Sometimes plants fail to live up to our expectations. We may think we planted something that would last for years, and then suddenly it dies. Or we finally find the fruit tree of our dreams but then it produces an annual crop that barely fills a small basket. Or we discover foliage that in the nursery is variegated with the colors of the rainbow, but in our garden it turns plain green.
These disappointments can be traced to misunderstanding a plant’s cultural requirements or to having inflated expectations as to the garden performance of certain species.
In this context, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) has been one of the biggest horticultural disappointments of recent years. At one time, many dozens of New Zealand flax cultivars were available, plenty of them with stunning multi-colored foliage and fountainesque forms. Like fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) inflorescences, the arching growth habit of New Zealand flax foliage, in addition to its magnificent colors, helped it find its way into our hearts. But the excitement surrounding lots of these cultivars proved to be short-lived. Within a couple of years, the colors of many of them faded. They were also prone to mealy bug infestation as well as fungus disease – leaves would flop over or could be easily detached from their roots – that quickly killed them.
There has also been disappointment where certain Cordyline cultivars are concerned. Two vastly different Cordyline species are commonly seen and both are problematic when it comes to some of their more glamorous hybrid types. Hybrid plants often behave like certain hybrid animal breeds: picture-perfect to look at but large headaches when it comes to their care. Cordyline australis, or cabbage tree, is a sturdy arboreal ornamental with large tufts of sword-like leaves that may arch and droop with age, reaching a height of 14 feet and, in its native New Zealand, living for several hundred years. We seldom see that tree, however, but are witness to many of its varieties, the toughest of which is a bronze ‘Atropurpurea’ cultivar. However, the fancier cultivars and hybrids with pink stripes or margins are generally short-lived.
Cordyline fruticosa is native to Southeast Asia although it is popularly known as Hawaiian Ti plant due to its highly heralded success in America’s island state. The fancier varieties of this species are mostly used indoors, although they will perform poorly there unless given lots of light and, even then, may become infested with spider mites. I would risk planting them outdoors in frost-protected locations, but they still must be bathed in light. Not long ago, I saw some Ti plants growing on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge, facing west. They were robust specimens, except for some slightly burnt leaf tips from summer’s sun and were surrounded by a mulch of crushed brick which would, on winter nights, radiate heat absorbed during the day back up to the Ti plants, providing them with an extra measure of frost protection.
Kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos spp.) are beloved by all when first planted. The shape of their fuzzy flowers resembles the feet of those marsupials for which Australia, their native land, is known. Yellow, orange, pink, red, green and pink, or green and red flowers are captivating and their long flower stalks are perfect for tall vase arrangements, although dwarf cultivars are also available. However, do not expect more than three to five years from kangaroo paws. Their strength wanes from year to year until they just stop growing and die.
If you plant that ubiquitous glowing succulent known as ‘Sticks on Fire,’ a cultivar of Euphorbia tirucallii, do not expect it to glow year around. In spring and summer, it may turn green, especially when irrigated. By this time of year, however, as temperatures cool, it will start to take on the pink, orange, and scarlet colors for which it is named. To retain these colors throughout the year, keep it at a height of three feet or less. In front of the restaurant on the corner of Fulton Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, you can see a row of ‘Sticks on Fire’ specimens which, due to the low, compact form in which they are maintained, seem to be on fire year around. To properly show off its colors, ‘Sticks on Fire’ must be planted in full sun.
Tip of the Week: In their habitat, stands of New Zealand flax are hundreds of years old since their self-propagation by rhizomes persists from year to year. If you grow the large green and bronze types, you may reliably propagate them by division, making sure each new piece has a large rhizome or two attached. Arboreal Cordylines are propagated by cutting them into thirds: the top portion that carries the foliage, together with a few inches of the stem below, is detached and placed in fast-draining soil medium, leaving most of the stem (or trunk) below; the next cut is made towards the bottom of the remaining stem and this solid stem piece can be inserted into the same soil medium in which the top portion was placed; nothing needs to be done to the bottom portion, which will branch out where the stem piece above it was cut. ‘Sticks on Fire’ is easily propagated from cuttings. You can even take a large branching piece, up to foot long, from the top of the plant, and root it directly in your garden.
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