“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.” — Erma Bombeck
It’s a testimony to how tricky it is to grow plants in a doctor’s office that you hardly ever see them there. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I saw plants in a doctor’s office. Decades ago, when Bombeck, who authored a widely syndicated, humorous column on daily living, had her say on this subject, it provided a good laugh. At the same time (remember: in those days, most people read newspapers!), it had a chilling effect on growing greenery in health care environments. Despite there being a boat load of literature on how beneficial it is, health wise, to be surrounded by oxygenating and pollutant filtering indoor plants, hospital rooms and doctor offices have largely become greenery free zones.
While doctors can be excused for not wanting to fuss with plant care, what about us? These days, the most eye-catching words you can use to promote any plant species are “low maintenance.” Let’s be clear, however, that despite my own, all too frequent verbal obeisance to this imaginary concept, there is really no such thing as a low maintenance plant, at least not in an urban environment.
If you live out in the country, have a huge ranch, and just want to grow native oak trees in open spaces, then you can literally do nothing and reap horticultural success, but the moment you come to the big city or its suburbs and have but a small outdoor space to grow plants, you become maintenance conscious. The confined conditions of an urban garden mean that plants are always growing in to one another, are susceptible to insect pests and diseases due to insufficient light and lack of air circulation around them, are forever needing mulch replenishment and, speaking of trees, can become a threat to property and people if they are not regularly pruned. And a whole class of plants known as ornamental grasses, although nearly all of them are drought tolerant, require constant grooming or otherwise look like weeds.
The subject of maintenance, of what it takes to bring out the best in a plant, came to mind after receiving the following email: “I planted a five foot tall esperanza tree in 2011. As of now, 2017, this tree has not grown even 1 inch. It gets its yellow flowers and “green beans” just fine, but I just can’t get it to grow. What can I do to make it grow? The esperanza tree is so beautiful when in full bloom. Some of our streets are lined with these trees and in spring and summer they look amazing.” — Raelyn Morgan, Gardena
What struck me most about Morgan’s email was her mention of the success of esperanza (Tecoma stans), also known as yellow bells, on the streets of Gardena. Gardena is less than 20 miles south of the San Fernando Valley, yet you will look hopelessly for an esperanza, which is frost sensitive, in our neck of the woods, although you could grow it here as long as you took steps to protect it when sub-freezing night time temperatures are forecast. As esperanza generally will not grow taller than six feet in height, draping a burlap tarp over it in the evening during winter months will likely ensure its cold season survival. Growing it is worth the effort since it blooms heavily, much like bougainvillea, from spring until the end of fall. The hotter it gets, the better it looks.
Esperanza provides an answer to the following question: “Can you suggest a yellow-flowered, long-blooming woody perennial for a sunny exposure?” For San Fernando Valley gardens, the only plant currently seen that matches that description is Euryops pectinatus, a shrubby perennial with delicately cut green or grey foliage that is presently hidden under a blanket of yellow daisies and will bloom on and off throughout the year. There are three perennial vining species with yellow flowers that you see in Valley gardens, but all of them are blooming now and will stop doing so before spring is over. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) has delicate yellow trumpets and deep, sea green foliage; primrose jasmine (Jasminum mesnyi) has popcorn blooms in yellow that fade to white and, against a lattice or chain link fence will vine up vertically while, left on its own, displays a soft and inviting fountainesque form; cat’s claw (Macfadyena unguis-cati), so named on account of its tough tendrils that allow it to claw its way up any rough surface, such as that found on stone walls or wooden telephone poles.
Getting back to Raelyn Morgan’s experience, it appears that, based on the photo that she sent with her email, the success of a very lush lawn which surrounds her esperanza — a plant which thrives under somewhat droughty conditions — has inhibited its flowering. Her turf (another word for lawn grass) appears to be a warm season species, either Bermuda or Kikuyu grass. Warm season grasses have ropy, far-reaching roots that are no doubt intertwined with her esperanza roots, inhibiting their development and thus stunting above ground growth. She will need to create an area of nothing but dirt around the esperanza by removing a circle of turf with a diameter of at least 6-8 feet so that the perimeter of the circle is a minimum of 3-4 feet away from the esperanza trunk. Ideally, she should carefully dig up her esperanza, keeping a large root ball intact, and pull out as many interfering roots as possible since Bermuda and Kikuyu are both blessed with rhizomatous roots, structures that function as bulbs and may sprout grass blades and start growing again at any time.
While esperanza can survive with no irrigation, it does flower best when given one deep soaking every two weeks during the growing season. The “green beans” that Morgan mentions are seed pods that should be removed as soon as they appear to increase flowering. Esperanza’s habitat stretches from southwest Texas all the way down to northern Argentina and although nominally subtropical and preferring fast-draining soil, is tolerant of every soil type. You can grow esperanza from cuttings or seeds although plants coming from seed will not be as floriferous as your cloned plants, which inherit the genes of a mother plant variety that was been selected for heavy flowering. Finally, adding phosphorus, whether in the form of bone meal or super phosphate, can enhance flowering.
The Theodore Payne Foundation has a wild flower hotline — 818-768-1802, ext. 7 — for those of you wishing to indulge your eyes, thanks to our heavy rains, in what is turning out to be the most spectacular spectacle of its kind in recent memory. Seeds that have lied dormant for years, on account of the extended drought, are sprouting forth in massive color displays. Wild flower hot spots are highlighted in the frequently updated recorded message.
Tip of the Week: Cymbidium orchids may be grown on your patio, under shade cloth, and the best illustration of this is the collection of Art and Aurora Mendoza, which numbers dozens of dazzling Cymbidium cultivars. Cymbidiums absolutely require a dose of cold weather in the fall to bloom well the following spring. The Mendozas hang their Cymbidiums from wooden beams overhead since cymbidiums whose containers rest on the ground are highly susceptible to fungus problems. You can see samples of their orchids at orchidsbyart.blogspot.com.
Mendoza’s cymbidium collection will be on display and for sale on Mach 24, 25, and 26, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m at 16057 Nordhoff Street in North Hills. Refreshments will be served.