Century Plant

Century Plant

The Century Plant, or americana, is the largest agave in the gardens.  It’s variable in color, ranging from green to blue-gray, and some varieties displaying variegated leaves. This species is the iconic representation of the genus selected by botanist Carl Linnaeus. It can grow up to 10 feet. The long leaves can recurve dramatically, and leaf margins display brown teeth.

The name Century Plant refers to the monocarpic (one bloom) nature of the genus, where blooms occur only after several years, sometimes up to 30 years, though it may seem like a century for some to bloom.

The inflorescence (flowering stalk) can reach up to 26 feet with 15 to 35 branches on the upper third of the stem. The blooms are yellow and appear in summer. The bloom cycle is dependent on climate and in warmer regions may happen at around 10 years. In cooler climates, it may take up to 35 years to bloom. The plant will die after that bloom but has likely produced many clones around its base in the meantime.

Its distribution is uncertain but widespread.

Barometer Bush

Barometer Bush

Leucophyllum is the genus for a group of hardy desert shrubs. Most people know it from the common name Texas Ranger or Texas Sage, though it is not a Salvia. Years of commercial cultivation has created a variety of sizes and colors that guarantee a visual variation for almost every desert garden. It blooms in ranges of deep purple to violet and periwinkle, and its fuzzy leaves range from green to silver-gray. Even its size can vary from large shrubs, reaching 6 feet, to smaller compact shrubs.

Sunnylands initially installed six specimens of Leucophyllum spp., but over the years, there have been a few species that triumphed in the gardens. They were the most pest resistant and stood out in color and form. We have reduced the original six to three highlighted species. They are distributed throughout the gardens and can be identified by leaf and/or bloom. The three are, by common name: Green Cloud, Heavenly Cloud, and Sierra Bouquet. They are grouped together here under their genus Leucophyllum, so that their visual features are easy to compare when standing in the gardens.

GREEN CLOUD (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

Green foliage with purple flowers

HEAVENLY CLOUD (Leucophyllum x. ‘Heavenly Cloud’)

Green foliage with bright purple flowers

SIERRA BOUQUET (Leucophyllum pruinosum ‘Sierra Bouquet’)

Gray foliage with periwinkle flowers

 

Our Lord’s Candle

Our Lord’s Candle

Our Lord’s Candle can grow in two varieties, as a single or multi-clumped growth pattern. This is another species that can appear to be a rather large bunch grass or multi-mounded bunch grass, but is indeed a Yucca down to its sharp and rigid leaves. The long, blue-green to gray-green leaves are teethed and grow outward to create a globe shape to the plant.

This Yucca’s flowering stem can grow up to 13 feet, displaying bright white flowers that may have a purple tint. The stigma on Our Lord’s Candle is green, brush-like, and ends in a compact head, which is unique to this species. Like the agaves, this species of Yucca is monocarpic, meaning it will die after it blooms. In the mounding (or clumped) variety, each individual plant will bloom before completing its lifecycle. This can take many years, and some will live up to fifty years.

Our Lord’s Candle naturally occurs in chaparral and coastal scrub habitats in southern California and Baja California. Other varieties occur in the Mojave Desert and at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is heavily cultivated in the southwestern United States and in Europe.

 

 

Beaked Yucca

Beaked Yucca

Beaked Yucca is most obvious in the wildflower field. Entering from the path that starts in the middle of the parking lot and taking the route to the left, it lies immediately ahead on the left side of the path. When it was originally planted at ground level, it appeared like rigid bunch grass. In recent seasons, it began to be more obvious as a trunking species that will rise up between 6 and 15 feet. As each new row of leaves dies, it falls downward to create a skirt effect on the trunk. It can grow single or multi-headed branches. Its leaves are mostly rigid and may or may not have a slight curve.

Rostrata, like other yuccas, is truly in its glory when it blooms. Its large candelabras of pure white blooms signals that it is another species attractive to nocturnal pollinators, which is common in the desert. The main pollinator of yuccas is the Yucca Moth. They have a special symbiotic relationship with this genus and, although other pollinators may visit, the Yucca Moth is the real partner. The plant’s fruit is shaped with a point like a beak, which is why it is nicknamed Beaked Yucca.

The distribution of Beaked Yucca is in the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in northern Mexico, and western Texas in the United States.

Texas Bear Grass

Texas Bear Grass

Texas Bear Grass creates waves of grassy leaves throughout the lowest part of the retention basin in the lower gardens at the east side of the Center. This stemless plant resembles a large bunch grass, but it grows straight at its center, only arching to the ground at the outer edges.

