February Garden 2

It gets light now soon after the alarm goes off and its not dark until suppertime, but the plants in the gardens have remained at the same stage of development where I left them two weeks ago, when I broke off writing the last entry and abandoned my postings. So I’m going back to where we were.

Here is the growing tip of Heuchera maxima

This plant is as hardy as a weed, tolerating deep shade in front of the house and direct sun in back, no water or plenty of water, as when it grows under redwoods. One of its common names is Alum root. And yet it’s delicate as these velvety hairs on its leaf tips and stems, and therefore it’s also called, Coral Bells, for the lily-0f-the-valley-like blossoms that will spring from these buds.

The flowering time of Umbellularia californica has passed since this picture was taken; some of the tiny blossoms in the inflorescence were already dry then. That lilting scientific appelation is almost as melodious as “Bay Laurel,” its vernacular name, linked with the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls something I wrote twenty three years ago:

Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
With laurel.

Three bay laurels have been growing in the front for four or five years. They prefer sun and water–you can see them as the lighter-colored foliage in riparian corridors on the hillsides–but here on the north slope they are dry and shaded. One grows under a large liquidambar tree. It’s intended to replace that beautiful non-native if ever it gets tall enough, but that wont happen in my lifetime.

The old Fremontodendron grows dense and low on the steep bank above the wall in front. It turns into a burning bush of gold flowers from April to July. The one I planted recently with the early orange bud needs continuous pruning to keep the path clear.

The one with the large heart shaped yellow bud grows at the top of the hill in back.

These Flannelbush are showy and indestructible, perfect California natives for the garden. I like looking across the valley to Poly Mountain and seeing the clumps of Flannelbush growing there wild. But Flannel is a misnomer. Rather than stroked, their leaves, flowers and stems should be handled with gloves to protect you from their tiny hairs which want to embed themselves in skin.

Creeping mountain lilac or Ceonothus Joyce Coulter is another prolific bloomer, here just about to burst into a rich purple quilt. After the blossoms drop, the leaves remain almost as deep green and shiny all year round as they do here at first emergence.

The same is true for the other five or six other Ceonothuses that thrive in the yard, each different in leaf and growth.

Only one Red twigged Dogwood, Cornus sericea, grows here, cramped between the path and the wall in front. It seems to be capable of putting out new leaves all year long, whenever it rains. When it’s dry, the leaves, which are neither waxy, leathery nor hairy, go papery and fall off, exposing deep wine-colored stems.

The flowers remain packed in tight white bud-buttons during December and January and then burst into bloom lasting only a week or two.

Just uphill from the Dogwood stands a Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. Unusual for California plants, this one is winter deciduous, losing its leaves in early fall, blooming and regaining them in Spring. The dying leaves, slightly rubbery in texture, take on a touch of
Autumn coloring that reveals a veined and capillaried web on their circular surfaces.

Two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, I hadnt seen traces of regeneration on this tree for months, but since then tiny leaf and bright pink flower buds have started to pop all over the gray bark.

More dramatic suspense was created by the grapevine in the backyard, now about 12 years old and the centerpiece of the arbor on the mid-hill terrace that creates an elegant shady bower in summer and a rich harvest of grapes and raisins. I cut the canes back to old wood to promote new growth and fruiting in November, hesitantly following some website instructions. But when no buds appeared, well after the native California grape along the eastern wall in front had started to leaf, I thought I’d have to pull out the whole venerable stock. I checked and poked everyday for a month, and then the day of the last entry, February 2, I found, two tiny sprouts.

Now two weeks later, I still wait for more.

There’s no new growth yet on the old oaks, the ones I planted seventeen years ago. But several recent volunteer Quercus agrifolia have come into leaf. I marvel at the fragility and tenderness of these infants, knowing that within the next four months they will expand and curl into thick, hard, thorny surfaces. These are the only volunteer natives that have cropped up since I started cultivating natives, testimony I think, to the fact that this north facing slope wants only to be an oak woodland.

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathecea, has been blooming here since January, almost as early as the Red Currant. I love the delicious pink, magenta and purple colors of its flowers springing modestly, just a few at a time, from teardrop shaped sheaths of its bud clusters.

I love the sticky clear residue it leaves on the fingers when touched, smelling tart and sweet as grape soda. I love its velvety green foliage that returns every year and spreads by rhizomes, overwhelming the dark brittle remaining stalks of last year’s growth. And I love the way it draws the hummingbirds low to the ground under the oaks, where it hides in the shade.

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