Many plants native to southwestern Australia, South Africa, the Mediterranean and Southern California look their most glorious in mid- to late winter. The reason is that in all these parts of the world, rainy weather is virtually confined to the winter season, which is followed by a relentlessly dry spring and summer. The flowering of dry-climate plants coincides with the period when the soil is still moist, thanks to winter rain. Flowers will open, insects will pollinate them, and seeds and fruits will form before the soil has had time to dry out. By midsummer, dry-climate plants respond to soil desiccation by entering a state of dormancy.
There is a fascinating plant from Australia, known as the emu bush, which needs to be mentioned in this regard. The botanical name of the emu bush is Eremophila, which comes from the Greek words, one meaning desert (eremia), and the other meaning friend (philos). Botanists first laid eyes on this “friend of the desert” when traveling across the sandy Australian outback.
This very moment, three emu bushes that I planted a year ago in Woodland Hills are growing dense with 1-1/2-inch-long tubular flowers. During this summer, these plants seemed so dull and listless that I feared for their health. How shortsighted I was. It is easy to mistake dormancy, in drought-tolerant plants, for decline in vigor. Leaves may turn drab green, curl up, or even fall from the plant. In such cases, do not despair but gird yourself with patience and look forward to the winter.
Many Los Angeles gardens are home to two plants, presently in full flower, that are native to South Africa. One is the jade plant (Crassula argentea), that indestructible succulent with the pinkish-white blooms. The other is the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), with its unmistakable plumage of orange and blue.
Strangely enough, the bird of paradise, at some distant point in time, was designated the official flower of the city of Los Angles. You wonder how this may have come about. Yes, I know this is a town where fantasies and dreams are made real, where far-fetched notions of love and life are put up on the silver screen, where artificial flowers are stuck on bloomless bushes to bring more color into the picture. But shouldn’t the official flower of Los Angeles be a real-life species that we could encounter here almost in our own back yards, a plant we could easily find growing wild in the hills and valleys of this fair city?
Perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate our decision to make a South African import the official flower of Los Angeles. More worthy of local recognition, perhaps, would be the ceanothus. Any day now, shrubs of ceanothus, sometimes called the California lilac, will be blooming in white and blue all over town. The flowers have a fresh fragrance and a cleansing effect when they are picked and rubbed in the palms. What a useful plant for an urban existence, an antidote to the grime that accumulates from city living.
In the meantime, a simple winter garden in primary colors – blue, red and yellow – can be achieved through the combination of one Mediterranean and two South African plants. The Mediterranean species is sea lavender or sea statice (Limonium Perezii), whose flowers are a violety blue, while the South Africans are the common red geranium and the ubiquitous yellow Euryops daisy.
Tip of the week
If your fescue lawn is looking somewhat brownish, you can quickly turn it green with the application of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is the most concentrated fertilizer available, so it should be lightly sprinkled over the grass and then watered in immediately. Another chemical that aids in greening up fescue this time of year is iron sulfate. Combine the two for a lawn that will look as green as the day it was sodded in.