Winter and Spring: Descent for the Sake of Ascent

queen's wreath (Petrea volubilis)

queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis)

Spring is almost here and so is Passover. There is a principle in Judaism, observable in the garden, too, known as yeridah letzorech aliyah, which means “descent for the purpose of ascent,” that you must go down before you can go up, that you reach great heights only after experiencing the depths. Jacob and his children went down to Egypt and endured 210 years of unbearable slavery there, only to go up in the spring, at Passover time, to Mount Sinai where they would receive the 10 Commandments and enjoy their newly won freedom to worship God.
This principle of going down for the purpose of going up is embedded in nature, too. Winter is nature’s period of going down, of rain and cold and dormancy, for the purpose of going up into the warm and vibrant and flowery days of spring. Pruning and composting also illustrate the point. An older plant that has lost vigor is typically refreshed and rejuvenated only after it is significantly pruned back, or even cut to the ground. In a similar vein, composting is a process that turns death into life, transforming garden debris into a rich, sweet smelling soil amendment that nurtures growth.
We experienced several cold snaps last winter which appear to have had a discernible influence on the magnitude of this year’s first wave of flowers. It is one of nature’s foibles that flowering depends on what appear to be negative climatic events. Temperate zone plants, or species that live in areas with both hot and cold seasons, including those from Mediterranean climates like ours, require cold weather in order to flower to their maximum potential. Even tropical plants and many orchids benefit from the cold. Cold is not the only unlikely stimulant to flower production, but lack of moisture or even drought can stimulate flowering, too.
This past week, it seemed that wherever you looked, you saw trees and shrubs that were nothing but flowers. Their leaves were invisible either because foliage had yet to grow or because leaves that had grown were hidden under a dense floral display. Examples included ornamental pear, plum, apricot and peach trees, New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum scoparium), coral trees (Erythrina spp.), and trumpet trees (Tabebuia spp.). Wherever you see flowers covering a tree that has no foliage, you can be certain that those flowers have little or no fragrance. Where flowers are fragrant, pollinating insects and birds will find them even if the tree or shrub in question is full of leaves. However, where flowers are not fragrant, it is more of a challenge, in certain habitats, for pollinators to find them. In these habitats, the absence of foliage gives pollinators unobstructed access to their longed-for blooms.
New Zealand tea tree, a solid mass of crimson or pink this time of year, is typically grown as a shrub, pruned into a ball or a cube, and kept no taller than three or four feet tall, even though some types, left unpruned, would eventually reach twenty feet in height. It is called tea tree due to Captain Cook who, when exploring New Zealand, made a tea from its leaves that helped to combat scurvy. Tea tree oil was also found to have medicinal properties, most notably in the treatment of bites from sandflies. And tea tree honey has not only been used as a sweetener, but has also been useful, due to its antibiotic and antifungal properties, as a topical treatment for skin infections.
Pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia impetiginosa) is currently experiencing the peak in its annual bloom. This is a transiently ornamental tree since it flowers for just about one month before it becomes vitually unnoticeable for the remainder of the year. Right now, it is without leaves but covered with blaring pink trumpets, their throats a buttery yellow. This tree is immune to insect pests and diseases and, for thousands of years, the people of the Andes Mountains have made its inner bark into a medicinal tea that is useful in fighting infections, shrinking tumors, numbing aches and pains, and strengthening the autoimmune system. When given ample room to grow on all four sides, its canopy eventually assumes a symmetrical, domed shape but, more often than not, it is planted near the facade of a building, it leans to one side, and its beautiful natural form never develops.
Before planting any tree, it is a good idea to evaluate your expectations. No matter what decision you make, you will probably have to give up something. If you are on a tight budget and do not want to worry about future pruning expenses, you are best served by planting a pink trumpet or its iridescent yellow cousin (Tabebuia chrysotricha) since these species will never need to be pruned.
Trees with minimal pruning requirements would include purple leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera ‘Krauter Vesuvius’), evergreen pear (Pyrus kawakamii) and crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.). Yet the small to medium stature of all these species means that they will not produce much shade and you will not be picnicking beneath them on a hot afternoon. They are also likely to go into decline by their 20th year. If you insist on shade and longevity from your arboreal selection, you should be prepared to spend hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars in pruning expenses over the lifetime of your tree, whether you plant an oak, a sycamore or an elm.
‘Lady Banks’ rose is all flowers right now. Maintenance wise, this is the easiest rose to grow and will flower its head off in the spring as long as the previous winter is sufficiently wet and cold. There are both white and gold versions of this plant, although the gold seems to be the stronger of the two. You can train ‘Lady Banks’ as a vine, direct its growth over an arbor or pergola, or just keep it cut back as a large shrub.
Tip of the Week: Just the other day, at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Ventura Canyon Avenue in Van Nuys, I made acquaintance with queen’s wreath or sandpaper vine, so called on account of its rough textured leaves. The first time you catch a glimpse of queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis), you might think you are looking at blue potato bush (Lycianthes rantonnetii), since the flower color of both plants is a deep purplish blue. But queen’s wreath is far more generous with its floral display, putting forth foot long racems of star-shaped blooms. Queen’s wreath is frost sensitive so plant it near a building or a wall from which it will receive radiant heat on a cold night.

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