It can tolerate full sun and full shade so long as the soil is kept dry. It is cold, hardy, and drought tolerant with some supplemental watering.

It blooms in the heat of the summer, sending up an inflorescence (flowered stem) with white creamy flowers. Mauve seedpods will follow. Propagation is by seed.

Its distribution is quite extensive and includes central Texas, southern New Mexico and Arizona, and continues south into Mexico in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

Mexican Grass Tree

Mexican Grass Tree

The genus Dasylirion refers to a group of native plants that resemble very large bunch grasses, having long, narrow leaves that grow from a central base. As Dasylirion ages, it can form a trunk that raises a grassy head. This is the source of the name “Grass Tree” for this species, which can grow a trunk 16 feet high. It is seen mostly at ground level. Mexican Grass Tree, unlike most Dasylirion, has smooth margins (edges) on its leaves. The species name quadrangulatum refers to the leaves’ shape, which appear rounded, but actually have four distinct sides. In a cross-sectional view, they have a diamond shape. An easy place to spot this plant at Sunnylands is outside the Center, east of the shuttle gate.

The Mexican Grass Tree is a distinct species and can be confused with Nolinas, another genus with a grass-like appearance. Mexican Grass Tree does well in full sun and partial shade, with a preference for some shade in the hottest climates. It may need additional summer irrigation. In temperate climates it requires very good drainage. Its ability to spread 9 feet, means that care needs to be taken when selecting its placement.

Mexican Grass Tree will send up a single inflorescence (flowered stem), with tiny, densely arranged cream-colored flowers. After pollination, it will set seed as its form of propagation, and will not set pups or clones like the desert succulents aloe and agave.

Distribution is the states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico and into the southwestern United States.

Lady Slipper/Slipper Flower

Lady Slipper/Slipper Flower

One of the most asked about plants in the gardens is the Lady Slipper, which is best described as a cluster of giant green beans growing directly out of the ground. This plant grows upright for about a foot or two and then drapes over or twists around into a truly sculptural display. This perennial succulent can be grown in the ground or in pots as a focal point, but it also does well as a backdrop to smaller plants. It is extremely versatile with one exception. It cannot be grown in locations that freeze, unless it can be brought inside during the cold months.

In summer, bracts (modified leaves) appear at some tips of the plant. They display a red triangular bloom, which looks like a tiny red slipper. The fun of this plant is that it can be propagated by seed and by cuttings, so collecting one stem can result in additional plants.

Lady Slipper is a native of the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora.

Euphorbia vs. Cactus

Euphorbias may be referred to as an “Old World” plant compared to those that are Cactaceae (cactus), which are referred to as a “New World” plant. “Old World” refers to plants with origins in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The “New World” refers to North, Central, and South America. While possibly meaningful for the purpose of biogeographic classifications, it is problematic because it places a colonial lens on the origin of species.

The origin of these terms according to the World Atlas:

‘‘Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine explorer, coined the term New World (Mundus Novus). He quoted the term in a letter he had written to his friend Lorienzo di Pier in the spring of 1503. In his letter, he asserted that the lands discovered by European navigators were not the edges of Asia as Christopher Columbus stated. Instead, they belonged to an entirely distinct continent, the “New World.” Another explorer, the Italian born Peter Martyr, supported the context of the New World. He used the term ‘Orbe Novo’ translated as ‘New Globe’ upon discovering the Americas in 1511.”

Euphorbias are indeed found in the Americas. Some Euphorbias at Sunnylands are native species to the Americas, so those looking for native species in the gardens can include this species on that list.

A better way to distinguish Euphorbia, which can sometimes look similar to a cactus, is by the white, milky latex that is in Euphorbia. Cactus will have a clear sap. This latex does have a toxicity level and may cause skin rashes if handled.

Formerly called Pedilanthus macrocarpus. 

Gopher Plant

Gopher Plant

The steel, blue-green Gopher Plant is unique in the gardens. It grows upward on stalks with leaves equally distributed down its stem. When planted among smooth agaves and aloes, it adds interest and contrast to their form. It only requires occasional water and can handle poor and/or rocky soil.

When Gopher Plant blooms, it forms a cluster of flowers in chartreuse bracts (modified leaves). The flower shape is reminiscent of a view through a kaleidoscope in its round, symmetrical pattern. This bee favorite is stunning when in full bloom, and when the blooms dry out, they continue to provide visual interest. Stems can be cut all the way down to the plant base after it blooms, where new stems will regrow.

This Euphorbia is native to southern Asia and southwestern Europe.

