Not long ago, I was in Death Valley at the Furnace Creek Inn, an oasis in the middle of the Great Basin-Mojave Desert region. This area is home to two of the oldest plant species on earth: bristle cone pine (Pinus aristata), growing in the White Mountains and estimated to be 4,900 years old; and creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), some of whose self-made clones are more than 10,000 years of age.
If you live in our own Valley and want to connect with these ancient species, you can plant them in any well-drained garden spot or in containers filled with sandy topsoil. They could become your family’s heirloom plants, to be passed down from generation to generation.
You can order the seeds of these and many other seldom-seen garden plants online at www.gudseeds.com. At the Furnace Creek Inn, there is an orchard of date palms. As a rule, date palms need desert heat to bear fruit. Still, I have seen date palms produce a crop in Sherman Oaks, so it can be done in our area. Date palms are dioecious, which means that trees have either male or female flowers but not both. So if you want fruit, you will need at least one tree of each sex.
The orchard at the Furnace Creek Inn reminded me that filling a yard with trees – as opposed to planting a few birch, crape myrtle or ornamental pears surrounded by a lawn – is an idea with undeniable appeal for the horticulturally adventurous, the fruit connoisseur or the everyday gardening romantic.
You might want to emulate Alex Silber, whose devotion to the cultivation of exotic fruit trees in his Granada Hills back yard is clear for any visitor to see. Silber has about 100 different varieties of mostly tropical trees, including several kinds of guavas, starfruit, cherimoya and the unique Babaco papaya, hardy enough to be grown throughout the East and North Valley. You can reach Silber’s Papaya Tree Nursery at (818) 363-3680.
PLUMERIA UPDATE: A few weeks ago, I wrote about the tropical plumeria tree and its appropriateness for Valley gardens. I was promptly admonished by Ron Allen and Matthew de Caussin, two plumeria growers in Northridge. While they appreciated the publicity for this highly desirable, yet virtually ignored, tree, they were concerned that readers would get the wrong impression and try to root plumeria cuttings in December. Trying to do this is not advisable, since the cuttings are likely to either freeze or rot this time of year.
When Allen returned from his Hawaiian honeymoon 28 years ago, he brought with him a plumeria cutting. The rest, as they say, is history. Today he has 150 plants, some as tall as 8 feet. To date, he has yet to see any of his homegrown plumerias die. He extols the plumeria for its cactuslike growth requirements. He uses an ordinary cactus soil mix, available in most nurseries, as a growth medium. And he never waters more than once or twice a week. He applies 12-12-12 slow-release Osmocote fertilizer twice during the growing season.
De Caussin has a collection of more than 100 plumeria varieties, and many of them will take your breath away. While only a handful are in bloom this time of year, he has an album of their pictures, some of which are displayed on his Web site at www.islandplumeria.com. De Caussin has a sophisticated growing operation, which includes drip emitters extended to each of his several hundred specimens in containers. Visiting de Caussin gave me an entirely new appreciation for plumeria. The diversity of the genus includes reds, violets, yellow and pink bi-coloreds, and striped flower varieties, all possessing a range of rich fragrances. “Florida Snowball,” a variety that blooms from June until December with small, delicate white flowers, especially captivated me. You can display plumeria flowers by floating them in bowls or placing them in vial-sized bud vases for enhancement of bouquets or other flower arrangements. To schedule a tour of de Caussin’s nursery, contact him at (818) 970-2483.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Mindful of the cold snap last Thanksgiving that damaged some of his plants, de Caussin now covers his plumerias with frost cloth to protect them from a winter chill. This cloth, available from American Horticultural Supply in Oxnard, transmits 30 percent of the light while providing an extra measure of warmth. De Caussin’s rule for summer watering is simple: When the temperature is cooler than 90 degrees, water plumerias once a week; when it is above 90, water twice a week.