Monday, June 24, 2013

Monrovia Nursery - The Spirit of Adventure

Eventually in the life of every gardener we become tired of the mainstream offerings found at garden centers.  Hungry for the unique, we often go off to search the listings of specialty mail order nurseries.  But, like grocery shopping online, the thought of having someone chose a product for you always leaves me a little skittish.  I'm the type of person who loves to agonize for hours over which plant to chose on a bench, then celebrate this accomplishment by showing it off to everybody.  If the fear of online ordering sends you into a panic than what other choices do we have?

Well, California's Monrovia Nursery has come up with a solution.  In 2009 they coupled up with a giant of the horticultural world, Dan Hinkley and came out with a hand selected collection that 'dares to be different'.  Instead of solely going the route so many breeders are by constantly re-releasing a supposed new version of an old favorite, they're bring excitement to the garden world with nearly 60 rare and difficult to find plants originating from Hinkley's personal worldwide collecting expeditions.  Although limited by availability, its a bold step for any grower to be investing in little known and rare plants during a hard economy.

For a plant nut like myself, waiting for that truck to arrive with the latest offering from Hinkley's collection that I've ordered is on par with a child's excitement of Christmas morning.  Once unloaded, I waste no time in calling my connoisseur customers to report of what horticultural treasures they'll find on their next visit.  Plant collecting is just as addictive as any drug on the market.  I guess in the grand scheme of things, that makes me a dealer!

Here are just a few that I've been fortunate to lay my hands on;

Hydrangea angustipetala 'Golden Crane'

Hydrangea Golden Crane
Monrovia - Dan Hinkley
My first experience with this new line of plants was to be with the Golden Crane Hydrangea, Hydrangea angustipetala 'MonLongShou'.  This came from a collection that Hinkley had made from seed collected in Southern Sichuan Province, China.  Hydrangeas have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years but the constant regurgitation of endlessly similar cultivars has taken the shine off this explosion.   What sets this plant aside is that its one of the earliest to set flower and carries a fragrance., a trait very rare in most hydrangeas!  I've read that it fills the air with a jasmine-like perfume so strong that you smell it before you see it.




Cestrum 'Orange Peel'

Cestrum Orange Peel
Monrovia - Doreen Wynja
Another Hinkley plant that hooked me by its charm is Cestrum 'Orange Peel'.  As the name suggest the flowers pure orange that draw in Hummingbirds and Butterflies alike over a very long period.  At sunset it release a sweet scent that hangs in the air but isn't noticeable during the day.  Favoring warmer locations, it acts like a die back perennial in zone 7, only to reemerge the following spring.  I had planted an experimental one where I work to test its resilience, but discovered it fell foul to the hand of an unskilled garden laborer who mistook its lifeless stems as a dead plant.  Now safeguarded in my own garden, I'm excited to test its hardiness again before I unleash it on my customers with a vengeance.

Sausage Vine 'Cathedral Gem'

Sausage Vine 'Cathedral Gem' - Monrovia
A name that leaves many wondering if you really just said Sausage' and 'Vine' together!  Don't worry, Holboellia coriacea or Sausage vine doesn't actually produce sausages but instead large lavender-pink fruit shaped as meaty bratwursts.  The power of attraction drew me in instantly when we cranked the doors of the truck open only to be enveloped by highly perfumed flowers.  Did we even need to concern ourselves with facts like its durability, easy-to-grow nature or evergreen foliage?  No, this sirens charm had hooked all who stood by the back doors.  Come to think of it, I don't think any customers had a chance to buy one as all the stock was consumed by our staff!


