Looking at garden plants that provide fall and winter color

I recently asked readers of this column to share photos of plants in their gardens that provide fall and winter color. Paul Patterson, who gardens in Whittier, sent a picture of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) growing gloriously up a garden wall in gold, orange, and red. The ground in front of the wall shows off outcroppings of white, rose, and purple sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). There is also a dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum var. Nana), which reaches only two to four feet in height, that is full of red fruit. Close by the pomegranate, a similarly sized specimen of a gray-leaved succulent known as pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) presents a perfect complement to the kaleidoscopic colors seen in the other plants.

Boston ivy is the plant you see clambering up the walls of college buildings back East and explains why a certain group of universities in that part of the country are called the Ivy League. Although unrelated to common ivy whose stems produce adhesive aerial roots, Boston ivy shares with it the ability to climb without needing any trellising or support due to tendrils that end in suction discs that stick to stone or block walls, as well as wood fences, as they scale these structures. Unlike common ivy, however, Boston ivy is extremely hardy and is unperturbed by freezing weather. In Southern California it is semi-evergreen, meaning it will go leafless briefly while in colder climates it will experience a winter-long dormancy period. It is interesting to note that, in Patterson’s photo, the Boston ivy growing in the sun is resplendent in its autumn colors while the part of it growing in some shade is entirely green.

As long as we are on the subject of vines that find their way up without support, creeping fig (Ficus pumila) must be mentioned. This plant is truly devilish since the tiny and highly attractive leaves it shows as a juvenile plant are superseded by much larger and much less charming foliage as it reaches adulthood and begins to flower and fruit. The fruit is not edible directly, but juice squeezed from it is made into jelly which you may find in Asian markets.

Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipendiculata) is probably the most decorative vine you could hope to grow on account of its berries, which appear in a spectrum that includes lilac, light blue, dark blue, and purple. Unlike the other vines mentioned above, you will have to give it support but it will be worth the effort I can promise you. Leaves are similar to those on grapevines and the Elegans variety has pink and white variegation to go along with the multi-colored berries for an added aesthetic touch.

The sweet alyssum in Patterson’s garden is a member of the cabbage family and both its flowers, which are sweetly scented, and its leaves are edible. Alyssum will bloom throughout the year but really comes into its own during the short days of late fall and as temperatures gradually warm in early spring. Alyssum is truly carefree and you need to resist the temptation to overwater it. Often its seeds will sprout in the vicinity of where a parent plant grew. Thriftiness mandates that you sprout alyssum from seed since it germinates with alacrity and thus, in growing it this way, you recognize significant cost savings as compared to procurement of plants in four-inch or six-pack plastic containers.

Teresa Sanders sent photos of two impressive woody perennials from her garden. Both are known for flowering consistently throughout the year. The first of these beauties is Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii). A member of the marigold genus, it is identifiable both by its heavy bloom habit and pungent, finely cut dark green foliage. I have always found its musky scent to be sweet and satisfying although some people find it offensive. Taking a hint from lemmonii, its species name, there is a proclivity to describe the leaves as lemon-scented although this would be strictly coincidental since lemmonii honors John and Sarah Lemmon who brought the plant to fame after discovering it growing in southern Arizona. Copper Canyon daisy blooms so long and so heavily that it appears to exhaust itself from the effort and, although reaching over six feet in height, does not normally survive beyond its fourth or fifth birthday. Grow it in full sun to partial shade.

Sanders also brought bush germander (Teucrium fruticans), a Mediterranean species, to my attention. This plant may eventually reach a height of six feet tall or taller with an equal girth and an amorphous growth habit. However, it can also be kept neat and trim as a hedge, and at a height of two to three feet, by regular shearing. Flowers are a sort of lilac blue and foliage is soft and grayish-green with white undersides that glisten in the sun. A member of the mint family, its leaves are mildly fragrant.

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Before leaving flowering winter shrubs, a sturdy South African species deserves special mention. It’s known as Scotch heather because of its resemblance to the classic heathers of the Scottish Highlands. Scotch heather (Erica canaliculata) can live for decades as long as it is provided, once established, with benign neglect, as in making water and fertilization as much of an afterthought as you would with most California natives. At this time of year, you are blinded by the thousands of delicate bell-shaped or tubular flowers in pink to rose-violet, depending on the variety. Cut stems festooned with flowers last for many weeks when placed in a vase, even when there is no water in it.

California native of the week: If you are looking to create privacy by surrounding your property with a living fence that, once established, does not need water, is cold hardy to 15 degrees, and has seeds that provide a precious cosmetic, consider jojoba. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) develops into a large shrub or small tree, up to eight feet tall and eight feet wide, or even larger, and lives for a century or two. A California native xeriphyte found in the Sonoran Desert and throughout Riverside County, jojoba (hoh-HOH-bah) can thrive in sand and is being used around the world as a crop on marginal land to halt desertification. Its narrow, gray-green, one-inch leaves are leathery and point upward, minimizing their sun exposure. This unique plant produces fruits that contain one to three seeds from which jojoba oil, which makes up around 50% of the seeds’ weight, is extracted. Jojoba is dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants and you will need at least one of each to produce a crop. In the manner of dioecious plants generally — from pistachio trees to date palms — jojoba is wind-pollinated.

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