There are certain woody plants whose seasonal bloom is so spectacular that it would be malpractice on my part not to make you aware of them. It is appropriate to mention these beauties when they are blooming so that if your garden lacks color at that particular time, you will know how to remedy the situation.
I believe that this service is especially vital in winter when not too many plants put on much of a flower show. It is also true, however, that plants that bloom heavily in winter typically bloom on and off throughout the year. Such plants may respond to pruning with another wave of flowers. In this context, there are three plants bursting with blooms that I recently observed – each representing a primary color – that I really have no choice but to mention.
The first of these is Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus). Native from coastal Texas and Louisiana all the way down to South America, the scarlet red flowers of Turk’s cap are unusual since they never open.
Unaware of this peculiarity, I recall the frustration I experienced upon my first encounter with this plant. I was certain either its growing conditions lacked something or it was a victim of some hidden pathogen or insect pest. But soon I learned that another name for this plant is sleeping hibiscus on account of the fact that it is a cousin of hibiscus, and the only difference between the flowers of the two is that the petals of turban’s cap remain tightly wrapped around an extruding floral tube that will remind you of a similar structure in the center of hibiscus blooms.
Turk’s Cap can grow in almost any type of soil in full to partial sun. It is an excellent candidate for a sideyard or a slope, something to plant and water for a year or two and, after that, allow to grow into a ten-foot-tall thicket that knows no bounds. Turk’s cap is considered by bird watchers to be more attractive to hummingbirds than any other plant. Detach a flower and suck from the bottom to appreciate the sugary refreshment that explains hummingbirds’ passion for it.
Malvaviscus, its botanical name, means viscous (sticky) malva and refers to the mucilaginous sap of this plant, a trait it shares with many other members of the malva or mallow family such as okra, a sticky vegetable. Incidentally, marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is another relative. It grows in marshes and its sap is sticky sweet. The ancient Egyptians made candy from its roots and so the confection we call marshmallow was born. The puffy marshmallows we eat today are made from artificial chemical ingredients but their flavor resembles that of the marsh mallow root. Almost Eden (almostedenplants.com) is a highly regarded mail-order nursery in Louisiana that grows ten varieties of Turks cap, including pink and white flowered varieties, as well as one with green and white variegated foliage.
Euryops (Euryops pectinatus) is a South African drought-tolerant shrub that grows into a five to six-foot-tall sphere. It flowers virtually non-stop and is especially notable in winter as its vivid yellow daisy blooms offer a sunny antidote to dull, overcast skies. Foliage is greenish-gray and intricately divided. Two worthy cultivars of the species are Viridis, so named because of its viridian, or chrome green leaves and Munchkin, which grows to half the size of the species. The deep green, yet luminescent foliage of Viridis provides a welcome contrast to the dull green to gray-green to silvery gray leaves of most drought-tolerant plants.
Euryiops’ yellow blooms also enhance the visibility of mauve, pink, and salmon-colored flowers which are seen, for example, on Martha Washington geraniums. Honey euryops (Euryops virgineus) has flowers that are only an inch across but they are borne prolifically on delicately foliated stems. At full bloom, all you see is a golden, molten mass of sulfur-yellow flowers. It is a large shrub that may eventually reach a height of 8-9 feet and a girth of 5-6 feet.
Last among this triumvirate of stalwart winter bloomers is blue potato bush (Lycianthes rantonnetii). Famous for being trained into a lollipop as a container plant, it is highly uncomfortable when confined to that limited form. It is grown that way, I am certain, because it is almost impossible to resist in the nursery when you see it covered with violet blue flowers. However, it is a chore, based on my experience, to keep it looking like that for long. However, when left to its own devices, blue potato bush expands to something much more than a bush, expanding into a ten-foot tall by ten-foot wide wall of flowers. Royal Robe is a cultivar whose blooms are deep purple, while cultivar with variegated foliage is also sometimes seen. Finally, the Alba variety has white flowers with occasional bluish-purple streaks.
If you have woody perennials presently in bloom, you are welcome to write to me about them and to send any questions or comments regarding any garden phenomenon, as well as photos, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
California native of the week: Island snapdragon (Galvezia speciosa) is related to the snapdragon we install as a bedding plant but has a much wider spectrum of uses. Planted on open ground and allowed to develop naturally, it becomes a sprawling mound growing up to four feet tall and seven feet wide, suitable for full to partial sun. However, you can also give it a formal look through pruning and, as described in the classic “California Native Plants for the Garden,” it may be utilized “as an alternative to boxwood hedges.”
If you plant it near the trunk of a tree, it may climb up the tree, vine-like, to a height of 15 feet. Flowers are red and tend to weigh down the shoot ends where they bloom, making island snapdragon a fitting choice for spilling over a wall or out of a container. To keep it from accumulating woody, leafless stems, cut it back nearly to ground level just before spring. While not particularly cold-hardy, it will survive a mild frost. Island snapdragon blooms on and off throughout the year, but most heavily at winter’s end and in early spring.