Life and Death and Agave


              For many people, their greatest achievements come at the end of life when they have gained great wisdom and experience.  This too is so with agaves, those extraordinarily tough succulents unique to our new world deserts.  Among them is locally native Agave deserti, with its twisted rosettes of blue leaves that contain a vital source of strong, yet soft fiber harvested a century ago by Cahuilla weavers. Newcomers to desert gardening discover their beautifully blooming plant cannot be coaxed to live after flowers fade.  This is because agaves bloom but once in their lifetime in a spectacular  effort to reproduce itself both by seed, and by cloning itself vegetatively just before death. The entire life span of an agave serves just one purpose: to store enough energy to produce an enormous flower spike.  Those grown for the manufacture of tequila are harvested just before the flowers form, when sugar content is highest to enhance the fermentation process. Some species produce branching spikes with tufts of bright yellow flower clusters at the tips.  Others are a single stalk sheathed in flowers.  It’s believed the highly held flowers allow their scent to lure pollinators over long distances across a barren desert.  Another reason for agave’s very tall spikes is bats, which relish the nectar.  Eco location makes it dangerous when agaves are in a habitat filled with many other spiny or thorny plants.  But with flowers high above the spines, bats easily find and feed upon the nectar, thus ensuring pollination. Each species of agave grows for a certain time span needed to accumulate these sugars.  The average is about 25 years, but some may live far longer.  Problems arise with short lived agaves because they may not last long enough to use in outdoor landscaping. One of our most commonly used species is dark green, vase-shaped Agave desmettiana.  It is the best example of many ways agaves reproduce to sustain the species in difficult climates.  After the bloom stalk sheds its flowers, small perfect plants called bulbils form where blooms detach.  They are the back-up plan for reproduction because conditions are so dry that it’s rare for some agave to grow from seed in the wild.  These bulbils are genetic clones of the mother plant, and when they get large enough they detach in the wind and fall, littering the ground around the mother.  Here they’ll root and grow to maturity unless gathered by an intrepid gardener. This bulbil production is only found in a few species, which coincidentally include our low desert tolerant Agave vilmorniana and Agave angustifolia.  When an agave is old enough to bloom it will do so in spring. My first bulbils were found in the parking lot where they littered the pavement beneath a blooming mother plant.  I rescued as many as I could, stuffing them into my purse to take home to plant in the sand and shade of my irrigated garden.  They were tucked into natural soil
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Free Oak Trees from Acorns


Within every summer acorn lives a mighty oak eager to inhabit your yard! It’s easy to grow a whole forest of them from acorns collected now into fall from locally native trees. Best of all they won’t cost you a penny. An oak tree seedling can have a huge taproot supporting just a few inches of top growth. This is why native oaks started in containers often fail because the taproot hits the bottom of the pot and becomes distorted almost immediately after germination. A straight deep taproot is vital to the tree’s drought resistance. Wildland revegetation experts have proven the best way to plant a tree is from a freshly cracked acorn, and now is the perfect time to get started on your free oak tree forest. Gather only perfect acorns that have fallen and put them in a plastic container and refrigerate. This simulates winter. In midwinter in California or early spring elsewhere, remove from storage and set outside in an empty nursery pot. There the acorns will start to crack proving it is viable as the tap root begins to grow. When the acorn has the slightest new crack, plant in the ground where you want the tree to grow.  Set the acorn on its side six inches deep. Nature will do the rest.

Apaches and Agave Plants Before Tequila

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Aguamiel translated from the precolumbian Nahuatl language is honey water, describing a sweet liquid secreted at the heart of the agave. It was collected and fermented into an alcoholic drink known to the Aztecs as pulque. Pulque consumption was strictly regulated. If you were under the age of 52 you could drink two cups a day. If over 52 you could enjoy three. And if you were a priest and practiced human sacrifice for the pulque goddess Mayahuel, you could down five cups. Yet anyone found drunk on pulque was put to death. Fortunately the “civilized” Spanish conquerors made it ok to get sauced on pulque no matter what age you are. Further north many agave species were known generally as mescal, used so extensively by certain Apaches they became known as Mescalero Apaches. They also utilized the fibers that run the length of agave leaves, a factor that distinguishes this genus of plants from the similar looking but fleshy aloes. Known as maguey (maw-gay) in central Mexico, these are considered the earliest fibers ever used in North America. Some believe they are among the first plants ever cultivated in these regions. With so much history, agaves belong in every ethnobotanical garden. They also make first class landscape plants that are architecturally dramatic and tough as nails. But agave does not flower every year like the aloes, yuccas and gasterias. The cycle of the agave begins with an individual “mother” plant. This produces adventurous roots that spread out in all directions and produce “pups” or new shoots all around the base of the mother. Eventually the mother will bloom with an extraordinary tall bloom spike that in some species may reach twenty feet. Sadly, she will die soon after the flowers mature and set seed. But worry not because the pups will quickly fill in the gap where she once stood. Pups make it very easy to obtain an agave by cutting them away with some root from the mother plant. In today’s garden just a few agaves are widely available and reasonably well adapted where winters are mild. The most common in the United States is Agave americana, or the century plant, a large blue fleshed species with wicked thorns hardy to 15°F.. Erroneously named because they bloom once in a century, these plants actually flower at ten to thirty years of age depending on the climate.The variegated form of this species is far more dramatic in the landscape. Its long leaves can be more irregular and striped gold. Another, variegated form with creamy white accent is sold as Agave americana media picta. It makes a superior single specimen so its color and form are appreciated in isolation. Perhaps the most widely planted agave in moist frost-free coastal regions is Agave attenuata. Its soft tipped , succulent sea green rosettes blend nicely into more traditional landscapes. They make an outstanding container plant. When this species blooms it produces a huge pendulous spike quite similar to an elephant trunk. The
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Traditional Italian Seed for A Cook’s Garden


