Gold, Green, and Silver: Three Colorful Forms for Three Garden Functions

By: Carol Bornstein

Carol Bornstein is one of Southern California’s most highly respected native plant specialists and co-author with David Fross and Bart O’Brien…

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Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.   

 Frank Lloyd Wright

At some point in the design process, whether landscape professional or home gardener, we focus our attention on plant selection. With wish list or planting plan in hand, we try to find just the right plant for this or that spot. Ultimate size, site conditions, and long-term maintenance needs are all-important criteria; however, a plant’s physical appearance—its form, color, and texture—is usually paramount. Color typically ranks high, but our search may be driven by the need for a particular form in order to fulfill a specific function in the garden. Three new native California cultivars from the plant introduction program at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (SBBG) offer new choices for a variety of garden situations.

Fremontodendron ‘Dara’s Gold’. Author’s photographs, except as noted

Fremontodendron ‘Dara’s Gold’. Author’s photographs, except as noted

A Mound of Green and Gold

It does not take long for newcomers to the Golden State to discover the glorious orange yellow blossoms of flannel bush (Fremontodendron). These stunning shrubs command center stage during their springtime floral display. Under optimal conditions, flannel bushes are fast growers. Although they respond to pruning, irritating hairs on leaves and stems can make the task unpleasant. Left unchecked, the most widely available cultivars (‘California Glory’, ‘Pacific Sunset’, and ‘San Gabriel’) and their parent species (Fremontodendron mexicanum and F. californicum) can easily attain ten to fifteen or even twenty-five feet in height and width.

Several flannel bush selections with decumbent forms have been developed in the past for smaller gardens. Fremontodendron ‘Ken Taylor’ and ‘El Dorado Gold’ fit this category, along with ‘West Hills Hybrid’ and ‘Margo’; unfortunately, the latter two are hard to find outside botanic garden plant sales. Thanks to the encouragement of several wholesale growers, F. ‘Dara’s Gold’, bred by Dara Emery in 1970 (several years ahead of the other selections), now joins this elite group. SBBG is pleased to honor Dara’s numerous contributions to California horticulture by naming this outstanding cultivar after him.

A hybrid of Fremontodendron californicum subsp. decumbens and F. mexicanum, ‘Dara’s Gold’ is a beautiful, low-mounding shrub that tops out at roughly three feet tall and spreads to six feet or more. Unlike the aforementioned cultivars, ‘Dara’s Gold’ has somewhat glossy green leaves and its bowl-shaped flowers are decidedly yellow, without the typical orange undertone. It is an ideal candidate for slopes, especially when viewed from below to fully appreciate the slightly nodding, sun yellow blossoms. ‘Dara’s Gold’ is well suited to a classic composition of yellow flannel bush and blue ceanothus, but don’t rule out a host of other drought-tolerant partners, such as woolly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum), blue sage (Salvia clevelandii), our Lord’s candle (Yucca whipplei), or any number of buckwheats (Eriogonum).

Fremontodendron ‘Dara’s Gold’ grows surprisingly well in large containers, blooming for months on end while sporting its handsome foliage year-round. Plants in full sun flower more generously, yet those in part shade perform admirably. All flannel bushes are susceptible to deadly, root-rotting fungal diseases; except for container-grown plants, summer watering on poorly drained soils is almost certainly the kiss of death. To avoid this situation, provide them with well-drained soil and give only enough water during the first couple of summers to keep the plants from shriveling; after establishment, they will survive with little or no supplemental water, except in extreme drought years. Plants in containers will need careful, but regular watering.

Arctostaphylos ‘Arroyo Cascade’. Photograph by Steve Junak; inset by author

Arctostaphylos ‘Arroyo Cascade’. Photograph by Steve Junak; inset by author

A Pink and Green Carpet

Selecting from the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) cultivars and species already in the nursery trade can be daunting. A good percentage of these occur naturally along the central and northern coast of California—areas that receive considerably higher rainfall than Santa Barbara and points south. At our garden, for example, all A. uva-ursi and many A. edmundsii selections need supplemental irrigation to thrive. A drought-tolerant, truly prostrate ground-covering manzanita for southern California gardens would be a welcome addition, and A. ‘Arroyo Cascade’ is just that.

For years, ‘Arroyo Cascade’ has prospered at SBBG in both full sun and part shade, in both well-drained and fairly heavy soils, and with little to no supplemental water. Rosy pink blossoms in winter complement the three-quarter-inch-long, slightly gray green leaves, and reddish stems. Our oldest plant (thirty-one years) is now nine feet across, but ‘Arroyo Cascade’ spreads slowly, making it an excellent choice for small gardens. Let several spill down a gentle slope or drape over a low retaining wall. Its ground-hugging nature makes ‘Arroyo Cascade’ ideal for rock gardens or for softening the boulder-strewn edge of a pond. Where space is precious, use it to gracefully adorn a favored pot.

Dara Emery had a hand in this selection as well. He and former SBBG director Ralph Philbrick collected this natural hybrid of Arctostaphylos hookeri subsp. hearstiorum and A. cruzensis (both of which are rare in the wild) in San Luis Obispo County in 1972.

Hyptis emoryi ‘Silver Lining'

Hyptis emoryi ‘Silver Lining’

Spires of Silver

Sometimes it takes the introduction of a cultivar for a worthy species to garner attention. Although desert dwellers are familiar with desert-lavender (Hyptis emoryi), gardeners along the south coast and in inland valleys may not have made its acquaintance. With H. emoryi ‘Silver Lining’, we hope to heighten interest in this wonderfully fragrant native shrub.

Desert-lavender is common in Mojave and Sonoran desert washes and canyons. Larger than its European relatives (the true lavenders in the genus Lavandula), this exceptionally drought-tolerant shrub can easily fit into gardens of modest proportions. An upright, slightly arching shrub that grows four to ten feet tall, desert lavender is valuable in narrow beds, releasing a whiff of its deliciously spicy aroma as one brushes by. Pruning a branch here or there to contain the plant is a pleasant chore. Plants thrive with a recipe of full sun, good drainage, minimal water, and relatively frost-free conditions.

Masked by a cloak of fuzzy bracts, the tiny, vivid to pale blue violet flowers of desert-lavender barely register to the human eye, yet hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies are frequent visitors. Its foliage usually reads as a rather dull, ashy gray from a distance. Occasionally, more lustrous specimens occur in the wild, and ‘Silver Lining’ exemplifies these variants. Its soft, silvery white, rounded leaves are distinctive, as is its slightly more vertical habit. The young stems are often flushed with purple, echoing the flower color.

The value of ‘Silver Lining’ extends beyond narrow spaces; it provides height and verticality in a decorative pot and softens boldly textured succulents. The whitish leaves and upright habit are particularly striking in contrast to the deep green rosettes of Shaw’s agave (Agave shawii), for example. Combine ‘Silver Lining’ with white sage (Salvia apiana), Conejo buckwheat (Eriogonum crocatum), liveforevers (Dudleya), Lessingia ‘Silver Carpet’, and Ceanothus cuneatus var. rigidus ‘Snowball’ to create a drought-tolerant, California version of the famous white garden at Sissinghurst. Regardless of its function in the garden, bring some sprigs of the downy foliage indoors for potpourri or as filler in floral arrangements.