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THE DRY GARDEN

Summer's sexy sirens

They're showy and love the heat, and because they're late bloomers, they have the garden's pollinators all to themselves.

August 08, 2009|Emily Green

Somehow during the hot, long days of summer, our native flora punctuates the dry season with flashes of color. Horticulturists speculate that the reason is sex. Plants such as our native mallows, buckwheats, bush marigolds and hoary fuchsias manage their August shows of pink, yellow and oranges as a survival strategy. Undistracted by spring lilacs, pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees tend exclusively to them. Late blooms also allow these plants to drop their seeds closer to the arrival of autumn rains.

Plants capable of this kind of mean-season seduction save us work too. Native gardens stocked with August bloomers don't need hummingbird feeders.

Last but not least, there is their beauty. Plants that can flower in heat that would fry a poppy are somehow all the more stunning because of their fortitude.

Because the summer flowering staples keep blooming straight through autumn, it's tempting to play with the tempo. To mix up the view, it's an intriguing idea to plant them around cactuses with more ephemeral blossoms. The lacy yellow flowers of Opuntia littoralis, a.k.a. coastal prickly pear, last only a day. The prickly pear's paddles flower in succession, over a period of a week or two. How the plant does it I do not wish to inquire. I prefer to see it as a miracle.

For those with dry landscapes that are not strictly planted with California natives, some of the most reliable summer flowering stalwarts come from the Mediterranean herb garden. Thyme and oregano should be flowering now, provided they're grown in sufficient abundance that the cook in the house hasn't amputated the buds.

But in my experience, perhaps the most compatible foreign import providing summer and fall flowers to sustain pollinators is the kookily nicknamed Uruguayan firecracker plant. More formally known as Dicliptera suberecta, this lowish-growing plant with velvety gray-green leaves and rich orange flowers makes such excellent ground cover that it figures heavily in the water-wise demonstration garden of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts in Alta Loma. Hummingbirds love it. For those on a budget, it grows easily from clippings. Out of season, it looks like a pleasantly rumpled bed.

One problem with most of these plants is that they're low- to medium-growing, so if there are cats working the garden, it makes sense to tuck in something with some height for hummingbirds to feed in safety. My current garden resident serving this purpose is the South American import Iochroma cyaneum. These are moderately drought-tolerant plants that will need watering when newly planted, then slow soaks once a week in the summer. They are so prized by hummingbirds that if you near the plant with shears, you'll be dive-bombed. You can tell they are tropical intruders by their blowziness. They remain in near constant flower, like a bordello for birds.

That said, the Iochroma is one sad plant when it finally decides to wilt, and it can be recriminating during recovery. It is also a favorite roost for leaf hoppers.

A potentially more suitable plant for Southern California is the native desert willow, Chilopsis linearis. The desert willow's tubular flowers are even more prized by hummingbirds than Iochroma's, and they're prettier. The plant doesn't need summer water, but because it gets monsoonal showers in its native ranges, it can tolerate it.

Once there has been sufficient summer sex among the plants, birds and bees, your work is done. Time for a few ZZZs under a fan.

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Green's column on drought-tolerant gardening appears weekly on our L.A. at Home blog, latimes.com/home. She also writes on water issues at chanceofrain.com.

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