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Viburnum in December

One of the best blues in the plant world is the berry of David’s viburnum.  It sparkles like a distant northern star in the winter garden.  Dawn viburnum is just peeking out in shades of pale pink, petals before foliage on this plant.

Viburnum davidii

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

Strawberry Tree

Strawberry Tree Foliage

Arbutus unedo ‘compacta’  has no strawberries and is more shrub than tree, nevertheless, the strawberry tree is a versatile evergreen shrub.  With glossy green leaves, similar to a laurel, flowers, fruit and a textured cinnamon-colored bark , this plant looks good year round.  Usually.  If it’s not too cold.  It used to be okay, but lately….  It is rated to live in zones 7-10, but is often not tolerant of frosty weather.  Native to southern Europe it can be semi-evergreen during our recent winters.   Location is key.  When established and in full sun it seems to thrive.  Other spots that are more exposed might provide trouble for this plant.  However, this is a plant that is well worth the risk because of it’s unique features.  How welcome it is to have a plant that flowers well into the fall.  From October to December the strawberry tree produces cascades of creamy-colored urn shaped flowers.  I saw a hummingbird feeding from one just this week.  This plant provides a valuable food resource for these tiny birds during the autumn, when flowers are dwindling.  If your garden is filled with flowers for the hummingbirds to feed on every month, they just might stick around and call your yard their home January through December.  The fruits are quite  distinctive.  Bright and bumpy, red and roly-poly, they look like candy, hanging like little upside down lollipops, turning from green to yellow to red as they mature.  The fruit is quite edible, but most describe it as bland or bitter, letting the birds enjoy another treat from this shrub.  Cedar waxwings, varied thrushes, robins and starlings have all been noted to feed on the fruit.

Fruit and Flower

Unlike most other plants, the flowers and fruit of the strawberry tree occur at the same time….amazing!  The variety compacta reaches 6-8 feet tall 5-6 feet wide and  and is a multi-trunked shrub which can be pruned into a  hedge.   It can also be shaped or formed into a single-trunked small tree.  This Arbutus is a relative of another Arbutus, our native Pacific  madrone (Arbutus menziesii) which has the distinctive orange-red peeling bark.  Try a strawberry tree in the garden and you’ll make lots of feathered friends.

Wreath with strawberry tree fruit



Four Feisty Ferns

I’m studying plants for the CPH exam (certified professional horticulturist) and am fearful of the ferns.  They are long on Latin and difficult to memorize…so many syllables!  Here are some of the meanings of these four feisty ferns.  (From Dictionary of Plant Names by Timber Press)

Blechnum spicant or Deer Fern.  This is an evergreen native fern.     Blechnum is a Greek name for fern.  Spicant is tufted or hard fern.

Polystichum munitum  or Sword Fern.  Another evergreen native.  Polystichum means many rows, referring to the arrangement of sori.  Munitum is armed with teeth (leaf edges are toothed).

Dryopteris erythrosora or Autumn Fern has evergreen foliage.  Dryopteris means oak fern (growing beneath oaks?) and erythrosora is with red sori.

Athyrium niponicum ‘pictum’ is the Japanese painted fern, a deciduous plant.  Athyrium means without a door, for the enclosed sori, and nipponicum  is ‘from Japan’, pictum means painted.


The colors of this plant are so diverse, it’s like using an artist’s palette in the garden.  Amethyst, purple, chartreuse, black, caramel, multi-colored, chocolate, red, peach, burgundy and bronze are just a sampling of the colors.  This North American Native, also known as coral bells, is a perennial favorite with many uses; deer resistance, flowers for cutting, dramatic foliage color, container or woodland garden, and  attractive to hummingbirds.  It blooms in the spring and summer with either red, pink or white flowers on tall, airy stalks.  Size can be about 12 by 12 inches and grows best in full sun or partial shade.  Heuchera plants are happiest with neutral or slightly alkaline soil, so adding lime once a year in our area would help them thrive.  Happy heuchera!