I knew the Zanellas had lived in America for fifty years, and yet they still refused to speak English.  Their daughters spoke Italian in the home where Ernesto and Lena retained the simple values and lifestyle of the Old Country.  They are too old to continue their gardening, and there’s no way they’d browse the ‘Net, but I know this couple would have loved the Italian Seed and Tool Company catalog! For anyone who shares this same heritage of Italian gardening in America, this site is a must see.  They are the distributor of Bavicchi of Italy garden seeds.  This distinctively Italian collection will appeal to everyone who savors the taste of the Mediterranean because they carry many hard to find varieties used in traditional dishes. For example, most seed houses carry one or two fennels.  This site carries five bulbing types that make a spectacular vegetable crop.  And even more interesting is they offer wild fennel, a rare heirloom seasoning herb that’s very difficult to find in the States.   Another oddball is Cardoon, a relative of artichoke and thistle.  Seed for seven varieties of Rapini, also known as Broccoletti offers yet another pot green for winter cooks. So if there’s an Ernesto and Lena in your world, surprise them with these home country favorites, and if you’re lucky, come harvest time, they’ll cook for you! Italian Seed and Tool online 

Three Gardening Women and A Blog

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Author Amy Stewart  These ranters are no shrinking violets!  When an editor poined me to Garden Rant blog I was skeptical it was just another trite gardening diary.  But no sir!  These chicks are smart and witty, and obviously been around the garden, had a soda and a bag of chips! You can just tell when a blog is written by pros who really know their stuff.  And when that blog is hysterically funny and pithy at the same time, you’re getting the best of the best reads.  I totally dig their manifesto which I’ve excerpted to see if you and I and they are all on the same page. According to the girls they are: Convinced that gardening MATTERS. Bored with perfect magazine gardens In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens. Suspicious of the “horticultural industry.” Delighted by people with a passion for plants. Appalled by chemical warfare in the garden. Turned off by any activities that invlove “landscaping” with “plant materials.” Flabbergasted at the idea of a “no maintenance garden.” Gardening our asses off. Having a hell of a lot of fun. Garden rant is written by three accomplished writer-gardeners: Amy Stewart, Michele Owens and Susan Harris.  From someone who knows, it would take at least three good people to produce this much great stuff so often!   Don’t miss a single post by signing up for their feed! Award winning author Amy Stewart’s latest book from Algonquin Books is due out in February 07.  I can’t wait to give it a review! The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers Backyard Makeover Winner

before backyard

Congratulations Valerie Kellogg! Your before and after shots of a truly challenged backyard illustrate how important simplification really is. Valerie faced what so many homeowners do – a fragmented yard with decades of accumulations.  The space is broken into so many sections there’s no sense of the real expansiveness of this yard.  The combination of the paving at rear, lawn broken in two by the fence and the ugly chain link itself leaves no area suitable for play or outdoor living.  So Valerie ripped out the fence, dragged all the junk away, tore out the asphalt to create a perfect family oriented backyard.  She left foundation beds along fences and buildings to plant roses and flowers that cover up ugly footings and discolored boards.  The space was graded perfectly and planted with lush green lawn.  This is now a perfect yard for sports, cook outs, parties and flower gardening!  Bravo Valerie!     Mo

Moorten Botanical Garden Junky


This morning I was at Clark’s garden at six thirty to work amidst the monumental cactus and succulents.  It’s his family’s garden started in the 1930s by his parents, pioneers of early Palm Springs.  Now this dense garden is Clark’s alone and my job is to help him propagate, pot and tend the 3000 different species collected there from desert climates around the world.  Moorten Botanical Garden is a strange place that looks like a Victorian nature museum, a Route 66 road stop and a world class botanical collection all mixed together  It’s this odd combination that feeds my need for a regular dirt fix since moving into town here.  It’s Clark’s extraordinary friendship and my firm dedication to preserving the garden that keeps me going back there.  I will always be a part of this little bit of heaven tucked into the Mesa just south of town, and as a private garden that makes little profit, Clark needs all the help he can get.  This creation of his parents is their legacy which he values above all else.   World’s First Cactarium Today I spent my hours in “The World’s First Cactarium” where the most unusual specimens are housed.  Among these are living fossils from the Namibian desert, Welwitchia, that have but one or two long leaves that never stops growing.  There are rare pachycauls from Madagascar with trunks that look like naked women.  Namibian Welwitchia   I water everything and weed out the pernicious kalanchoes that infest the pots and beds.  I knew there was an active humminbird nest in the vine cacti that climb into the roof, and while I water a fledgling rises out of the foliage further down to avoid getting wet.  It is tiny and sits peacefully waiting for me to move on.  Soon it will find its way out to join the whole flock of hummers that are always buzzing the front desk where visitors enter. Back in the office today I feel renewed by the heat and the dirt and all the plants. I can turn to my computer and spend the day indoors feeling fulfilled.  I frankly can’t imagine my life without these dawn soljourns to the garden that refresh my mind and body.  I am addicted. I’ve become a Moorten Botanical Garden junky.    Click here to see more pictures and information on the garden: