Snow falling on sedums

Sedum spectabile "Autumn Joy" in winter
Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ in winter

When it comes to plants in the landscape, there are tried but true and therefore played out and boring (and should be retired), and there are tried but true and thus indispensable. Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ falls into the latter camp, an indispensable plant for landscapes in those four-season climates that include a good dose of winter. Emerging early in spring, it provides structure and color with zero supplemental water, and its fat leaves offer a foil to smaller-leaved plants, which, packed in too closely and in too great of numbers, will resort in a landscape that suffers from what we call “small-leaf syndrome.” Then, in late summer, its flower-heads start to emerge, slowly opening in early fall to attract pollinators of all varieties, feasting on its nectar during a time of year when nectar is starting to run scarce. Finally, in winter, it retains its structure and fades to a lovely rust color, its spent flower heads offering the perfect platform for snow to sit atop. Aside from the short period of time in spring when you must chop the plant down to the ground and thus don’t see it, this plant is the very definition of year-round appeal – both for you and for the lovely pollinators that will seek it out come fall blooms.

Go forth and plant with aplomb!

John Kamp

Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Hummingbirds are architects too

If you’re ever feeling like humans have a leg up on absolutely everything, watch this and you might end up rethinking your worldview. What if we had to build our own homes, all by ourselves? And with objects foraged in the wild? Most of us probably wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Long-term learning from a landscape

What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.