NW Flower and Garden Show—Ciscoe and Meeghan

2011   Seattle’s famous plant expert Ciscoe Morris and Meeghan Black took questions from the audience for an hour and covered a variety of plant topics with insight and humor.   Conifers can lose branches if they are over-shaded, so try Hinoki Cypress, which can take shade and still look great.  Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘verdoni’  is a beautiful golden variety.  When young, witchhazels won’t drop their leaves in the fall and they even keep sticking into the spring and look ugly.  Prune them off until the plant is mature and can take care of this clean-up job on its own.  Sometimes when an early freeze comes, like our November freeze, many trees won’t drop their leaves either and they stick on all winter.  Blueberries like full sun and well-drained soil with tons of peat moss to absorb moisture.  Fertilize this fruit in April with an organic rhododendron food and make sure there are two varieties to cross-pollinate, for bigger, better fruit.  Peonies like lots of compost, full sun and really good drainage.  Never plant them too deep.  If the new sprouts coming up are under the soil, the peony may never bloom.  Someone asked how to get rid of horsetail and the reply was “move!”   They did say that if you plant some vigorous perennials over the horsetail, such as hardy geraniums, the horsetail will eventually get shaded out.  Also if you keep mowing it every two weeks, the horsetail will ultimately die off.  This also goes for other nasty weeds like blackberry, ivy and morning glory.  People always ask how to get rid of weeds.  They are looking for a magic potion, but the answer is usually the same:  pull them!  Ciscoe uses white vinegar on a warm dry day to kill weeds.  He also suggested the more good plants you have, the less weeds will grow in the shade, so keep planting!  Someone asked why their flowering currant was dying in the summer.  The reply was that Ribes sanguineum is a native plant and is used to what mother nature gives it, which is not much water in the summer.  Too much watering will kill it quickly.   Crape myrtle can be a gorgeous ornamental flowering shrub, but try the varieties with the Indian names, they are less prone to disease.  Pruning hydrangeas can be tricky.  For mopheads, cut 1/3 of the canes to the ground.  Prune last years growth back a few buds, and this will ensure blooms which occur on old wood.  Just a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the flower show!


The Canary Islands, native home of Echium

The Canary Islands, native home of echium

Some things don’t work out.  Growing Echium in Sammamish.  New Years resolutions.  Life.  The lava mouse.  Echium pininana is a brilliant plant, but difficult here in the Northwest.  A biennial, it produces a flower spike in it’s second year up to 18 feet tall.  This tower of small blue flowers will suck any gardener into a bee-buzzed trance.  They will stare at this sub-tropical soaring Echium with mouths open, eyes glazed, and images of exotic ornamentals dancing in their heads.  All I had to do was read the tag at the nursery–up to 18 feet tall–and I was hooked.  Could I do it?  I had to try!  I was optimistic after hearing the testimonial from a fellow gardener.  He grew Echium pininana here in the NW.  He built a cold frame around his Echium for twowinters (sometimes it’s a triennial).  He placed a heat lamp in the cold frame.  He watched his Echium grow to it’s glory the third summer, drawing forth gasps from passers-by and swarming bees.  Since my eyes were still slightly glazed as I imagined this tall exotic in my very own yard, I didn’t quite grasp all the effort involved in growing this outstanding species.  Innocently I planted my 1 gallon in west facing sun—spring.  In zone denial I watched the large rosettes of leaves grow to three feet tall—summer.  Reality hit hard as I watched it turn to black slime—fall, as temperatures went below freezing.  Reality gets me again, even though I prefer living in the world of my imagination.

Imagine traveling to the far-off Northwest coast of Africa and visiting the beautiful Canary Islands, native home of Echium.  The world’s third largest volcano, Teide, is found there, but sadly no longer the extinct lava mouse.  I was stunned to find out that the average low temperature in January in the Canary Islands is 58 degrees F.  The average low is in the upper 50’s?!!   What are we doing growing Echium here when our average lows hover around freezing?  This is not a small difference, and to me it translates to ’summer annual’, not the half’-hardy biennial they claim in Southern England.

However, if your eyes are still glazed over and thoughts of 18 feet of flowers are dreamily floating through your head, here are the details on growing tree echium, or tower of jewels, it’s other bewitching name.  Planted in the spring it will grow several feet it’s first summer, producing big beautiful rosettes of leaves.  When winter arrives it will demand protection from the cold.  Courage and fortitude and best of luck.  The following spring the tip will begin to elongate and a succession of tiny blue fowers will bloom from April-October on a cone 10-18 feet tall.  During the early spring the growth rate can reach almost two inches a day!  Echium can become top heavy and needs to be planted firmly in the ground or they will tip over.  Also, Echium will lean towards the light, so providing a spot that receives full sun from different angles will produce a straighter plant.  This species can be invasive in warmer climates (California), dropping over 200,000 seeds per plant.

Even though not everything works out, it’s still fun to try.  Challenge yourself this spring.  Make imagination a reality and grow a tower of jewels in your very own yard.  Or simply enjoy those lovely sub-tropical summer annuals.

Echium in my garden.