Schefflera brevipedunculata

I see this plant as the jewel in the crown of the Dan Hinkley / Monrovia offerings.  Ok, its a personal statement but this is the coolest thing I've seen.  A hardy Schefflera from the mountains of Vietnam, claimed to be hardy to zone 7!  Scheffleras, or Umbrella Trees are normally seen as tortured houseplants, often collecting dust in dark corners of homes or offices but prized for the umbrella-like foliage texture they offer.  With this introduction, it offers the same textural qualities for use outside.  Small flowers in summer give way to an exciting display of purple fruit thats equally pleasing to the foliage.  I've always had an affinity for tropical inspired gardens and this release will help those with similar appreciations to achieve this concept.

Schefflera brevipedunculata - Monrovia

During this time of economic hardship, Monrovia has thought outside of the box and set themselves apart from the group of mainstream group of growers.   By bring onboard Dan Hinkley, they have begun to offer the spirit of adventure for the gardener looking for something different.  Maybe this partnership will echo in a rebirth to the famed golden era of plant collecting last seen during the reign of the famous Veitch & Sons nursery in England.  Now the only questions  is, do you dare to be different?

Learn more about the Hinkley collection by clicking here:


Or, read more about Hinkley's travels through one of these amazing books:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Damn Good Plants - Centranthus ruber, Jupiter's Beard

I love those moments when someone raves about a plant that you hadn't previously heard of. Maybe its just new to you or one you've come across in the past but forgotten about.  But, when I first heard the name 'Jupiter's Beard', it didn't conjure up any illusions of grandeur.  Fortunately, Jupiters Beard, or Centranthus ruber also goes by some other more inspiring names like Red Valerian, Scarlet Lightning, or Keys of Heaven.  I think you'd agree, the latter have a slightly more thrilling edge to their names than some an old stinky beard! 

Flickr.com - Captain Mish

White and Pink forms
Flickr.com - Francis Foley
For whatever reason, Centranthus isn't a perennial plant that makes it on too many peoples top ten list.  I suspect the reason is similar to mine, where it lurks in obscurity among other better known plants.   However, this Mediterranean plant is favorite in Europe, embraced as a staple in grand estate gardens to cottage styled gardens.  It's non-stop bloom-fest starts in June as rich carmine-red to pink flowers erupt on 2-3 ft stalks, continuing freely until late summer. There are also white forms available for those looking for a more subtle color to work with. Couple this trait with fragrance and you begin to realize what you've been missing out on.  But for me, the fact that it lures in butterflies who swarm to its nectar rich blooms, made it an easy choice for my garden.

Flowers aside, the foliage has substance, providing a contrasting grey-green bushy backdrop to accompany the bloom.  The leaves are said to flavorful when eaten in a salad, but unless it gives you untold energy or makes hair grow back on head ( a wish of mine! ), I don't understand why you would eat it in the first place.  Compared with other more fussy perennial cousins, Centranthus will flourish without any extra attention.  Even when it comes to pests and diseases, nothing noticeable is known to afflict it, not even deer!  So easy going is its habit, it excels in most soil types and doesn't miss a beat when drought conditions stress both plant and gardener alike.

Flickr.com - henrye72
To get the best from this perennial, site it in full sun and keep the soil pH a little high by adding some lime.  It often naturalizes itself along old walls and close to the foundations of a house where the leaching of lime from concrete keeps the soil sweet.  Don't feel tempted to overly enrich the soil or use a heavy hand with fertilizer.  This is a plant prefers the 'treat it mean, keep it keen' approach.  Flowering may slow to a stop in the heat of summer. If so, pruning it halfway back to stimulate another round of blooms to appear.

Centranthus is known to have a habit of popping up around the garden.  The seeds have little parachutes similar to the seeds of a dandelion, that will catch the wind and carry them to new areas to colonizes.  To reduce this propensity, a bi-weekly deadheading will not only cut back on its colonization but encourage more flowers to appear.

Why more hasn't been done to promote this plant to new homeowners looking for high impact plants with low impact needs is a mystery to me.  It's a perfect winning plant for someone new to gardening, that will build their confidence as it grows from strength to strength. So now when you're asked what your top ten list of perennials would be, you might consider including this easy going perennial.

Flickr.com - Mollivan Jon