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Down the Primrose Path : An English Country Garden in Southern California

February 02, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is the gardening editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Seemingly out of place and out of season, this primrose path leading to a vine-covered cottage could only, on close inspection, be in Southern California. It is Lew Whitney's own garden, and as director of landscape design at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, he has developed a distinct Southern California vocabulary of plants, with a South Coast twang. These plants would do well anywhere in Southern California, but they excel in this mild coastal Orange County climate.

The tender vine named Jasminum polyanthum could be mistaken for snow on the eaves, seeing as it blooms in a fury of white during the dead of winter. Delicate in appearance, it grows extremely fast to about 20 feet. And you needn't wait for the flowers, since even small plants in nursery cans bloom profusely. There is a catch; the flowers become faded and do not fall off on their own. They have to be removed, or what was a sheet of white will become a soiled brown. But then, this rambunctious vine can use a good yearly shearing.

The bold pink and purple primroses in the Whitney garden also are California-only garden plants, too sensitive to frost in other climates. They are Primula obconica , and they bloom from the middle of winter right through spring. Though they are the best primrose for Southern California, there is a hitch here too; some people develop a rash when they come into contact with the leaves, so you may wish to wear gloves when planting or weeding. Dwarf strains of the common English, or polyanthus, primroses are mixed in with the obconicas, and though they, too, have a long season--seemingly longer than full-size polyanthus primroses--they will quickly fade with the first warm weather.

Pansies, used here and there in this garden, are another winter great that will last into spring or even summer, and here there is no catch. Without risk, it can be said that pansies--and their smaller kin, violas--are the longest-lasting annual flowers that you can plant.

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