In Glen Ellen, California, just an hour or two north of San Francisco, there’s a 25 acre plot of land. In the 1900s, it was mined for rock to build roads. In 1964, a fire burned it to the ground. A few years later, Jane Davenport Jansen saw something in the ruined land and bought it. And after countless seed collecting trips to Asia, it’s now the Quarryhill Botanical Garden, the one of the largest collections of Asian plants anywhere. And it’s a marvel.
Quarryhill sticks out in many ways. In the middle of wine country, you drive by miles of grape groves, tidy lines on the hillsides, before getting to this oasis of wild nature. Yet, the place is also unnatural, as all of the plants come from half a world away. Still, they thrive in the California sun. It was so bizarre to walk around the garden on a spring day so hot it felt like summer, but see none of the chaparral or succulents California is famous for.
Instead, the place is overflowing with species grown from seeds collected across Asia. Japanese maples (Acer) were clearly a favorite, and our visit coincided with them all forming their propeller-shaped seeds. Dogwoods (Cornus) were in bloom. The grooves left from the mining have turned into streams and ponds, overflowing with Lotus flowers, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my visit to Thailand. And bees were everywhere, doing their important work.
I was especially happy to spot an Asian Aroid, a rare treat to find outside in California. The flower at right is an Arisaema of some kind. Alas, I neglected to note the species name. (Any guesses, smart plant peeps?)
As Sonoma Magazine put it, Quarryhill is “a little piece of Eden.” If you’re anywhere near northern California, don’t miss it.
There’s a small room in my house where I grow tropical plants. There are lights and fans, the door stays closed, and on a good day it’s 80 degrees and moist as a jungle. The plants love it. Unfortunately, so do pests that thrive in that environment.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve had an aphid problem in that room for months. Aphids are supposedly the easiest pest to get rid of. Most sites suggest simply wiping them off. I’m here to tell you, that didn’t work. Neither did a fine selection of soaps, horticultural oils, and other sprays marketed to get rid of aphids.
I dreamed of building some sort of tiny killer nanobots to crawl every last leaf and destroy all those aphids one by one. Then I realized that nature already created such a thing: Ladybugs.
Ladybugs are a kind of beetle (Coccinellids) that feast on soft insects like aphids, but do not eat plants (at least not the ones that are sold as biological controls). I figured it was worth a try, so I picked up a batch of them at the local hardware store’s garden department and unleashed them in my jungle.
Here are some things I learned in the process.
Ladybugs are kept in a refrigerator in the store, which slows them down so much you think they’re dead. They’re not. Once they come to room temperature, they start zooming around.
Also, when they warm up, they really warm up. Prepare to see ladybug sex. Lots of ladybug sex.
As instructed, I misted all the plants with water before I released them, which gives them something to drink and stick to. I also released them at night (ladybugs don’t fly at night, so they stay put).
These suckers like to explore. We taped up the heating vent in the room so that they couldn’t get out, but they soon discovered that there was more than enough space to crawl under the door. We found them wandering around the house until we put a town down to block the gap.
The good news is that ladybugs are the one kind of bug people are generally delighted to see. When a houseguest pointed to the coffee table and asked, “Is that a ladybug?” I casually scooped it up, deposited it in a nearby houseplant, and said, “Yup!”
Get used to the sight of dead ladybugs. They will die. You will have to sweep them up. Try not to get too attached.
My wife is a saint for letting me release hundreds of bugs in the house on purpose. (But I knew that already.)
The ladybugs went to town on the local aphid population. It’s been a month now and there are still a few ladybugs wandering around and not an aphid to be found.
According to the packaging, all that ladybug sex I witnessed should lead to the females laying eggs after a few weeks. When the larva emerge, they look like tiny alligators, and they come out hungry. Each is said to be able to eat 200 aphids. I haven’t seen any eggs or tiny alligators yet, which is probably for the best, since I think all the aphids are already gone. There’ll be more. There’s always more.
And while ladybugs are excellent aphid eliminators, they do nothing for another pest that likes that room: spider mites. Fortunately, there’s a predatory bug for them, too.
Should you try it? Maybe. If you can put all the bug-afflicted plants in one room and seal it off for a couple weeks, or if you have a dedicated greenhouse, go for it. Worst case scenario, you wind up with a ladybug visiting you while you garden, which is sure to bring a smile. But I wouldn’t recommend you give them free roaming rights to your house. One ladybug is adorable. Hundreds of them is actually kind of terrifying.
