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GARDEN STYLE : New Plants, New Palette

March 22, 1992

H undreds of new plants, most too new to show up in Sunset's latest "Western Garden Book," form an exciting palette of uncommon colors and textures for the Southern California garden. Because these plants hail from places where the climate is similar to ours, they not only look good but also grow well, needing little water or care. Though some are grown for their spectacular flowers, most are used for their foliage, which comes in intriguing shades of yellow, red, brown and gray. Here are just a few of the plants that have already become favorites with top designers. They may be hard to find at local nurseries -- but not for long.

SALVIAS

New kinds of salvia are especially appealing to Los Angeles garden designer Christine Rosmini. "They really look like they belong here," she says. Her favorite, Salvia canariensis, hails from the Canary Islands. With gray-green leaves and dusty-rose bracts, it grows to five feet in circumference and blooms in summer. She also uses a purple-leafed variety of the common culinary sage, Salvia officinalis 'Purpurea' (shown here). It grows three feet tall by six feet across. Two other newcomers have true blue flowers: S. chamaedryoides , which has gray foliage, and S. leptophylla , which forms a dark green mound.

DYMONDIA MARGARETAE

Dymondia margaretae is a diminutive, ground-covering gazania relative from South Africa that has narrow, gray-backed leaves. Santa Barbara landscape architect Isabelle C. Greene finds it "unbeatable in that difficult place where the sprinklers don't reach and it might even get walked on." Its flowers are yellow, but the plant seldom blooms and, when it does, flowers are often hidden by foliage. A ground-hugging plant, it spreads slowly but will recover nicely even if you accidentally drive on it.

ARTEMISIA

Despite its cool appearance, gray artemisia is hot with garden designers. The cultivar 'Powis Castle' is a favorite for the soft, lacy appearance it lends a garden. "I love its big, puffy shape, and the color is exquisite," says Poway designer Karen Kees. One of the smaller varieties, it grows to three feet tall by five feet across. A larger version is Artemisia arborescens , which grows to six feet. Two important points to keep in mind: Artemisias, like lavenders, salvias and several other fast-growing, shrubby plants, must be trimmed once or twice a year, and they are short-lived, lasting perhaps five years in the garden.

LION'S TAIL

"Wherever I'm trying to get away from pink, lion's tail is my first choice," says Santa Monica designer Nancy Goslee Power. Native to South Africa, the vivid orange perennial, Leonotis leonurus , grows quickly to six feet; in South Africa, it is cut back to the ground after flowering to keep it more manageable. Power favors the new, smaller lion's paw, L. menthifolius , which grows to about four feet with flowers that are a duller, quieter orange. Both begin flowering in spring. Trim spikes when finished, and the plant will bloom once more in the fall.

FLAXES

Dwarf hybrid flaxes, Phormium , make bright, strong vertical accents. "They catch the light and illuminate the whole garden," says Pacific Palisades landscape architect Robert M. Fletcher. The smallest variety is the grasslike 'Jack Spratt,' which grows to only 18 inches. Other new kinds from New Zealand, such as 'Maori Queen,' 'Dazzler' and 'Maori Sunrise,' have leaves striped in yellow and red, and they grow to four feet or so. "They look great backlit," Fletcher says. Tidy up plants by trimming dead leaves.

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