Saturday, February 27, 2010

Garden Show Preview

(From my article in the March issue of Arroyo Monthly)

There are flashier gardens around town — landscapes cloaked in splashy colors –– but for beauty that’s bone deep, explore the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia. “If you look at what are the most beautiful and environmentally appropriate plants,” says Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof, “the Arboretum has been working to answer that question for over half a century.”

The Arboretum will showcase sustainable plants at its annual L.A. Garden Show, which runs from April 30 through May 2. Organizers include the Arboretum’s new horticultural curator, Jill Morganelli.

The garden’s aesthetic is partly sculptural — curvaceous succulents alternate with twisting branches and thick tree trunks. Largely absent are beds of rotated, brightly colored annual plants common at nurseries. Morganelli says the Arboretum’s signature bird, the peacock, is partially responsible for the look –– it’s an inadvertent “watchdog” of sustainability. “With annuals — plants that typically live for four to six months –– you’ll just waste all kinds of time and manpower,” she observes, “and they’ll be picked to the ground by peacocks.” She adds that annuals are generally water-hungry plants.

On a recent morning, as peacocks dozed under a Wedgwood-blue sky, Morganelli tromped into the 30-acre Australian garden to discuss alternatives. Amid the familiar eucalyptus and bottlebrushes, Morganelli pointed out unusual kinds of grevilleas and acacias. “Australian plants are super-important to us,” she says. “Their environment is just like ours, only on the other side of the world.” The flora from southwestern Australia, in particular, have adapted to a similar climate and comparable soils. Like California native plants, many will languish if watered liberally in summer. Usually, plants from both regions should not be fertilized; Aus
tralian plants are especially sensitive to phosphorus.

On our tour, Morganelli also dropped by the Desert Garden (near the Peacock Café) to brag about Sophora secundiflora, also known as mescal bean. Native to Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico, this slow-growing shrub can be pruned into a lovely tree. “There’s rarely a design I do without one of these,” says Morganelli. “In the spring, it blooms the most gorgeous purple and white flowers that smell like grape bubble gum.” The rest of the year this Sophora sports silv
ery seedpods. (Note: The seeds are hallucinogenic, even poisonous.)

The L.A. Garden Show will also spotlight California native plants, flora that Morganelli admires. “The plants act as a habitat for native birds, bees and butterflies,” she says. “The other thing that’s really cool is some of them die back and, like magic, in the spring they rise up from the earth all fresh and new.” Morganelli says the plants generally need regular water to get established, but after about 18 months, “you can water as little as every two weeks and these plants live.”

In addition to the exemplary plantings, the Arboretum is inspiring a new wave of sustainable gardening with classes that are substantive and varied.
For more than four years, K.D. Henderson of Monrovia has been a regular at horticulturist Lili Singer’s Thursday Garden Talks, which prompted her to rip out her front lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants, including natives. “Visitors used to walk straight up to my door,” she says. “Now they stop and look around.”

That’s the kind of comment Morganelli, another enthusiastic instructor (she teaches organic vegetable gardening and plant identification) likes to hear. “I really feel we are undergoing a renaissance right now in Southern California landscaping,” she says, “and it’s so exciting to be a part of that.”

Among the Aussies Morganelli pointed out:

Correa pulchella (pictured above);

One of several evergreen shrubs commonly called Australian fuchsia. Little bell-shaped flowers—pink to reddish orange-- dangle from its branches. “It’s a great border shrub,” says Morganelli, “and a great accent you can pepper in, even a wonderful hedge.”

Grevillea ‘Wakiti Sunrise’ (pictured at article top)

This is a cultivated plant (a cultivar) bred from one of the 250 plus species of wild Grevillea. It unfurls intricate clusters of hook-shaped, salmon-colored blossoms. “If you want to get rid of your lawn--and don’t have kids or a dog,” says Morganelli, “look at some of these low-growing shrubs.” She also admires the yellow-green color of the foliage.

Acacia merinthophora

The zigzag wattle derives its name from its stems, which zigzag between its flowers--little yellow puffs accompanied by a single pine needle-like leaf (technically, a leaf-like structure called a phyllode). Zigzag’s branches spill out in a weeping fashion. Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof advises planting this uncommon beauty in front of a wall “so you can see its shadows and the finery of the foliage.” (Note: Some other acacias—cyclops ,longifolia, and decurrens--are invasive; do not plant them.)

Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’

This Dodonaea is native to the American Southwest and Hawaii, but most of its close relatives, which are commonly called hop bush, hail from down under. Purpurea can be grouped together for a fast-growing privacy screen. Morganelli advises pairing them with showier plants: “Take the purple-bronze color of the leaves and bounce them off some other, low-growing greens.”

The Native Plants Morganelli recommends include

Penstemon spectabilis

Also known as showy or royal penstemon, this herbaceous plant dazzles with three- to six-foot tall flower stalks, covered with dozens of blue, purple or pink flowers. “I think of penstemons as my answer to foxgloves,” says Morganelli.

Salvia spathacea

This sage is popular with native plant gardeners. It smells delicious (a mélange of honey, lemon, mint), and can fill a difficult niche: dry shady areas. There’s a reason this red-blooming plant is called Hummingbird sage, says Morganelli, “you’ll see hummingbirds drink from these all day long.”

Asclepias fascicularis

That’s a fancy name for a modest plant known as narrow-leaved Milkweed. “It’s not a beautiful plant all year,” says Morganelli, “but it’s a food source for monarch butterflies.” She advises planting it near the back of a bed, and waiting for the gorgeous black and white striped caterpillars to turn up.

Diplacus or Mimulus

Scientifically, this group of plants goes by a tangle of names, but they are easily identified as monkey flower. Hikers recognize some of them from local trails. Some can be hard to grow and are short-lived; Morganelli recommends the yellow and pale orange shrubby kind.


  1. Great Post! It's good to see Acacia merinthophora getting the spotlight. I have a three year old plant up here in the Bay Area and it looks great year round. Frost tolerant also. Good point on the annuals. You see the best displays after years of good rain - that seems to be lost on us.

  2. fabulous slideshow! Fantastic photography and zingy colours.


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