Amorphophallus is a really cool genus of plants, though I’m realizing their downside as houseplants.
First, to get the giggles out of the way, yes, the word is derived the Greek meaning “misshapen penis,” which is a good description of their flowers. But the flowers only happen every once in a (sometimes very long) while. The rest of the time, they just make intricate, fractal-like, beautiful foliage.
That’s my Amorphophallus henryi last year. Even though it looks like lots of leaves, that’s actually just one leaf. I made this awesome timelapse of its hypnotic leaf dance as it emerged.
Amorphophallus come up from bulbs. Their schedule isn’t exactly yearly. Mine seem to come and go on their own schedule, with different bulbs of the same species breaking dormancy at different times. I find it fascinating that, somewhere in that bulb, a switch is thrown every time they break dormancy. Sometimes the spike that emerges is another treelike plant, sometimes it’s a flower. And that’s where the houseplant trouble begins.
Amorphophallus flowers are pollinated by carrion flies. As their name implies, their usual fare is dead stuff. So, to attract its pollinators, the Amorphophallus does its best to smell like rotting flesh. And over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution it’s become very good at it.
So this long, skinny flower is why I cannot currently sit comfortably in my living room. And it hasn’t even reached its peak yet.
It’s beautiful, right? Just enjoy looking at it without smelling it. Unless you’re a carrion fly, in which case this is your best day ever.
Three Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) flowers blooming at the same time. The red one on top is ‘Beauty Bells’ and the white ones on bottom are ‘Evergreen.’ One photo per minute for four days, compressed to 30 seconds.
I’ve visited the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers many times, but today I got a new vantage. Olloclip is an attachment for the iPhone that adds a macro lens to the camera. (There’s a wide-angle and a fisheye, too, but I mostly like it for the macro.) The lens allowed me to see the tiniest of flowers ultra close up.
There’s an awkward corner at the front of my building. It’s a tight 90º turn where a planter would work so long as it kept out of the way. The perfect shape would be a triangle, but since I couldn’t find one (how hard it is to make triangular planter?), I decided to build one myself.
The final project came out quite well. It’s 2 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and has 2 tiers for planting in, and I only bled once. I even added a floor with holes for drainage. All it took was some wood (Poplar – more on that in a moment), a circular saw that could handle 45º cuts, a drill, a few screws, and as much of my high school geometry class as I could remember.
I’m quite proud of the way it came out. Yesterday I did the planing.
I think it looks pretty good!
What I didn’t know when I bought the wood is that Poplar is not very rot resistant. All wood planters rot eventually, it’s just a matter of when. (Mental note: Cedar and Redwood last the longest. Next time.) To help extend the life of the planter, I decided to use a cactus mix and plant only low-water plants, so that I could keep the container quite dry (which should keep it from rotting quickly).
For the bottom row, I selected succulents that should stay small: Echeveria, Kalanchoe, and Sedum. It’s planted pretty tight but I just wanted to put everything in and see how they do.
On top, I kept with the low-water requirement, but went in a different direction. Around the sides I planted Sempervivum, which will, in time, form a dense mat and spill over the edges. I needed something small because in the center I planted a giant.
The Giant Sea Squill, aka Drimia maritima, is the largest flowering bulb in the world! This bulb was about a foot across. This season, it should form a huge half-circle of spear-shaped, wavy leaves. And when it’s ready, it’ll shoot a spray of flowers up 3-5 feet.
The Sea Squill grows in sandy crevices in beachy areas, so it’s good in costal climates with arid sand. When I bought it, the salesman said, “plant it, water it, and then never water it again.’ Sounds like the perfect crown jewel for my new two-tier low-water triangle planter extravaganza.
No, this is not a Christmas decoration, but it is pretty festive. Can you guess what it is?
Step back and you can see the golfball-sized clusters of flowers. Got it yet?
Okay, here’s the big reveal. It’s the original Fred!
Longtime readers my know the story of my Dracaena fragrans, but the short version is, this guy’s a fighter. I’ve had him for twenty years. This is his third bloom. And this one is really driving home the “fragrans” in Dracaena fragrans. Dude smells like an explosion in a perfume factory, especially at night.