The insatiable desire for the beautiful, the exotic and the harvestable leads Southern California gardeners and growers to try new plants.
On the other hand, the cognoscenti of the plant world will tell them, with a little more experience and knowledge they will know better than to attempt to grow things that don't belong here. They may not belong here because it is either too warm or too cold in winter, too hot or too dry in the summer, or the soil is not right or there may be another reason.
But miracles do happen. The mother of a young boy in Long Beach gave him some seeds of an Alberta peach. It usually requires a cold winter to bear fruit. When the tree matured, it bore delicious fruit without the chilling. Its genes were different.
If one travels up the coast one will see, of all things, a banana plantation between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Other tropical fruit like mangos and papayas will do well in areas of San Diego County. At one time proteas, the elegant South African flowers, were said to be next to impossible here. Now they are grown commercially. The climate was right but the soil was wrong. They need an acid soil with good drainage.
Lilacs, syringa, were considered very "iffy." Descanso Gardens got to work and now has many colors--from dark purple to white--that do well here. The most famous of these is "Lavender Lady," which is widely available. The others are sold at Descanso.
When I worked in a nursery, a Mrs. Noble, who lived in Eagle Rock, told me that she grew lilies of the valley. I smiled (I hope not in a superior way) and said that lots of people mistake the much larger summer snowflake, leucouum aestivum , for lily of the valley. She was adamant, and when they bloomed she brought me a beautiful little fragrant bouquet of lilies of the valley and Cecil Brunner roses. I was flabbergasted.
A Shaded Place
She invited me over and there they were. It was a planting about the size of a king-size bed--all in bloom. An amazing thing to me was that on two sides were annual cinerarias that had reverted to magenta. Anyone who has grown cinerarias knows that with the least bit of frost they are gone. The site was a northeast-facing area in the angle of the house that probably got no sun in the winter.
I later learned that the requirement for "coolness" is a great many hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, not freezing temperatures. To get enough hours, it usually entails some 32-degree weather, but not necessarily.
Explaining that the lilies of the valley had to be thinned out, Mrs. Noble grabbed a square-ended shovel and said she wanted me to try growing some.
I took them home and planted them out on the north side of the house in a bed of baby tears. But I had forgotten that the baby tears disappeared in the summer when the hot sun burned them off. So it did also to the lilies of the valley.
Attack of the Snails
The next year, Mrs. Noble said she wanted me to try again. This time I thought I had the perfect spot, lots of light but shaded both summer and winter. It was away from the house, but when the snails found the lilies of the valley, it was curtains for the flowers. Meanwhile hers were flourishing, but I was too embarrassed to ask for any more.
I hear persistent rumors that peonies are another flower that can be grown here. There is a wild peony that grows in the hills above UCLA, and there are other wild peonies in southern Portugal and southern Greece. These I know can be grown here, but the ones I am thinking about are the elegant ones seen in the East.
I got inspired by English garden books, which tell how to grow South African and California natives: They need heat and sunshine, so plant them against a south-facing wall, where they will get the benefit of reflected heat and light. If this is true in England, why could we not try the reverse here?
I built a terrace of extra compost, and at the bottom--three feet down on the north side--I prepared the soil carefully. There I planted the peonies I had ordered from Missouri. They get absolutely no sun in the winter. It seems to me the soil should stay cool enough to make them happy. As the season progresses, they start to get sun. The first year they were nothing but foliage. Growers say it takes three years to bloom, but I hope something happens this second year.
Matching Species to Climate
Another way to grow exotics is to try to find species that grow in climates similar to ours. I am thinking especially of tulips. I have found that tulip saxatilis , which comes from the valleys of Crete, multiplies well here.