purple petunias, heirloom varieties of which are noted for their fragrance.

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