We’ve been visiting Mountain States Nursery’s booths at conferences around the Southwest, everywhere but Sacramento, dreaming about exotic plant shapes, colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes to try back home…
This is actually a small deciduous tree/shrub, not a real willow at all. Flowers in colors from deep burgundy to pink, with lots of two-toned options.
Puffs of funky bright red flowers, little water, takes heat and cold.
This plant grows in hot sun with little water, blooms all summer when mature and is a hummingbird magnet.
After concluding that getting their plants in Sacramento was basically Mission Impossible, we walked into our local landscape trade show to see a Mountain States booth. Is it true? They’re here? Apparently, thanks to the drought people are finally getting interested in their plants, enough for the nursery to bring them here for us to create intriguing new landscapes.
Although they blamed the drought for the increased interest, you shouldn’t need a drought to fall in love with these plants. They’re interesting in many ways: form, color, ecological benefits… As designers, we like having a new range of accent and massing plants to play with – especially when we know they won’t look horrible after one of those 110° heat waves.
As new introductions arrive, the choices other than rocks and cactus for coping with the drought expand. We can create exotic floral displays, plant textures from fine to bold, new-age spiky for silhouetting against a wall or classically mounded forms that play well with the neighbors.
The best thing about high desert plants from higher elevations is that they take heat and cold. They can be fussy about drainage, but planting them on mounds generally suffices. No matter how hot it gets in Sacramento these things won’t fry. Not even in reflected heat and blazing sun.
If used with other Mediterranean plants with similar water requirements, you can create a colorful landscape that says, “exotic” more than “desert”. Use ornamental grasses, Calliandra, sundrops and desert willow for a soft look with seasonal color. Or mix palo verde, manzanita, bulbine and matiljia poppies (if you’ve got the space) for a bit more contrast of form. Use California fuchsia, white sage, Agave ‘Blue Glow’, blue gramma grass and Marguerita BOP penstemons to take it up a notch… Or create something architectural based on Agave ‘Blue Glow’, pink hesperaloe, Salvia chamaedryoides, ‘Emerald Carpet’ manzanita and Euphorbia antisyphilitica.
Although there were more plants than I remember, these are the ones I’d like to play with in the future. Some are new varieties of familiar friends; others are new and exciting things for experimenting.
Hesperaloe flowers used to come in coral. That was pretty much it, as shown in the photo. It’s a good color, but people like choices. Now, you can get compact red (H. ‘Brakelights’), yellow (H. parviflora ‘Yellow’) and pink (H. ‘Pink Parade’) – or keep the coral flowers. The yellow plants are clones – like in your favorite science fiction movie, only not as dangerous. The benefit is that the plants have close to identical growth rates, all else being equal, so you can mass them and get all geometric in your planting design, perhaps for a modern landscape.
Desert willows – Chilopsis
These small trees put on quite a show during their flowering season. The original species had long, drooping seed pods that people weren’t as fond of, especially in leafless winter. Producing seed pods also shortens the blooming season, since the plant’s efforts move from flowers to seeds. New varieties produce fewer seed pods for more blooms, and you can choose between the typical burgundy/pink/lilac flowers, deep burgundy, lilac pink and deep crape myrtle like pinks. Mature plants run from around 20 to 30 feet tall and equally wide. They tend to grow as multi-trunked trees and are well suited for patios in sunny locations, especially where reflected heat would stress other choices like Japanese maples.
A new hybrid calliandra – feather duster – was on display at the show. It did look a bit finer and more compact than either of its parents, but the real bonus was that it should survive in Sacramento. These plants may attract hummingbirds, although it’s not clear if our local hummingbirds would know what to do with the fuzzy things. Calliandras make a great semi-transparent shrub to combine for a layered effect with deer grass, emerald carpet manzanita and bulbine.
If you really feel this drought deserves some cactus, there’s a new cold hardy spineless gray prickly pear (Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’) that can be used as a background plant – it gets about six feet tall. I’m not a fan of pure cactus gardens because when I walk around the desert I don’t just see cactus: there are shrubs and other plants growing among the cacti. So, if I were to yield to my cactus desires, I’d 86 the hard to remove gravel and surround the cactus with native narrow-leaf milkweed, California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and Howard McMinn manzanita if I had the space. Maybe I’d throw in some naked lady bulbs for deep pink amaryllis flowers backed by blue-gray cactus. Maybe I’d a bit of autumn sage, for extended color and happier hummingbirds. Then I’d throw in a bit of blue grama grass for extra fuzziness to contrast with the bold pads of the cactus.
Desert Museum palo verde trees do seem to be catching on in Sacramento. We’ve used them in two projects so far. They don’t do as well as in Arizona or Southern California, but they still produce a nice show of bright yellow flowers floating over a translucent light green tree with green bark. The benefits of this variety are no spines, larger flowers and better cold tolerance than most varieties of palo verde.
They carry some hardy agaves, even smaller species – but it looks like Monterey Bay Nursery has a better selection for our area. Between the two nurseries, you should be able to enjoy Weber agave (the source of Tequila), A. parryi, A. blue glow, A. sharkskin and others. If you’re looking for some giant A. salmiana, let me know: I have a lot of pups coming off the mother plant that would be happy to move in with you and grow, grow grow. None of these is huggable; soft, spineless varieties can’t take much cold and won’t survive in the Sacramento area.