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IN THE GARDEN

'New' Plants Give Fresh Look to Dry Area

March 22, 1992|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

While gathering new plants for the article in today's Los Angeles Times Magazine, I found quite a few more than they had room for. Not all of these plants are literally "new," but their use is--they are important players in an emerging style of distinctly California garden.

Some call these gardens "water-saving" or "drought-resistant" but that is only part of the picture. What really has people excited is a fresh new look that is much more appropriate in this sunny, dry Mediterranean climate, and that look is determined largely by the plants used in these gardens.

Not having to irrigate every week is an important part of this picture and all of these plants are quite drought-resistant. But the ones we selected are also unusually attractive or distinctive, praised by garden designers for their usefulness in creating an eye-catching garden. These are not your ordinary green plant and you won't find any of them growing in gardens back east.

I asked five landscape architects and designers, who are also avid planters, for their favorites, even though it was a bit like asking a stockbroker for investing tips while you have him cornered at a party, so consider these plants hot tips.

If you are planning to redo part of the garden, or are making plans for a new drought-resistant garden, you can't go too wrong with any of them. Some are still hard to find at nurseries; if you can't find them, ask your local nursery if it can order one from the grower.

From Santa Barbara landscape architect Isabelle C. Green:

Aeonium urbicum --A low-growing succulent with lettucy leaves tinged red. A good ground cover for small areas. Every few years, the plants must be beheaded and the tops rerooted for a fresh start.

Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn'-- A small native shrub with deep green leaves and striking red stems. Little white, bell-like flowers cover the plant in spring. It grows about two feet tall by three or more feet across.

Rhapiolepis 'Clara'--A particularly nice form of the common Indian hawthorne, dense and moundy like our own chaparral plants. Small and compact, it grows three to five feet tall and about as wide. The flowers are a crisp white.

Senecio vira-vira (also sold as S. leucostachys )--This dusty miller has almost white foliage that is finely cut. The flowers don't need to be cut off as they often are on other dusty millers because these are a creamy white that does not clash with the foliage. It is a subshrub that makes a big four-foot mound.

From San Diego area landscape designer Karen Kees:

Geranium incanum --A fast-spreading ground cover with magenta-pink flowers. The leaves are as intricate as snowflakes. This is a true geranium, not a pelargonium.

Leucophyllum frutescens 'Silver Cloud'--From Texas, this silvery shrub grows to six or more feet. Flowers are pretty and purple. It's as tough as any Texan, but slow growing and awkward at first, so clip it into shape.

Phlomis fruticosa --A felty gray perennial with crisp yellow flowers from spring through fall. It grows about three or four feet tall and nearly as wide.

Sedum telephium 'Autumn Joy'--A fall blooming succulent with large, flat, coppery flower heads. The plants grow about two feet tall.

From Santa Monica landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power:

Aloe striata --A big, bold succulent with grayish leaves and, in spring, tall spikes of coral flowers. Plants form rosettes two feet wide on a short trunk.

Beschorneria yuccoides --As the name suggests, this Mexican plant looks much like a yucca. Sword-shaped leaves are two feet long and grayish. The spring flowers are green and red.

Billbergia nutans --This bromeliad can be used as an unusual but very tough ground cover in shady places. It has spiny green leaves and flowers that are red and blue.

Macleaya cordata --Eight-foot-tall stalks with dramatic gray leaves make this a perennial for the background. Stems, which grow like cornstalks, are topped with flowers than resemble corn silks. It forms spreading clumps and may be a little invasive.

From Los Angeles landscape designer Christine Rosmini:

Achillea hybrids--These perennials with ferny foliage used to come only with yellow or white flowers but now there are many soft new colors, including pink and paprika. Flowers come all spring and summer in large flat clusters. Excellent spreading ground cover for small spaces.

Alstroemeria hybrids--These Peruvian perennials are much improved with masses of mostly pink or purple flowers. Plants grow from 18 inches to three feet tall, bloom from spring through fall. Undoubtedly the most spectacular flowering plant we can grow.

Dwarf pampas grasses--There are many new refined versions of the weedy original, some with striped or variegated foliage. Most are also shorter and therefore more useful in the average garden. Great as accents or in big pots.

Plecostachys serphyllifolia --This mouthful makes a soft gray three-foot mound. Flowers are small and creamy-yellow in color.

From West Los Angeles landscape architect Robert M. Fletcher:

Aeonium 'Zwartkop'--A stunning succulent with deep purple leaves that look black as midnight. The leaves are arranged in rosettes on top of chubby stems that can grow to a foot or more tall. A cluster of several makes quite a statement.

Cotoneaster salicifolius --A 15-foot-tall, willow-like shrub. Leaves are dark green above, gray-green beneath. Use this as a big, informal background shrub or screen.

Lavatera bicolor --This tough shrub with blue-gray, maple-like leaves grows quickly to four or five feet. Most of the year it has large, striking white and purple flowers.

Lavendula heterophylla --This gray-green lavender has the longest flower spikes of all lavenders, some to three feet. The plant grows about two feet tall by three or four feet across.

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