Califonia Bountiful

Gardening with a twist!

Mar./Apr. 2015 California Bountiful magazine

Quirky plants lend points of interest

More online:Gardening Q&A, to-do list and myths uprooted

When I started gardening, I vowed my garden would not be filled with common plants. I wanted fabulous perennials, unusual shrubs, stunning grasses and multi-season trees. I read garden catalogs as though they were best-selling novels, and slowly, I assembled an eclectic assortment of plants most people had never seen. With spring upon us, it might be time to add unique plants to your garden—and here are five of my favorites:

Burning Bush

This standout is part of a genus of widely planted shrubs used for borders: euonymous. This one—Euonymous monstrosa, also called Burning Bush or winged euonymous—promises to be a graceful plant with year-round interest.

Burning Bush sports corky wings along the stems. The foliage turns bright red in the fall, and once the leaves have fallen away, you see tiny red berries hanging from the stems. In spring it starts with little yellow flowers before leafing out. The foliage is a fresh green color; the leaves are simple yet beautiful. The plant tolerates poor soil, doesn't require a lot of water and is happy enough in full sun, though it prefers a bit of afternoon shade.

Gladwyn Iris

Few iris aficionados have grown the Gladwyn Iris, Iris foetidissima, commonly called roast beef iris or stinking iris. Its foliage is the same as the typical iris, though greener. The flowers look like those of bearded iris, though smaller and muted in color. It's the fat seedpods that break open in the fall to reveal clusters of bright orange berries that lure gardeners to this plant. The leaves, when crushed, are supposed to have an unpleasant odor. Better to leave the foliage alone and enjoy the seedpods. Like its bearded iris cousins, it is a survivor, thriving with little water or care. The plant forms clumps that increase in size each year. When the sword-like foliage starts to look messy, I cut the foliage to the ground.

Tower of Jewels

Tower of Jewels, Echium wildprettii, is a showstopper. In its second year, it sends up a plump stalk, often 6 to 9 feet tall, that, in full bloom, is covered with spirals of coral-colored flowers that eventually fade to blue.

A biennial best grown from seed, it begins life as a fuzzy seedling that grows into a lush, gray-leaved whorl of spiky leaves. It blooms from the bottom up, and the flowers turn blue as they age. By season's end, nothing is left except a hairy, silver skeleton, dripping with masses of seed.

Wear gloves when pulling the plant out of the garden; by the time it dies back, the soft silvery hairs have become stiff and prickly. I scoop up the seeds and put them in a paper bag. They make great gifts to other gardening friends. Even though it drops copious amounts of seeds, Tower of Jewels is not invasive. It prefers to sprout where the soil is bare, and dislikes being transplanted. Just sprinkle the seed on the ground and forget it. Full sun, average soil and a limited amount of water are the only ingredients needed for success.

Witch Hazel

A mature Witch Hazel (Hamamelis sp.) is a spectacular sight: The flowers appear late winter on bare brown branches and look like crumpled ribbons in shades of bright yellow, pale yellow, even orange. The flowers last for weeks, and often the plant is in bloom for two or three months. Witch Hazel is a notoriously slow grower, so it takes a few years to get enough flowering branches to cut, but it's worth the wait.

The flowers have an unusual, yet powerful scent—although you have to stick your nose in them to find it. Traditionally, the leaves and bark of the American Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, were used to make an astringent. Witch Hazel is still used in a variety of health and skin care products. The shrub, which grows to about 6 feet tall, is handsome all year.

If you want to bring the flowering branches indoors, cut the branches before the flowers open, scrape the bottom inch of the bark away and put them in warm water. Keep replenishing the warm water each day, and they'll open inside. 

Oakleaf Hydrangea

I found the Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, with its pendulous clusters of white flowers, while reading a garden catalog. Like other hydrangeas, the flowering panicles are a mixture of showy sepals and small fertile flowers. As the season progresses, they take on a pink tinge before finally turning a straw color and drying on the plant. The leaves turn shades of red and maroon each autumn before falling off to reveal branches circled with strips of peeling, cinnamon-colored bark. The flower clusters persistently hang on the plant, even as winter weather robs them of color.

The foliage is fabulous. The leaves, rough with light green above, whitish beneath and big—up to 10 inches across—are shaped like an oak leaf. In fall, they turn shades of red, orange and yellow. It is a graceful shrub that grows 6 to 8 feet tall. Plant it under taller trees and shrubs or where it will be shaded from the afternoon sun, but allow it room to spread out. Oakleaf Hydrangea prefers moist conditions, but adapts to drier gardens. Prune immediately after it flowers because it sets flower buds in the fall.

Oakleaf Hydrangea is readily available to home gardeners with several named cultivars in the trade, including 'Alice,' 'Harmony,' 'Snow Queen,' 'Snow Flake' and compact cultivars like 'Sikes Dwarf' and 'Pee Wee.'

Pat Rubin

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