Golden Barrel

Golden Barrel

The Golden Barrel cactus forms dense wooly caps, from which it can grow crowns of yellow, cup-shaped blooms in spring and summer. These cactuses, like agaves and many other succulents, also produce clones and can create a colony of barrels all stemming from one parental plant.

At Sunnylands, this showstopper is planted in the scoria-mulched beds under the Palo Breas, adjacent the Center. Planted alone in rows, it draws visitors with cameras trying to capture unique views that emerge below the Palo Brea trees. In other parts of the gardens, it shares the spotlight with the San Pedro cactus.

Mary Irish, horticultural consultant on the project, describes these spotlights: “San Pedro cactus and Golden Barrel cactus are set like twin jewels on the dark base. This dramatic presentation is one of the artistic gems visitors find while wandering through the gardens.”

At sunset, the bright green flesh and yellow spines create a glowing effect that looks as if they radiate light.

This cactus, included on the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) list, is endangered in the wild. Transport across international lines is restricted as the demand for certain desirable species often results in their depletion at their home of origin, as they are poached and transported to private collections around the world. Now heavily commercially cultivated, they are more available, but as the plants grow to larger sizes, their price point increases, leaving older, wild specimens in danger of being poached.

 

San Pedro

San Pedro

San Pedro is planted throughout the gardens. You can see it in the specimen beds, in spotlight beds around the wildflower field, and the lower garden path. This is a columnar variety with very small spines spaced along the rib margins. In some cases, the spines are completely absent. Native at much higher elevations than Sunnylands, it nevertheless seems to thrive on the desert floor, as it is one of our most prolific bloomers.

The fragrant, white blooms open at night to await the nocturnal pollinators, bats, and moths.

The large, funnel-shaped blooms remain open the next morning, finding themselves the host of native bees who are completely engulfed by the long, pollen-covered stamens. The bees disappear into the bloom and re-emerge, speckled yellow.

San Pedro is native to Ecuador and Peru, where it is used extensively by indigenous cultures for medicine.

Red Yucca/Red Hesperaloe

Red Yucca/Red Hesperaloe

Our medium-sized Hesperaloe is the extremely popular parviflora species, called Red Yucca or Hesperaloe. Due to its easily managed size and beautiful flowers, it is one of the most common Hesperaloes you will see in public garden spaces. Growing up to 4 feet, it develops curving marginal filaments that pull away from the leaf edge, giving the appearance of coarse hair growing off the edges. This makes it easy to distinguish from other rosette-forming succulents.

Red Hesperaloe grows a flowering stalk called a raceme. It can grow to a height of 9 feet, though at Sunnylands it grows normally between 6 and 7 feet, much lower than the 16 foot raceme of its cousin Giant Hesperaloe. Its blooms vary in color through natural garden cross-pollination and human cultivation, but they tend to stay in the dark red to coral pink ranges. This species is a parent of the smaller Hesperaloe called Brakelights, also planted at Sunnylands.

Hesperaloe in general appears to be popular with not only nectaring hummingbirds but also with opportunistic Monarch and Queen Butterfly caterpillars. When Hesperaloe is placed near milkweed beds, chrysalis of both butterflies have been found attached to its leaves. But chrysalis also has been found on agaves, so this is not an identifying feature.

Giant Hesperaloe

Giant Hesperaloe

The Giant Hesperaloe is the largest species of the genus Hesperaloe. This giant grows a rosette of crescent-like leaves that reach 6-feet high. For those not familiar with the differing desert genera that grow in a similar style, it can be difficult to distinguish them when not in bloom. Hesperaloe has one helpful indicator for identification, no this pattern is not exclusive to this genus, it helps identify it in these gardens. It is curving marginal filaments that pull away from the leaf edge, giving the appearance of coarse, white hair growing off the edges. If you see those, you then need to determine which species of Hesperaloe you are seeing in the gardens, which is easy. You simply determine, if it is in the 6 foot leaf range and if it is, you are probably looking at the Giant as there are only three species in the gardens, and they fall into the large, medium, and small categories.

Hesperaloe can expand by clumping additional tiny rosettes around the parent plant, as well as setting seed through flowering. They also readily cross-pollinate and hybridize. Giant Hesperaloe displays both pink and white blooming varieties, which grow on a flowering stalk called a raceme. The raceme can reach up to 16 feet. The creamy-white flower is associated with the original funifera species, but the other is a pinkish-toned hybrid. These are both pollinator favorites.

Hesperaloe in general appears to be popular with not only nectaring hummingbirds but also with opportunistic Monarch and Queen Butterfly caterpillars. When Hesperaloe is placed near milkweed beds, chrysalis of both butterflies have been found attached to its leaves. But chrysalis also has been found on agaves, so this is not an identifying feature.